Viva Las Vegas!

By Kim O’Hare

Las Vegas is still the premier gaming destination in North America, but with casinos springing up in cities and towns across the USA and Canada, Vegas has been forced to reinvent itself.

While the emphasis is still on gaming, Las Vegas has evolved into a family destination, a place that’s a lot more than flashing lights and rolling dice, although there is still plenty of both.

imageThis year Vegas will draw close to 40 million visitors who will drop their fair share of cash at the tables and into the slots, but they’ll also visit local museums, golf courses, spas and water parks. And yes, a good number of them will get married. (About 75-100 weddings each week, just at the Graceland Chapel!)

The most familiar element of Las Vegas is the notorious “strip” where magnificent hotels are illuminated with garish colours giving off a glow that can be seen from outer space.

If you are prone to light-induced headaches, avoid the strip.  Lights flash, music plays, volcanoes erupt, fountains soar, and red ribbons of car lights streak down the strip.

If you’re OK with all that light, forget the gaming tables and just stroll the strip while roller coasters corkscrew high overhead. A laser beam, visible from space, penetrates the night sky, inviting the whole universe to come and play.

Step into any of the iconic casino resorts along the strip, and you’ll enter a world of pure imagination. The strip is unlike any street in the world: no holiday-maker has ever needed to ask directions to find it. The strip finds you.

The best free show in town - and the best people-watching venue by far - is not the strip but Fremont Street, the old main street of the city. Vegas past and future live side by side at the Fremont Street Experience, a spectacular $70-million canopy of light and sound which envelopes the historic hotels and casinos along four blocks of Fremont.

imageA space-age canopy (pictured), four football fields long, doubles as an overhead projection screen featuring an amazing light and sound show several times each evening. The free light show combined with numerous street performers make Freemont Street the best deal in Vegas.

On Fremont, you’ll also see the lights of the historic gambling halls of old and Vegas Vic, the enormous neon cowboy that that has become a Vegas icon - it’s still the world’s largest mechanical neon sign. The 12.5 million synchronised LED modules of the Fremont Experience feature aliens, aqua themed shows, and of course a bit of good old American flag waving.

Vegas will never run out of ideas to separate you from your money and it has become a notable shopping destination. Las Vegas Boulevard South claims to be one of the world’s great shopping streets. Huge factory outlet malls vie with exclusive boutiques in the casino resorts.

On the strip, shoppers will find everything from haute couture to traditional Vegas souvenirs – dice, clocks and playing cards. Many major strip resorts have opened spectacular shopping areas featuring some of the world’s most exclusive designers.

Although America still hasn’t embraced spa vacations to the same extent as other parts of the world, you can find what you’re looking for in Vegas. Virtually all of the major hotels on the strip have fairly comprehensive spa facilities.

Spa services offered in Las Vegas include sport, Shiatsu and Swedish massages, body treatments, herbal baths, wraps, aromatherapy and reflexology, steam rooms, saunas and whirlpools; and full-service salons offering manicures, pedicures and facials. Some resorts offer wellness centres, with professionally trained personnel to offer advice on nutrition and healthy lifestyles, as well as innovative fitness facilities. 

A few attractions that don’t involve Lady Luck:

Adventure Dome: a double-loop, double-corkscrew roller coaster, laser tag, a motion simulator, plenty of rides for the kids, game booths and arcades.

Casino Hall of Fame: implosion videos of the Dunes, the Sands and the old Aladdin hotels, videos of past Las Vegas gangsters, gaming history, photos, memorabilia and exhibits on the history of Las Vegas including the showgirls.

Elvis-A-Rama: Elvis may have left the building, but he is still kicking around Las Vegas. At any given time there are half a dozen Elvis tribute shows playing around town.  Elvis-A-Rama features interactive displays that include three of Elvis Presley’s cars, more than $500,000 in Elvis-worn jewellery, movie clothing, personal documents and hand-written letters.

