Las Vegas: America's capital of resilience
It may be the recession capital of the US, but to visitors Las Vegas is still a tonic – a city that raises your spirits even while it's emptying your pockets. Graham Boynton reports.
"This old town's filled with sin,
It'll swallow you in,
If you've got some money to burn."
'Sin City' by Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons' bleak vision of Las Vegas may chime with the more conventional views of this city as a vortex of heartbreak, disillusionment and broken dreams, but having spent a few days there recently I'm more inclined to think of Vegas as America's capital of resilience and reinvention.
That resilience is evident in its determination to rise above its current reputation as the recession capital of the United States. The city's trajectory from boom to bust has taken five years, and it now finds itself struggling under a collapse of property prices, an unemployment rate (14 per cent) that is the highest in the country, and a fall in gambling revenues of 15 per cent.
But tell that to the millions of tourists who are still flocking to the Strip, taking in the shows, eating at the Michelin-starred restaurants, and they will probably think you are making it up.
And flock they do: last year Vegas bounced back with more than 39 million tourists, two million more than in its annus horribilis (2008), which recorded the city's worst decline since the turn of the century.
I flew out on one of British Airways' daily 747 flights, and there wasn't an empty seat on the plane. Nor was there one on the return flight. The giant hotel casinos on the Strip – the two I stayed in, Bellagio and the Cosmopolitan, have 7,000 rooms between them – report occupancy rates of more than 90 per cent, and even if they're exaggerating they are pretty busy. Clearly, the show must go on.
As for reinvention, what started out as a railroad stop at the turn of the 20th century turned into a modest gambling centre with the legalisation of gaming in 1931, then a Mafia business centre after Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky built the Flamingo at the end of the Second World War, and then the self-proclaimed "entertainment capital of the world" by the Seventies. Since then it has marketed itself at various times as a family-friendly resort in the style of Disney, an international marriage and honeymoon destination and, in its current metamorphosis, as one of the world's gastronomic capitals, with more than 25 Michelin-starred restaurants along the four-mile Strip.
The entertainers have also reinvented themselves here. In the early Sixties Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack came on as a louche, boozy song-and-comedy act at the Sands, and joked and crooned themselves into the Vegas history books.
At the end of that decade, Elvis Presley, having been buried by Beatlemania and the British Invasion, re-emerged in Vegas doing two shows a night to sell-out audiences at the Hilton, a reinvented career that would run until his death in 1977. So, I wasn't too surprised on this visit to witness Rod Stewart, that former stadium star, doing something similar in the more intimate confines of Caesar's Palace.
Now, I haven't cared too much for Rod's various styles since he led the gloriously ramshackle Faces in the early Seventies, but here he was in a 4,000-seater Colosseum Theatre at Caesar's, which was built for Celine Dion and will, over the next year, feature seasons from Rod, Celine and Elton John. It was a magnificent Vegas experience. Great band, perfect sound, a rollicking extrovert audience intent on having the night of their lives, and a performer on top of his game.
I've seen it many times in Vegas over the years, and it is reassuring that even as the city is going through what is probably its most traumatic metamorphosis it is still able to display unselfconscious pleasure.
As you may have gathered, I love the city and pity those who snobbishly regard it as culturally and spiritually beneath them. What they're missing is the point of Vegas, which is essentially carefree, cost-effective fun with a bit of gambling thrown in if you are so inclined.
What it specialises in is hedonistic long weekends – and judging by the number of British travellers I came across on this recent visit, it offers a jolly antidote to the gloomy times we are living through.
Vegas makes no pretension of being intellectually or aesthetically edifying, although you can eat a Michelin two-star meal at Bellagio's Picasso restaurant and spend the evening staring at the original Picassos on the walls. (Bellagio also has a Gallery of Fine Art that has held exhibitions of Monet and Warhol, among others.)
Apart from eating at one or two classy restaurants and watching a Vegas show (the aforementioned Rod Stewart), my mission on this four-day trip was to play a little blackjack at Binion's, the famous downtown casino where the minimum bet is $2 compared with $15-$20 at the uptown casinos,
fire off a Colt M-16 machine gun at the Gun Store, the indoor firing range out on East Tropicana, and take a poker lesson at one of the casinos. I have never been a big gambler, having lived by the mantra that you will never beat death and you will never beat the house, but I do enjoy the faintly seedy atmosphere, the smell of stale cigars and the collective hyperactivity of the casino floor from time to time – and to savour this fully you have to join in.
According to David Gonzalez, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International, the largest casino operator in Vegas, only 1 per cent of visitors say they come here to gamble, "although 70 per cent do gamble when they're here". He says that, although gaming is Vegas's largest single earner, contributing 40 per cent of the city's revenue, there has been a considerable shift over the past 20 years, "and now people come for dining, entertainment, the attractions, the conventions and, of course, retail".
For all that, everywhere I looked there were casinos, slot machines and promises of earning a fast buck. Having at first resisted the more expensive tables on the Strip, I started out modestly downtown at Binion's, one of Vegas's oldest casinos and venue of the World Series of Poker. Thanks to the $2 minimum, I managed to play blackjack for a good 45 minutes on a $50 stake, but I left empty-handed. Later that evening I had another $50 blackjack flutter on the more expensive Cosmopolitan tables ($15 minimum), this time lasting no more than 15 minutes. It was time to take a lesson in cards.
