Viva Lost Vegas
This glittering city in the Nevada desert is a blur of casinos, but there is a lot more to be found if you bother to look
We arrived jet-lagged after a hectic Dublin-to-New York-to-Vegas marathon. But even dull senses can be assaulted and ours were as we pulled our wheelies through a vast maze of a casino on our way to the reception at the MGM Grand hotel.
It was a decent five-minute walk from the west entrance to check in and it turned out to be an endless din of whooping, whirring and chink-chinking, all soundtracked by a rock muzak score that, it later transpired, is on an endless loop in Vegas. Everywhere.
It was midnight but, reversing the journey the next morning, nothing seemed different and there were no clocks, or daylight, to remind anyone who was curious.
So it was true. Vegas is different.
The MGM Grand (mgmgrand.com) is an architecturally impressive, sleek, 30-floor glass monster with 6852 guest rooms, all of which were full on the Monday night of our arrival.
The reception is more like an airport check-in. But they don't ask if you packed your own bags. Nobody asks personal questions in Vegas.
I counted 15 restaurants and cafes in the hotel and that included three Starbucks (a better brew than home, too), a range of bars, mall shopping and five pools, three of which I found. The hotel didn't seem too eager to point you outdoors when there were dollars to be circulated inside, so I virtually had the 25 metre pool to myself. I swam endless lazy breast strokes and felt very virtuous.
Vegas had a reputation over the decades for many things (fill in the blanks yourself), but food was never one of them. Until recently that is. Now many of America's top chefs lend their names and reputations to a range of swish eateries. But you'll pay.
I enjoyed a very traditional eggs Benedict breakfast in the Citizens Kitchen, a tasteful and buzzing restaurant sitting beside the cavernous casino in the Mandalay Hotel. For lunch, I opted for sushi at the uber-chic Mozen Bistro in the Mandarin Hotel, which boasted an array of Asian dishes.
Brand new and minimalist, it was everything cliché and stereotype had educated me not to expect in Nevada. The Mandarin is a no-gaming hotel too, a growing and welcome trend in the world's gambling capital.
I am more of a traditionalist when it comes to dinner and the steak at Jean-Georges Steakhouse, in the Aria Resort and Casino, is something special. They really know how to sizzle a cow in this joint, but don't expect any change out of a 50 for a prime 8oz cut.
This town is thirsty work and the beers go down well. Many of us are familiar with East Coast beers such as Sam Adams and Blue Moon, but local brew Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a must-try and it comes with a kick too. Wonderful wines only have to come across the desert from California, so it would be insulting to look any further.
No night-time excursion down the strip would be complete without a tall, decadent cocktail. We happened upon The Cosmopolitan, one of Vegas's new hotels (the place seems to be mushrooming new ones all the time). I had a Russian Mule, a tart vodka and ginger combination that hit the spot. Then I had another one.
Talk about bad timing, but the Rolling Stones played the MGM Grand the night after we checked out. I didn't think the Stones gigged in hotels, but then I didn't know they made hotels the size of small countries in Vegas either. Elton John and Celine Dion are regulars in town so a visit can be timed to catch either (I'd rather catch the flu than sit through Celine, but that's neither here nor there).
We got to see Cirque de Soleil, popular Vegas residents, who were staging 'Zarkana', which by common (if not universal) consent, was not one of their better ideas. But they are gifted and their upcoming Michael Jackson show, like The Beatles one before it, should be worth chalking down.
Even if you don't intend to get hitched, a visit to one of the many wedding chapels, invariably ministered by an Elvis impersonator, is a cultural must. A bit like visiting Rome and paying a house call to the Sistine Chapel. Well, maybe not. We checked out a few and if the one where the Elvis-chauffeured Cadillac drives up the aisle in a cloud of dry ice is a bit much, the Graceland Wedding Chapel, on the nether regions of the boulevard, is a must.
Run by Irish-American Brendan Paul and his team of rostered 'Elvi', it manages to be funny and outrageous without being either tacky or cheap. A neat trick. If needs ever must, I'll get a taxi straight there.
Vegas doesn't do history. The moment some building becomes vaguely culturally significant, they seem to have a terrible urge to tear it down. Neither the Sands, where the Rat Pack strutted its stuff, nor the original Aladdin, where the proper Elvis got hitched, still stand.
The Neon Museum, an open-air boneyard of restored and broken-down signs from the Strip's golden age, is a real find. We got the tour from a funny and acerbic guide giddy on the history of a town that rarely acknowledges that it has one. A non-profit operation (no admission fee either), it doesn't receive a red cent in funding from the city, which seems short-sighted. Heritage sells, guys.
On the other hand, The Mob Museum, or the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, in downtown Vegas, is a $42m city-funded project and is housed in the very courthouse where many wiseguys came face to face with justice. Big, clever and inter-active, it can't but fascinate. Me? I saw nuttin', I know nuttin'. I was never there.
The Strip is Vegas and if you stroll, taxi or monorail up and down it 15 minutes either way you'll happen upon most of everything, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.
And, within a 10-minute walk of each other, Venice's Rialto Bridge – part of the Palazzo-Venetian hotels – and the Eiffel Tower too. Old Europe, hey, who needs it?
You'll find, to your annoyance, that any effort to get from here to there will involve being escalatored into casinos, malls and hotels. An innocent peep into the Disney fairy castle, for instance, will drop you into the bowels of another vast day-is-night casino. A legacy, it seems, from the days when they attempted to rebrand a tired Vegas as family-friendly.
But Vegas is not for kids, at least not for those under 18. After all, you wouldn't want children witnessing hustlers, wordlessly and persistently doling out sex-for-hire flyers while wearing outsize T-shirts, promising girls in your room in 20 minutes. And all this in the afternoon!
We flew Dublin-New York with Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) to pick up our connection for our five-hour flight to Vegas with their partner JetBlue (jetblue.com). Our national carrier has been flying into state-of-the-art Terminal 5 since April and, for anyone needing to make a connection to any of JetBlue's near 50 destinations across the States, its benefits will be obvious.
JetBlue, a major and aggressively expanding internal American carrier, is not unlike Ryanair but with very decent legroom, 30-plus TV channels (hope you like ice hockey), free snacks, tea and Dunkin' Donuts coffee.
Taxiing into T5 takes a lot of the stress out of the connections nightmare and we really saw the benefits on our return leg.
Our Vegas flight landed at JFK 40 or so minutes late and within 25 minutes of the scheduled departure of our flight home. But we only had to walk 20 yards to the neighbouring gate in T5 and we were buckled in for take off in good time.
The best bit was our bags made it too. They say that whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but it's nice to bring your luggage home.
Aer Lingus, in partnership with JetBlue, flies from Dublin to Las Vegas via New York’s JFK and Boston’s Logan Airport. Fares start from €249 each way. Contact at: Aer Lingus at www.aerlingus.com and JetBlue at www.jetblue.com.
MGM Grand charges $118 (€92) per room per night midweek. Contact: www.mgmgrand.com.
For information about what is happening in Las Vegas, go to lasvegas.com or call the Dublin office on 01 6319640.