Six myths about Las Vegas - forget what you think you know
Sin City is not necessarily what you'd think, writes Tanya Sweeney, who busts six big myths...
Las Vegas: a town so fabled that it pretty much has its own language. What happens in Vegas... The town with no clocks... A little bit of Vegas goes a long way... Disneyland for grown-ups.
Everyone comes home from there with a brilliant, overblown story to tell. Most seem to have enjoyed living like a rock star for a few days, with all the excess, glamour and peril that's involved. Even before they visit, many are sure what kind of time they're going to have. There's often a hangover involved; fiscal, physical or metaphorical.
This was my first visit, but pretty much everything I thought I knew about Las Vegas was wrong. Certainly, the Strip, the debauchery and the high rollers are all as you might expect - yet many of the threadbare clichés in this town are fast approaching their sell-by date. In fact, I found a quick trip to Vegas surprising in more ways than one...
Myth 1: The food's merely for soakage purposes
I've long heard of Vegas' five-dollar breakfasts and all-you-can-eat buffets (the Irish love a bargain, after all). But proper gourmands are spoiled for choice too, and some blue-chip chefs - Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fieri, Wolfgang Puck and Nobu Matsuhisa among others - have rocked into Sin City with new branches.
The choices can be overwhelming, but the Lip Smacking Foodie Tour (vegasfoodietour.com) is a great way to cover some top restaurants in a short space of time ($125-299 or €106-255 per person). The tours last anything from two-and-a-half to five hours, but take in a course (and cocktail) each at some of the town's most acclaimed restaurants with a small group. Leo DiCaprio's regular spot Javier's is the first stop for signature Mexican dishes; after that, foodies are whisked to the VIP tables of Estiatorio Milos' Greek emporium, Jaleo by José Andrés and Cucina. All in all, a great way to find your feet quickly with the Strip's high-end offerings.
Most casinos will have dozens of restaurants within their labyrinthine buildings; among the best is the Osteria Costa (pictured above) at the Mirage (3400 South Last Vegas Boulevard, mirage.com), an Italian restaurant with a heavy emphasis on the 'how Mamma used to make it' vibe.
Casual dining in Vegas can still be a cut above the usual fast-food fare, too. Flour & Barley (3545 South Las Vegas Blvd) is a spacious, modern spot in the new LINQ Hotel & Casino complex, serving up gourmet brick-oven pizza for around $15 (€12.80) a throw, while over at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (3708 Las Vegas Blvd), Holsteins Shakes & Burgers' top sellers are so brilliantly excessive, they put many of Ireland's new gourmet burger gunslingers in the ha'penny place. (Seriously. Go hungry.)
Myth 2: It's just a city of casinos
It's impossible not to be dazzled by the sheer scale of Vegas' casinos - often, the lights flash as far as the eye can see. But there's more to the city than endless opportunities to place everything on black.
Find out more about the city's famous mob history - one that grew out of the great migration through Ellis Island - at the Mob Museum (300 Stewart Avenue, themobmuseum.org). This non-profit prides itself on offering up an authentic, fairly unadorned view of Vegas' vintage organised crime gangs, from the Valentine's Day Massacre wall to Nevada's gas chamber chair. General admission costs around $26.95 (€23) per person if you book online.
Where the Strip's sleek, ultra-modern skyline is now visually closer to that of Dubai or Singapore, the Fremont Street area is still assuredly old-school, with its succession of older, Scorcese-style hotels and casinos. Things are a bit grittier in this area, but it's the Vegas most of us might be familiar with.
You could zip past it all, thanks to the Slotzilla Zoomline Experience (vegasexperience.com/slotzilla-zip-line, tickets from $20/€17). Whether lying or sitting down, you can zip down the entire length of Fremont Street within a thrilling few minutes (be warned: wait times can be longer in the evenings).
If Fremont Street isn't spectacle enough, the Neon Museum of Las Vegas (770 Las Vegas Boulevard North, neonmuseum.org) preserves the city's old neon signs and is a kitschy, fitting shrine to bygone times. Tickets are $28 (€24) for adults and can be booked online in advance.
Myth 3: The drinks come thick, fast & cheap
You'll see piña colada slushie machines and folks carrying two-litre containers of Lord-knows-what everywhere, but a trip to Vegas doesn't necessarily have to mean a race to the bottom of the glass.
In fact, some of the best cocktail bars put a premium on quality over quantity.