Jim Ortruba has been a poker dealer at the Monte Carlo casino for the past six years, having spent most of his life working in a chemical plant in Illinois, and he teaches enthusiasts such as me with great patience. After he had explained the ground rules of Texas Hold Em, we started playing hands and quickly fell into the rhythm that makes poker schools so seductive: the rhythm of the cards. First, there was the players' two cards dealt face down, then the three flop cards, then the turn, and finally the river.
Pretty soon we were playing with the speed of old pros, instinctively knowing the value of our hands, quickly gauging whether it was worth a check or a raise, and figuring out the psychology of our fellow players.
As Ortruba pointed out, for players like us, with a basic grounding in poker, the Las Vegas poker tournaments, played daily up and down the Strip, are a cost-effective way into gambling. "You buy in for $60," he said, "and you get 10,000 chips. When you're out of chips, you're done. But if you've got all the chips you've won quite a healthy pot. Hours of fun."
We said farewell to Jim Ortruba and an hour later I was sitting at a live table playing poker for real money – not in a tournament, as Ortruba had recommended, but at a casino table.
Again, I ended up losing $50 in an enjoyable flurry of activity that probably lasted half an hour. This was entertaining, but was becoming expensive, despite the regular appearances of waitresses offering drinks on the house. Next time I'll play a tournament.
Clearly, the moment had come for me to walk away from the casinos. So, I headed out to the Gun Store, a short cab ride from the Strip, with two unlikely companions, the novelist Tim Lott and the comedian David Schneider, gentle British literary characters both. Neither of them had picked up a weapon in anger previously, and we all approached this extraordinary, bizarre amusement arcade not quite knowing what to expect.
We were led into our private booth by a pretty girl called Nena who used to be a cocktail waitress but found working at the Gun Store more edifying.
As the background rattle of blazing weapons resounded from adjoining booths, we were obliged to sign a waiver declaring that we were free of drugs, alcohol and "emotional impairments" and, according to Nena, "that none of you is pregnant, none of you is planning to shoot yourselves or anybody, and you all get along".
As we signed the documents and pored over a menu of weapons, I noticed on the far wall of our booth a photograph of Ozzie Osbourne grinning manically and taken in this very place. Clearly, the Gun Store's definition of emotional impairment is rather broad.
After choosing our weapons – a Dirty Harry 44 Magnum, a James Bond 9mm Beretta, an AK-47, a Colt M16 – Nena presented us with a selection of targets. While I chose the conventional heavily armed terrorist hate figures, Schneider opted for "zombie Nazi officer and dodgy burglars in my home".
With that, Nena handed us over to our "rangemaster", an equally attractive young woman named Alicia who is a military reservist and a weapons expert. She patiently explained how we should hold each weapon and how to hit our targets.
For the next half-hour we blazed away with our high-powered weaponry, all with reasonable accuracy, and certainly from my point of view with a great deal of satisfaction. A little surreal, but a harmless bit of role playing, and completely Las Vegas.
All that was left before I climbed on board a packed British Airways 747 to return to my pragmatic London life was one last roll of the dice, or in my case deal of the cards. This time I played blackjack in the Bellagio casino: a $15 minimum stake and $100 worth of chips.
Same again, I regret to report. First, a brief flurry of winning hands, a heady moment when I realised I had doubled my stake, and then, slowly and inexorably, the house got the better of me and after an hour I left empty-handed.
No doubt in the coming months more will be written about the parlous state of the Vegas economy, as indeed there will be swathes on our own economy. We are constantly being reminded of the grim state of the world.
While it is entirely appropriate to stiffen one's lip and face up to bleak reality, it is occasionally a relief to jump into fantasy and just splash around a bit. Vegas provides the perfect environment.
Las Vegas basics
British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/lasvegas) offers three nights at the five-star Cosmopolitan (room only) from £849 (€976) per person (sharing), for travel between Nov 13 and Dec 16, including return flight in World Traveller (economy) from Heathrow. Hotel and flights in Club World (business-class) from £2,349 (€2,700), in first-class from £3,999 (€4,600). Sale prices valid until Nov 8.
What to do and see
The Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace
Rod Stewart’s The Hits show (see main story) is on for nine dates in November; Celine Dion’s latest show will run for 20 dates between December 28 and February 28; Sir Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano show will return in the New Year (dates to be announced). Tickets cost from $89 to $270 and all shows should be booked well in advance (www.caesarspalace.com). Other acts due in Las Vegas in the coming months include Donny and Marie Osmond, Barry Manilow, Paul Simon and Sting.
There are more Michelin-starred restaurants per square mile in Las Vegas than in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. The one three-star is Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand (001 702 891 7358; www.mgmgrand.com/restaurants/joel-robuchon-french-restaurant.aspx). The two-star establishments are Picasso at Bellagio (702 693 8865; www.bellagio.com/restaurants/Picasso.aspx) and Guy Savoy at Caesar’s (877 346 4642; as above). There are 15 one-star Michelin restaurants; most have reasonably priced tasting menus and feature splendid wine lists.
The Gun Store (702 454 1110; www.thegunstorelasvegas.com) charges $50 for 50 shots with a Colt M16 machine gun, $25 for 20 shots with a Beretta M9 and $25 for five shots with a 44 Magnum. There is also a variety of packages: from $160/£101 for a choice of three weapons up to $777 for a wide range of weaponry, targets and souvenir T-shirt.
The Mob Museum, which opens in February 2012, will tell the story of organised crime and law enforcement in Vegas and beyond. Located in the former federal courthouse, which housed the Kefauver Committee hearings on organised crime in the early Fifties, it will bring to life stories of mob history with both exhibits and “multi-sensory experiences”.