Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Traveller Returns

I am back from my week long excursion in Las Vegas and I can safely say it is an experience I will never forget. Me and my boyfriend were only there for seven nights but I think I have seen and learnt more in that one short week than I could cover in dozens of blog posts. So to avoid bombarding you all with multiple posts I'll condense it all into one (slightly long) post. Neatly subtitled so you can skip to the bits of interest. I didn't do much in the way of gambling but I think we both experienced a full and exciting visit to Vegas with a lot of unexpected and educational experiences. If you've never been I can't recommend it enough.

The Strip

I've seen The Strip on TV and in films more than once, but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer scale of the place or the buildings in it. When we arrived on Tuesday afternoon we were both very tired after the ten hour flight, but in the interests of adjusting our body clocks we made a point of staying up. So we went out to have a look at the place we'd be calling home for the next week. I think the reaction was somewhere between "wow" and "holy crap, this is big". The maps do not do justice to just how huge The Strip in Las Vegas is. This was a thought that was to come back to us repeatedly during our stay. We arrived at the Monte Carlo, and after being awed by it's scale and opulence (we hadn't seen the other hotels by this point) we set out to walk up the strip. Yes, walk. Americans reading this or those who've been to Vegas will know how ludicrous that notion is. We got as far as the Mirage, which took us about forty minutes. On the map it looks like it's only a few blocks away - and it is - except those blocks are really large. The other fun aspect to walking is the roads; seven or eight lanes wide at times, and with lights that only give you forty seconds to get across, before forcing you to stand at the road edge for five minutes until the next shiny white walking man appears in the little box. This all adds to the walking time, as do the bridges that cross these same roads, which you have to use to get across at times, as they lead you into the hotels and malls in order to get back to the street. There is no such thing as a straight line in Las Vegas.

The Strip at night - the best time to see it.

Once we got to the Mirage we decided to head back and were lucky enough to catch the Volcano show outside. I was pleasantly surprised with the Volcano outside the Mirage hotel, with it's genuine flames, and water effects; very impressive and not at all what I'd imagined. On our way back we also caught the fountain display outside the Bellagio, which was once again huge in scale and brilliantly executed. It has different music for each one through the day, and we watched the water to the sound of Frank Sinatra singing "Luck Be A Lady" - very Vegas! After all that excitement we sat down for a dinner of traditional American food (a hot-dog and a burger) before retiring for the night at the very late hour of 8:45 pm. I don't think I've ever slept for so long or as deeply.

This picture doesn't do it justice - but it was very good. And very hot!

The Shopping

Day 2 was to be our shopping day, when we would take full advantage of the cheap clothes in the USA. What wasn't so cheap were the taxis - with $3.20 on the meter to start with, the amount went up and up as you get held at one red light after another. And that's not even including the tip you're meant to leave them (and everyone else as it turned out). Boyfriend had found some outlet malls just outside central Vegas, where we could get clothes at even cheaper prices. Going there as well as to a few other retail parks cost us around $70 - $80 in taxi fares alone that day! But the clothes were more than worth it. With Levi jeans at $30 each (around £25!) we came back loaded with bags. For myself I discovered Macy's - and plan to look into how I can get that stuff delivered to me here in the UK. In fact the shopping experience there was amazing, with incredibly helpful and friendly staff, and more choice in clothes than you ever see in the UK. I also managed to get a couple of CDs for a fraction of the price they are in Britain. I was also very happy when we found a Native American store at one of the retail parks. I'm sure they were very happy too when I spent around $200 in there... goodbye spending money, hello credit card.

Shopping centres in America are, like everything else, huge!
There are shops in and around the strip and these, like the hotels, are huge, opulent and totally over the top. The Forum Shops, which run under and through Caesar's Palace, are all decked out to imitate cobble stoned streets, with a fake sky overhead. As afternoon settles the lights dim and the place is in a twilight, totally screwing up your sense of time when you're still suffering from jet lag. But a number of the shops in the malls are super high end stores (i.e. they have no price tags on anything) so we weren't too keen to spend much time shopping in them. Instead we looked around, with our mouths gaping, and taking loads of pictures. Can't quite imagine that happening in shopping centres in good ol' blighty...

This is in fact a shopping centre. With a few Greco-Roman style statues.
And fountains. And fake sky.

The Sights and Shows

The rest of our week was spent looking at all the sights and attractions that Las Vegas has to offer. And it's a lot. To save money I highly recommend getting a Power Pass Card, which costs around $80 per person, and covers all the main attractions, like Madame Tussauds, the Stratosphere and even tours to the Hoover Dam. We saved a tonne of money with a three day pass, which starts as soon as you visit your first attraction. One of our favourite excursions was the CSI experience (not covered by the pass unfortunately) and I'm pleased to say me and my man made Grissom proud by successfully solving our case. We also had great fun in Madame Tussauds, especially their Scream attraction; essentially you go into pitch black corridors and there's no guarantee that the puppets are in fact puppets... hilarious and genuinely jump inducing. We also saw the animals at Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden, where they had baby dolphins (squeal!) as well as the usual bigger versions, and the very large, and very sleepy cats.

We were this close to the Dolphins.
I think they check out the tourists as much as the other way around.
Being Vegas we figured we had to see at least a couple of shows. I got tickets for Penn and Teller before we left and it was as great as we'd hoped. The magic was excellent, as was the comedy, and I particularly enjoyed Penn's rants about airport security and that they had created a little metal plaque for people to carry in their pockets, which has the Bill of Rights printed on it. I would have got one, but not for the price they were selling it at! We also went to The Tournament of Kings, which like everything in Vegas is big and over the top. You get your dinner served to you (with no cutlery) and eat while watching the brave knights of old jousting and working together to defeat an evil sorcerer. Very silly, very exciting and very fun.

