Thursday 14 December 2017

Thrills for all in Las Vegas


From the mini Eiffel Tower at the Paris Las Vegas to the pyramid-shaped Luxor to the dancing fountains of the Bellagio, nothing in Vegas is done in half measures
From the mini Eiffel Tower at the Paris Las Vegas to the pyramid-shaped Luxor to the dancing fountains of the Bellagio, nothing in Vegas is done in half measures
Samantha gets ready for the helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

Plans for a trip to Las Vegas seem to elicit two types of response. People either turn their noses up and say the city, known for gambling and neon, is of no interest to them. Too flash and too tacky. Alternatively, their eyes widen at the thoughts of the hedonistic city where anything goes - once you have the money, that is. Indeed, one woman I know shrieked at the mention of a holiday in sin city, which has played a starring role in dozens of movies, ranging from The Hangover to Martin Scorsese's Casino.

I was on the side of people who found the thoughts of Las Vegas rather thrilling and was wowed upon landing at McCarran Airport to see the over-the-top landmarks of the city's notorious strip in the distance. From the pyramid-shaped Luxor to other landmark hotels like Mandalay Bay, Bellagio and Venetian, nothing in Vegas is done in half measures.

Eager as I was to get stuck into the Vegas mindframe, I was impressed to spot my first Elvis of the trip standing at some traffic lights on the short drive to Las Vegas Boulevard. Then at the entrance to my hotel (the five-star Palazzo) a newly-married couple were kitted out in the type of outfits which epitomise Vegas, with the groom's glitzy red jacket outdoing his new wife's more subtle red and black outfit.

Just 30 minutes in Vegas and the city was already delivering,

Everything about Las Vegas is in your face, screaming for attention, from the massive digital signs which have now replaced the neon to the ostentatious hotels which outdo one another by cherry-picking the world's cultural landmarks for our entertainment.

For example the Palazzo and Venetian complexes have borrowed heavily from Venice and feature a Grand Canal, complete with gondola rides.

Eating at the Otto Pizzeria in the Piazza San Marco was a surreal experience - a replica of an Italian square, the ceiling expertly painted to mimic a blue Italian sky at all hours of the day.

When jet lag is added to the mix, it can be quite confusing. But that's Vegas, where day and night blend into one and where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are blurred.

There are casinos at every turn and lots of people are clearly in Vegas for the gambling. If you win big, there are plenty of ways to spend you money. High-end designers such as Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo are everywhere and limos are a favoured way to travel.

The Ghostbar at The Palms is a popular place to celebrate a big win. Blasting out cool dance tunes, it boasts some of the most amazing views in the city, and is so dark inside that the very glamorous hosts need small flash lights to make their way around.

But such views don't come cheap.

Spirits are sold by the bottle - and in fact a bottle of vodka will set you back $400. For that, your party will be served for the night, but generous tipping is expected. Not surprisingly, it is a magnet for actors and rap stars.

If gambling doesn't get your pulse racing, there are plenty of other thrills to be had.

The city has several gun ranges, which I had mixed feelings about - but decided to give it a go at Machine Guns Vegas.

As a woman, I was given a machine gun with pink casing, which didn't make the weapon any less intimidating. Guns simply aren't cute, no matter the colour.

Admittedly, though, we were all on a high after the shooting experience. It's a fancy set up with a VIP room for groups although it's also one of the few places in Vegas which didn't serve alcohol. And with good reason.

But by far the greatest thrill for me was a helicopter trip to the Grand Canyon. Before going on the ride, I was excited about seeing the Grand Canyon but it far exceeded my expectations.

On the flight with Maverick Helicopters I flew over the huge Hoover Dam and saw some wild ponies frolicking on the banks of the massive reservoir Lake Mead - but crossing into the Grand Canyon was a breathtaking experience I will never forget.

The vast canyon and its unique red rock geological formations are truly stunning. It is an expensive additional cost but a very worthwhile counterbalance to the bright lights of Vegas.

Back to the city, and a visit to one of its wedding chapels was highly entertaining and uniquely Vegas.

The Graceland Wedding Chapel processes a jaw-dropping 9,000 weddings a year, and on my visit, couples were coming and going at a brisk rate.

This chapel stands out thanks to owner Brendan Duffy, a high-quality Elvis impersonator who is full to the brim with 'only in Las Vegas' type anecdotes - such as a story about a groom who confided that he had the annulment papers already on the fax just in case the weekend as newly-weds didn't go well. The most famous wedding there was Jon Bon Jovi's.

It is an interesting setting for romance. The chapel is along a street with several others, as well as some strip joints, liquor stores and pawn shops.

Although the chapel is not technically a tourist spot, Duffy says that on many occasions people he assumed to be wedding guests have turned out to be tourists called upon to join in the nuptials.

Las Vegas yearns to be sophisticated despite the fact that its tackiness is what has made it so famous. The hotels on the strip are of an extremely high quality and prefer to be known as resorts, which at first might sound pompous. In reality, there is a lot more to the complexes than might traditionally be expected from a hotel.

In the Palazzo, for example, the ground floor holds a casino but also several restaurants, coffee shops, and some shops. Go up a floor and you're into a fully fledged shopping mall with designer names and more popular stores side-by-side. (Shoppers should also note there is an excellent outlet with great discounts a 15-minute drive from the strip.)

The hotel complexes are some of the most sophisticated in the world, but not far from their doors in downtown Vegas, male and female strippers will pose any time of the day for a photo for a few dollars.

That's not to say that there are no cultural experiences to be had in the city of sin. There are in fact many museums - although they do come with a Las Vegas twist. The high-tech Mob Museum is not for the faint-hearted, with exhibits including many authentic memorabilia from gang murders, including bullets and items of clothing, as well as the chair which once held down prisoners heading to the gas chamber for execution. The wall which stood behind the victims of the 1929 St Valentine's Massacre is also in the museum, with each bullet hole in clear view. Grisly stuff.

Another museum is the Neon Museum, which is a collection of the bright signs once associated with the city, such as the Algiers and Golden Nugget. Digital advertising signs are all the rage in Vegas now and while no one can stand in the way of bigger and better ways of advertising it's hard not to feel a little saddened to see the dismantled signs now leaning together in the outdoor museum.

A trip to Vegas would not be complete without a 'show'. From Britney to Iron Maiden, the entertainment is as flashy as you would expect. I went to The Beatles Love by Cirque De Soleil, a great show filled with dazzling acrobatics and, of course, an amazing soundtrack.

Las Vegas is quite a different city than I imagined, but it delivered all I had hoped. It's flash, luxurious, entertaining, and tacky, all at the same time, and it never fails to stimulate the senses.

Getting there

Samantha flew to Las Vegas with British Airways via Heathrow:

Palazzo Hotel:

She took a helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon with Maverick Helicopters:

Otto Pizzeria:

Machine Guns Las Vegas:

She had lunch at the Wicked Spoon: restaurants/wicked-spoon, and dinner at Ferraro's Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar:

Ri-ra-irish-pub at Mandalay Bay:

Freedom Beat:

For more ideas, including shopping, dining, tours, museums, sightseeing, green spaces and more, visit

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