Ethel M Chocolates’ Botanical Cactus Garden: One of the world’s largest collections of its kind. Based on the English landscape model of naturalistic design, it features four acres of drought-tolerant ornamentals, cacti, and other succulents. With a landscape base of 15,000 cubic yards of sandy fill and a special planting soil, the beds were raised and rockeries constructed using 400 tons of rock, thereby providing the best possible viewing experience for visitors.

The Liberace Museum features “Mr. Showmanship’s” dazzling jewellery, rare antiques, unsurpassed wardrobe, unique and historical pianos and his custom car collection.

The Lied Discovery Children’s Museum: Hundreds of hands-on exhibits about science, arts and humanities that teach as well as entertain.

The Luxor features what it calls the greatest archaeological attraction in the history of the world, an authentic reproduction of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The measurements of each of the rooms are exact, with treasures reproduced by artisans using the same gold leaf and linens, precious pigments, tools and original 3,300-year-old methods.

Shark Reef at The Mandalay Bay Resort: An adventure that will put you face to face with some of the most dangerous and exotic animals in the world. Take the journey through the thrilling ancient sunken temple.

imageThe Stratosphere Tower has been around for a few years, but like Vegas itself, it’s a work in progress.  The New Insanity ride (pictured) consists of an arm that extends out over the edge of the Tower and will spin passengers at up to three ‘Gs’. As the ride spins faster and faster, the riders are propelled up to an angle of 70 degrees. Riders will experience the thrill of being flung over the edge of the Tower and literally facing downward at the City 900 feet below. Probably the best aerial view of Las Vegas - if your stomach can handle it.

Day Trips worth considering:

Hire a car and drive an hour or so to the historic Hoover Dam. While the dam is a marvel of engineering it is not likely to thrill the younger members of your party. 

imageYou can go on a tour of the dam (pictured) including a lift a ride deep into the inner working area where massive turbines generate thousands of kw of electricity. 

More exciting, but a lot more expensive than Hoover, you can book a day trip either by coach or chopper to visit the Grand Canyon. If you are only visiting the area once in a lifetime, the Grand Canyon is a must see.

If the Grand Canyon is not in the cards, or the budget, hire a car for the day, make a stop at the Hoover Dam, then travel about five miles to Valley of Fire State Park. Drive through dramatic red sandstone formations and the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert. There are petrified trees and 3,000 year-old Indian petroglyphs.

Popular activities include camping, hiking, picnicking and photography. The park offers a full-scale visitor centre with extensive interpretive displays. Several group use areas are also available. The Valley of Fire derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed by great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. It really is spectacular and best of all, only a small fraction of Vegas tourists visit the area. Aside from the spectacle of the strip, the Valley of Fire leaves a lasting impression.

When to go:

Summers Mid May to Mid October are very hot and dry with temperatures often hitting 40°C (100°F). Winters are cool and dry, although daytime highs seldom drop to single digits C.
At any given time there are a dozen conventions taking place in town, that combined with seasonal tourism and the lure of the casinos means there isn’t a lot of seasonal variation in rates.

Generally you’ll get much better deals through the week than on weekends.

Useful Links:

The city monorail system only runs about 4 miles but it connects all of the major casino/hotels on the strip. Single ride is $5.00, one day pass $15, three day $40. Money well spent if you plan on spending much time on the strip, the trek from casino to casino is surprisingly long.

Las Vegas City Life is a weekly news and culture publication, and can be found at local businesses for free.

Vegas Golfer features some good analysis of the local links scene. See if your hotel has a copy.

For the business traveller or convention delegate, here’s the official Website of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

For the tourist everything you need and more

There is a saying “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” For assistance along those lines check out the on line alibi maker cute!

Graceland Wedding Chapel, just one of more than 60 offering quickies. If Graceland is good enough for Jon Bon Jovi it ought to suffice. Nevada licence fee is $55.

The Fremont Experience, the best free show in town

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