A genuine Knight of ye olden days.
Or at least a Las Vegas version of one.

Hoover Dam

We were going to go to the Grand Canyon, until we saw the prices; at $500 dollars each it just seemed like far too much money for us to justify. And I still maintain that it's essentially a big hole in the ground, impressive though it is. So instead we went to Hoover Dam which was much cheaper with our Power Passes (only $12!). The driver was lovely, and he talked about Vegas and the surrounding areas as we went. We passed a lot of empty houses and retail units as he told us that Nevada is one of the hardest hit states of the recession. The houses were up for rent at a mere $350 a month, as they were so desperate to get people into them. They were still empty though... The dam itself was incredibly impressive, and a genuine marvel of Human ingenuity. We heard how the nearby town of Boulder City started out as a company built town to house the men building the Dam, as they demanded to have housing for themselves and their families. We also learned that the lake is the emptiest it's ever been, and there are genuine concerns about the water levels falling much farther. Considering that the whole of Las Vegas relies on the power generated by that water it's hard to think what they'll have to do if the water levels keep dropping. That white rim you see on the rocks in the background of the picture below is the level the water was at during it's highest point; that's a lot of water they're having to do without.

The Hoover Dam. What more can you say?

On the way back we stopped off at the Ethel M. chocolate factory, where we saw a very limited number of staff making a few chocolates (I suspect they only make enough so the tours see something when they visit). After a few free chocolates we then went out back to the Cactus garden. Yep, the chocolate factory has a cactus garden out the back. Well this is Vegas - anything goes. It was a surprising addition to the tour and we now have a lovely selection of photos of Cacti. Cactuses. You know what I mean.

This is one of the old doors on the Hoover Dam.
Had to include it as it looks like something from Bioshock.

Fremont Street - aka Our Adventure on Las Vegas Public Transport

As our holiday came to an end we decided to go to the "old Vegas" up on Fremont street. It's miles away from the part tourists stay in now, so we got the monorail up to the Stratosphere and from there we got the bus to Fremont. That proved to be an interesting decision... we should have worked out what was to come when, standing at the bus stop working out what ticket to get, we were advised by a local tramp to get the ticket on the bus, and to get off at 4th street as that was the closest to Fremont. His name was Harold and he seemed friendly enough, so we gave him a few bucks in gratitude and because tramps in Vegas seem to have it a lot harder than their equivalents in London. While I don't tend to give money to the homeless I meet on the street (knowing full well that it won't be spent wisely) we figured Harold had been nice and helpful to us and assumed he'd go on his way. Wrong. He decided to talk to us. So out came the dirty jokes, which were amusing enough. Then those changed to racist jokes. Very racist jokes. We said we'd walk to the Stratosphere to get away from him, though we noticed he kept hanging out at that bus stop. Likely waiting for the next tourists. The poor chap was clearly very lonely truth be told, as I suspect most just walk on by him as quickly as possible.

Lots of flashing lights on Fremont Streets.
Worth seeing if you want to see the old Vegas.
At the next bus stop we waited for the bus, where another tourist couple from Britain were waiting. With a crazy guy sitting at the stop swearing and shouting to himself. Now, I've travelled on night buses in London and you normally get at least one slightly unhinged person on there. Turns out in Vegas the bus is where they all go to hang out and have a seat. From the moment we got on the bus, sweary man went upstairs (presumably to talk to himself in peace) and downstairs were a selection of mad people, all shouting at each other, and at the bus driver. The tourists all looked a bit uncomfortable, as we listened to 9/11 conspiracies and one of the mad women trying to start a conversation with the bus driver, only to start swearing at him when he didn't reply. I couldn't resist saying to my boyfriend, "And you wanted to get the bus." The people around us (the sane ones) laughed, and the guy next to me told me, "You only see the real Vegas if you ride the bus." Oh, how right he was. He was very nice, telling me he drove Margaret Thatcher around when she visited Washington at the "end of her term of office". Now that man seems to live in a poor district of Vegas and has to ride a bus with people who in Britain would at the least have carers out with them. The differences in our two nations have rarely been so obvious to me.

No pictures of Harold but here's
the Stratosphere instead.
When we finally reached Fremont we were a bit disappointed - the light show it's famous for was off, as the lights were faulty, and there isn't a whole lot else to see in Fremont. But there was no way we were getting on that bus again. One cab ride later (it was worth the cost) we arrived at the Stratosphere and got to see the whole city at night from the best view around. There was also a very nice bar there, where we hung out in for a bit before walking to the monorail station. There was no sign of Harold, but there were plenty of other drunks, tramps and obviously very poor people out and about. While it was a relief to get back to the 'safety' of the South end of the Strip, both of us were left feeling depressed about the way some people are having to live in Vegas. We certainly have poverty in the UK, but I don't think we have that level of poverty, not yet at least. It made me appreciate the welfare system in my own country much more, even at the cost of people exploiting it.  If you want an education and to see a side of Las Vegas you will not find in any rough guide, take the bus in the North end of the Strip.

On our very last night we saw the Siren of TI show
here at Treasure Island - it was really silly and camp;
exactly what you want on your last night.

In conclusion, I loved my week in Las Vegas, even the unexpected parts. It's a city of total contrasts, and has loads of things to do. Which is just as well as TV sucks in America - adverts every ten minutes, even mid-sentence, and their news programmes are really limited in scope. I would definitely go back there if I ever have enough money to do so; huge, opulent, surprising, Las Vegas really does have it all. And special thanks should be given to my boyfriend for these photos; I've always said he should take up photography and thanks to him I didn't need to take my camera out with me once.

Viva Las Vegas!

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