Viva Las Vegas! – City Offers More Than Just Casinos and Gambling

Viva Las Vegas - Maharashtra Herald ColumnIn my last piece I wrote about my time in San Francisco. After a hectic work week at San Francisco, me, my wife and a friend headed to Las Vegas. Las Vegas is casino country. You step out of the aircraft at Las Vegas airport and it becomes obvious that Vegas is not just another American city. The first thing you encounter at the airport isn’t baggage claim or immigration or customs, but a series of slot machines!

Most of the action in Las Vegas is on a stretch of road know as ‘The Strip’. The grand hotels, casinos and other entertainment avenues are all on the strip. So for entertainment in Las Vegas you either stay at a hotel on the strip or get to the strip from your hotel. We booked quite late and did not get good rates for hotels on the strip, so we stayed at a hotel a short ride away from the strip. However I could not miss that the hotel rooms on the strip were cheaper than even mediocre hotel rooms in Pune.

Here are some facts about Las Vegas. It has over 124,000 hotel rooms available at an average night rate of $66. Over 36 million people visit Vegas every year and an average visitor spends about 4 hours per day gambling.

We reached Vegas late in the evening and decided to first check out the casinos. The casinos were dark and noisy with smoke and alcohol all around. I wasn’t having much fun. The core idea behind gambling anyway does not appeal to me and so I was soon having second thoughts about having come to Vegas at all. It just seemed to me like I was visiting a gangster’s den as shown in a Hollywood movie. We spent about 5 dollars on the slot machines, got lucky , made 35 dollars and then stopped. Putting money into a machine, pulling a lever or pressing a button and then hoping that you win, can be fun only a handful of times. After that it seems like a rather stupid thing to do.

We then headed to the well known Coyote Ugly night club. I wasn’t let in as I had a laptop bag with me. I am not sure if they did not let me in for security reasons or if they just wanted to keep the geeks out. Those who did get in however also got back in quick time, disappointed. Exotic women with attitude, dancing on the bar table and serving drinks is supposedly the highlight of the joint. However when they got in, there were only awkward women-visitors shaking on a corner of the table. Dancing on a bar table is just one of the crazy things people do in Vegas. Vegas is said to be the place where people come to do things they never would otherwise or which their parents told them never to. So you get a wide range of entertainment and opportunities to do all sorts of crazy stuff. There’s even a saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. Day 1 ended with me having seen a lot of novel things and interesting people, but I was already thinking that I wasn’t coming to Vegas again.

Day 2 however was all different. The Vegas morning was bright and sunny and the sunshine seemed to have cleansed the city. While everything seemed dark the previous night, the morning was refreshing. While you could only see bright lights and neon signs in the night, the morning showed that the streets were actually quite beautiful, with trees and flowering bushes and even lovely waterfalls and fountains. Also while everyone was indoors the previous night, hammering away at slot machines, the morning had got them out on the street. Although there was nothing special about the day or date, it seemed like a mini-festival.

Every hotel in Vegas has a casino. So in an attempt to tempt people to the casino, hotels welcome even people not staying at the hotel to visit and hang out in the hotel. This is a useful feature as we therefore could spent a lot of time in many hotels in Vegas rather then just stick to our hotel. If you are wondering why I wished to spend time in multiple hotels, the reason is that each hotel in Vegas is like an exhibition. The hotel has a theme, elaborate decorations and various other props and attractions to make the hotel stand out.

For example, the Bellagio hotel has spectacular musical fountains. The fountains are placed in a serene 8 acre artificial lake created right in front of the hotel and are choreographed to opera and broadway music. The water jets can go as high as 240 feet, making it an amazing and must watch show. The Venetian hotel has a Venice theme with Italian looking frescos and paintings all over. They even have the famous Venetian gondola boat rides. These gondola rides however were quite funny. The boat was well crafted and the idea interesting but they had only a tiny pond to ride the boat in. A slow boat ride in a tiny pond beside the road and with 100s staring at you, was somehow supposed to be romantic and fun. Las Vegas is a popular place to get married in the US. So I suppose the $60 couple boat ride would be taken mostly by unweds and newly weds wanting to impress their partner.

Everyone in San Francisco with whom we had discussed Las Vegas, had asked us “So are you going to the shows?”. We had no idea what these shows were and so didn’t quite process the idea much. However once we reached Vegas, it became obvious that watching the shows was certainly one of the things to do. Many top American singers, magicians, comedians and other artists perform at these shows. You have hundreds of shows every night to choose from. There are shows for all ages and all kinds. We checked out a couple of the shows in the evening. They were entertaining and fun. Most shows in Vegas do not rely heavily on stories or even English. It was mostly glitz, glamour, magic and exceptional feats.

Day 2 was redeeming and so my overall Vegas experience was good fun. I would now recommend that anybody visiting the US should visit Vegas. My only tip would be to think beyond the casino. There’s lots more happening in Vegas.
(Published as “Viva Las Vegas” in my fortnightly column for the Maharashtra Herald)