The Sunset Lounge at the Hyde Bellagio comes with its own expansive terrace overlooking the famous Fountains of Bellagio (left, the fountains come to life every 30 minutes from 5pm onwards). Signature cocktails of the classics, with a few wild cards thrown on the menu, cost around $18 (€15.30) each. There's a cover charge of around $25 (€21.35) for ladies and $38 (€32) for gents, while a Fountain View table can cost upwards of $595 (€508).
Over at the box-fresh Park MGM Hotel & Casino (3770 South Las Vegas Boulevard), the Juniper Lounge aims to do something different. Set in a muted, Mad Men-style room, the Juniper is home to Vegas' biggest collection of gins, and they certainly push their collection to its very limits with some interesting juices and syrups. Signature cocktails include A Little Birdie (gin, vermouth, lemon and strawberry), served in bird-shaped glassware, and the Maple Old Fashioned (rye whiskey, maple syrup and bitters). Not your common-or-garden drinking experience.
Myth 4: Only washed-up stars perform here
Once upon a time, Vegas shows were the preserve of stars reaching the twilight of their careers. Tell that to Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Calvin Harris, all of whom have recently signed up to perform in wallet-busting residencies here. Right now, Gwen Stefani, Backstreet Boys, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion (above) and Santana are some of the other big-name draws.
Ex-Bros singer Matt Goss may be a bit of a blast from the past, granted, but his sleek residency show at The Mirage (mirage.com) is a run-through of Rat Pack classics and a wry nod to his chart-topping roots. It's interactive too, with a meet-and-greet available for one-time Brosettes. Tickets start at $49.99 (€42.70).
Myth 5: There's no fun beyond the Strip
Maverick Helicopters (maverickhelicopter.com) can take you away from it all, on a guided tour to the nearby Grand Canyon. The round trip lasts about two-and-a-half hours and departs from McCarran Airport, meaning it's possible to take in the neon lights and megaresorts from on high.
In among the stretches of red desert (pictured above), you'll also see the surprisingly sapphire Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam and the 320-acre oasis that makes up Lake Las Vegas. The canyon itself is every bit as awe-inspiring as you've been led to believe, and the helicopter lands at the peak of the canyon (with refreshments and bubbles served under a canopy before the return leg). There are even some Top Gun power ballads thrown in for the admission price. The Vegas Dream is around $259 (€221pp) if you book in advance.
Myth 6: It's all about the sleaze/tack factor
It's true that most parts of Vegas ooze sex, money or extravagance, as promised. But you're likely to come across several parties of travellers who aren't there on stags or hens, or on the lookout for divilment.
In fact, once I started to look, I saw plenty of families attempting to enjoy good, clean fun, too. One afternoon worth spending with the kids is the Speed Vegas (14,200 South Las Vegas Boulevard, speedvegas.com/en), a short drive south from the action on the Strip. Choose your supercar of choice - Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, BMW - and drive (or be driven around by a qualified driver) a monster 1.5-mile track full of twists and turns. They have special experiences for guests under 18. Experiences cost from $195 (€166).
Elsewhere, The High Roller at the LINQ Hotel & Casino (caesars.com/ling/high-roller, pictured above during Tourism Ireland's Global Greening), not unlike the London Eye, offers a chance to see the entire city from a 550ft-high ferris wheel. The cabins take a half-hour to rotate, and an open bar with bartender is optional. Day passes are $22 (€18.70) for adults and $9 (€7.60) for children (online bookings only).
What to pack
Light clothing, comfortable walking shoes, headgear and plenty of sun protection. Though most of the action happens within air-conditioned buildings, Vegas' average temperature in August is 39 degrees and it's still 28 degrees in October. A water spritzer is also a good idea if you need to cool down quickly while walking the Strip. Oh, and if you really want to get into the spirit of things, pack at least one glamorous/smart outfit.
Where to stay
Tanya stayed at the Park MGM Las Vegas (above, parkmgm.com), the Strip's newest hotel and casino. Formerly the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino, it is located next to the 20,000-capacity T-Mobile Arena, with almost 3,000 guest rooms and its own 9,500-square-metre casino. Prices range from €79-209 per night, based on averages for a standard room.
Tanya travelled as a guest of BA and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors' Authority (visitlasvegas.com). Flights from Dublin to Las Vegas with British Airways range from €592 incl. tax for World Traveller (economy) to €1,930 incl. tax for Club World (business), both including baggage (ba.com). Prices subject to availability and change.
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