Viva Vegas forever - A city built on hopes, dreams and a little bit of crazy
Eleanor Goggin takes a trip to Sin City, from helicopter flights to food, glorious food
There are many sayings about Vegas but the one I like best is "Las Vegas is a city built on hopes, dreams and a little bit of crazy".
It's a lot of crazy. Pure fun. It was always on my bucket list to visit Vegas - and I did so some years ago. I assumed that would be my one and only experience of the bright, brash fun oasis in the desert but when I was given the opportunity to go again I jumped at it. And when I told a very discerning friend that I was going, she confessed that she had actually been there six times - and loved it differently each and every time.
While there is no ancient history about it, there's an interesting and checkered past. The city itself sprang up in the early 20th Century. In 1911 there was a population of 1,500 when the railway company built a locomotive repair station here and the population increased. Gradually, electricity and sewage systems were introduced - and then when in 1931 quickie divorces and gambling were legalised in Nevada, the city developed further and a legend was born.
You've probably seen the movies and so you know that in the 1940s and 1950s, the mob ruled and Vegas was a by-word for all manner of carry on - until 1966, when Howard Hughes moved in. He stayed in a fancy suite in the Desert Inn Hotel and started buying up properties, spending some $300m. He is the one credited with cleaning up the tarnished reputation of the city and creating what is now a fun and not to-be-missed experience.
While Vegas is seen as the home of gambling, there is so much more to do there. In fact on this occasion I didn't once venture to the slot machines or gaming tables. Too busy and too tired after action-packed days - even though the casino that we had to pass on the way to the lifts in the ideally located Park MGM was admittedly a constant source of temptation.
Speed Vegas was the beginning of the adrenalin-packed trip. A drive out though the outskirts and into the countryside is a revelation that it's not all about city life - there is actually a rural dimension to the oasis that is Las Vegas.
Speed Vegas is a driving experience that caters for all abilities. Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches adorn the parking lot. With a fully certified instructor in the passenger seat with dual-control just in case you completely lose the run of yourself, you can experience the excitement of driving one of these cars on a real race track.
We chose the very different experience of driving trucks on a rough track with high mounds and tight bends that we had to negotiate. I sat in the passenger seat for the first five laps and one of our gang drove. In typical 'boys with new toys' fashion he went for it and scared me to death.
Rising up in the air over mounds and landing with a thud and a manic laugh, he told me he had never been called so many awful names before. I don't hold back when I'm scared.
I thought I couldn't do the second five laps but the very warm staff convinced me that I'd be fine. And so I bit the bullet and went for it - albeit at a snail's pace compared to my buddy. And then towards the end I upped the pace a bit and my inner Rosemary Smith took over. It was great crack and I'm so glad I didn't chicken out.
The SlotZilla Zoomline is another fear-inducing experience that I thought I wouldn't be able to endure - but it seems that as I get older I find myself challenging myself a tad.
The zoomline starts 11 storeys up and transports you at speed down the old Las Vegas strip that is Fremont Street. In the queue to be prepared and harnessed I thought about running away. Anywhere but here. The American woman in front of me was equally terrified. She informed me, after she was harnessed, that I would have to pull the straps between my own legs as the male staff member wouldn't want to touch my 'hootananny'. I can tell you my hootananny was the last thing on my mind at this juncture.
They whizz you up in a lift, line you up in a row of four, lie you on your stomach and harness you. Then they open a flap and let you off. I honestly didn't know I knew so many nasty words. But it only lasts for a minute and the exhilaration and sense of achievement is fantastic. I'm ready for a bungee jump now.
With a new confidence, I went on a night time helicopter ride over the city. The lights are just amazing. Danny, the pilot from Maverick Helicopters, took one look at me before we climbed in and asked "what's wrong with you?" I told him I was terrified and he quipped that he was too.
Anyone with a sense of humour is enough to assuage my fears and the trip was wonderful. I had done the Grand Canyon trip before with Maverick and that too is fantastic.
