Viva Las Vegas

Las Vegas
Las Vegas

I’ve always turned up my nose at the thought of Las Vegas. After all, it’s kitschy, superficial, ostentatious and tasteless. (There, I said it!) But at the same time, I admit to a clandestine fascination with this wacky Fata Morgana in the middle of Nevada’s desert, despite my respectable upbringing.

How can you not be captivated by this animated city? Here, pirates wage battle six times a day and the Titanic sinks nightly. An artificial volcano spits its firework flames every 15 minutes after sunset, while water fountains dance a splashy ballet to classical music. And only a few street corners away, Elvis weds eager-to-marry lovers at a 24-hour drive-up window.

If you’re willing to get in touch with your inner-child, the City of Lights is just the perfect escape from a grey and dreary everyday life. It is an invigorating oasis for the senses, an exciting Disneyland for grown ups and a place like no other.

The Las Vegas Valley (about 600 square miles) is surrounded by mountains. It doesn’t matter if you drive in from the west, climbing over the lofty Spring Mountains, pass through the McCullough Range of extinct volcanoes to the south, traverse the Frenchmans Mountains to the east or scale the limestone swirls of the Sheep Range to the north – you will always get a spectacular bird’s eye view of this Gambling Mecca, even if you’re not flying in.

The best time to arrive is at sunset when the city slowly awakes from its siesta, turns the music up a little louder and switches on the lights. People are drawn like moths to the glitzy sidewalks. An instant traffic jam forms on the intimidating Las Vegas Boulevard South, the city’s pulsating multi-lane artery, where police on mountain bikes navigate through the crowds.

This is prime time for casinos. The cheap, all-you-can-eat buffets are getting re-stocked for the hungry evening crowd. And gorgeous showgirls are donning their flimsy rhinestone-dresses for their next grand entrance at one of the city’s famous shows.

Las Vegas may never be the same after Roy Horn of the famous “Siegfried & Roy” duo was mauled by one of their 600-pound white tigers on October 3, 2003. For now the MGM Mirage has officially dropped the curtain on the 13 1/2-year-old show. (Horn was released from hospital on December 21, 2003.) But life goes on in the energetic city.

Viva Las Vegas! Approximately 30 million people annually succumb to its irresistible charm and flee from gray reality into a neon-colored, parallel-universe beyond time and space created for the visitor. This gambling metropolis has no quaint old downtown, any considerable monuments nor any historical sights to speak of.

The crazy hotels themselves are the sole attraction and the only reason why 120,000 available guest rooms are booked 90 percent of the time. The “Neon City” is a spectacular destination that has invented itself.

Las Vegas is an honest soul. She holds no secrets. We all know that she is trying to go after our every hard-earned nickel. It was the famous mobster, Bugsy Siegel, after all, who worked the miracle of Las Vegas’ wondrous conversion from dusty train station to self-proclaimed “Entertainment Capital of the World.” To draw his guests like Christmas turkeys, the gangster opened the plush “Flamingo Hotel & Casino” on December 26, 1946. Most visitors know the history, and all of us eventually learn the rules of the game.

Usurers and pawnbrokers reside just around the corner in shabby side streets. Their long shadows reach down to sparkling Las Vegas Boulevard. Even the toothless homeless man, who begs at the feet of a skimpily clad Centurion statue, does not hide his true intentions: “Why lie? I need a beer” reads his torn cardboard sign.

Whether it’s the pyramid at Caesar’s Palace or a Picasso painting (there really is one of Picasso’s original works on display in “Bellagio’s” Gallery of fine arts), the enticing exteriors of the extravagant hotels is visual bait. Moving walkways whisk innocent onlookers tired of walking from the legendary Strip, which lines the illustrious mega hotels like a string of pearls, and delivers them directly into the maze of money machines.

The MGM Grand Las Vegas claims to be the largest hotel in the world, featuring more than 5,000 guest rooms. It’s home to the Lion Habitat, a 5,000-square-foot simulated jungle where the public can view lions at play through protective glass.

Clocks, windows and exit signs are largely banished from the empire of slot machines. In oblivious disorientation of a gambling frenzy, the night turns to day and the other way around. “The only way to make money in a casino is to own one,” reportedly confessed Steve Wynn, multimillionaire owner of “Bellagio” and “Mirage.”

We are gladly hooked: According to a study recently conducted by the city’s tourism board, 95 percent of all visitors do not come for gambling, but to go shopping in chic designer stores or to attend the world class shows of “Blue Man Group” or the leggy “Folies Bergères.” But while wandering through the inevitable obstacle coarse of the casino floors toward the mouth-watering discount buffets, 87 percent of guests will eventually feed those hungry gambling machines. In 2000, each traveler invested an average of US$665 in Lady Luck.

But even those of us who do not hit the jackpot are definitely winners. Since Las Vegas offers us the world on a silver tray, we can experience Venice at the Hotel Venetian with its original imported gondola boats (yet happily without the whiff of Venice’s smelly channels). An architectural Parisian Potpourri, complete with the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower en miniature, Opéra and dancing crêpes-waiters on the Champs Elysées, can be found at the casino Paris, Las Vegas.

Still another casino offers a journey back in time to antique Rome at Caesar’s Palace, or if you prefer ancient Egypt, you’ll want to stop by the Luxor just before getting a glimpse of Olde England and its fearless Knights of the Round Table at the Excalibur. Nevada’s most unique city is a kaleidoscope of dream destinations, rolled into one town. It offers almost forgotten childhood dreams for anyone who wants to remember again.

More than 200,000 people get married in Las Vegas every year. Over forty wedding chapels operate around the clock here, ranging from traditional chapels to places where you can be married by Elvis or even via a drive-through window.

Las Vegas certainly is not New York, Rio or Monte Carlo, but it proudly presents hotels with the same names. The city is a phenomenon and certainly worth a visit, even if you don’t like to gamble.

Chances are, if you ever find your way to this unique oasis of lights in the desert, you’re sure to fall under its strange spell.

Don’t think so? Wanna bet?

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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
Janna Graber
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