With enough hair-raising experiences to do me for a while, it was time for some downtime - so a trip to the spa at the Mandalay Bay Hotel was on the cards. You can buy a day pass and wallow in the heated whirlpools and relaxation areas. A much needed experience after the hurly burly of Vegas life.
A stroll around the Neon Museum which houses many of the old Vegas hotel and casino signs is another great wind down.
There are so many shows in Vegas that it would be impossible to take them all in - but a must-see is Love, the much-acclaimed Cirque du Soleil tribute to The Beatles's music in the Mirage Hotel. Fast-paced and imaginative it's a feast for the senses. Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984 in Quebec, Canada, by street performers Guy Laliberte and Gilles Ste-Croix.
There are multiple Cirque du Soleil shows in Vegas alone and they are attended by some 9,000 people per night. I spoke to a young Cuban geneticist who had travelled from Dallas and was taking in two shows a day for her trip. She told me she was there solely for the fabulous restaurants and the shows and had no intention of gambling. I bet.
Talking of the fabulous restaurants, I knew my diet was well and truly over when I had four sausages, scrambled eggs and beans before departure in the 51st & Green lounge at Dublin Airport, and it was sheer gluttony from there on in.
Lip Smacking Foodie Tours is a great way to sample some of the best there is in Vegas. Mary, our guide, took us on a walking tour to sample the signature dishes of some of the best restaurants in town.
From the fried zucchini and kefalograviera cheese in Milos to the escargots in Bardot Brasserie, the paella at Julian Serrano and the honey panna cotta at Cucina to name but a few, everything was sublime - and the matching cocktails at each establishment weren't half bad either. The Jupiter Lounge in our fabulous base Park MGM hotel had a vast and wonderful array of imaginative cocktails as well. In fact everything was great about Park MGM, including its restaurants.
Breakfasts are a big deal in Vegas. I normally have a slice of toast when I'm at home - but in Vegas I lost the plot completely. Waffle stacks layered with scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, followed by pancakes, at Maxie's would have caused my fatty class leader to go into therapy. And then I started having steak and eggs thereafter. For breakfast.
That's the diet of a prop forward, not an older woman with weight issues.
Chica at the Venetian do a mean steak and egg tacos with cheese, roasted potatoes, onions and peppers. The Primrose in our own hotel, the Park MGM, also did a wonderful steak and eggs in very calming and understated surroundings. It's important to be calm when you're stuffing your face.
It's easy to just keep eating in Vegas. All day. Carson Kitchen does a great burger, Spago at the Bellagio, with its outside dining area, does a pizza of smoked salmon, dill cream, red onion, salmon pears and Kaluga caviar. Sublime. The chego pork belly bowl with fried egg in Best Friend at Park MGM was memorable for all the right reasons.
As Elvis Presley once said: "Man, I really like Vegas."
Take Two: Top attractions
Cirque du Soleil
Be sure to take in one of the Cirque du Soleil performances. Performed to music by different artists, such as The Beatles and Michael Jackson, the shows are fast moving and action packed.
Despite my abject fear and trepidation, I'm delighted I braved the experience. Harnessed and lying flat a zoomline takes you from a height of 114ft in 'superhero-style' down Fremont Street. It costs $45.
Eleanor travelled with United Airlines via Chicago. For more information, visitlasvegas.com - but you might also like to try these:
To stay, check out parkmgm.mgmresorts.com
For simple but classic (and delicious) food, try maxieslv.com
For signature Californian fare, it's bellagio.mgmresorts.com/en/restaurants/spago-by- wolfgang-puck.html
For a bit of everything, visit vegasfoodietour.com
For stunning views, maverickhelicopter.com
For exhilaration, try speedvegas.com, or vegasexperience.com/slotzilla-zip-line
See also cirquedusoleil.com/beatles-love
NB: This feature originally ran in The Sunday Independent.
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