Tumblin' Dice - Las Vegas

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April 5th 2016
Published: May 15th 2016
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Our visit to Los Angeles completed our wonderful coast-to-coast Great American Road Trip, but not our American journey. We had driven thousands of miles across the bottom of the country, through seven states, but we were now moving inland again, into yet another state, to visit Las Vegas. Now, I need to say, up front, that we’re not gamblers – our go-to family card game is playing rummy for matchsticks! So, while we were looking forward to the glitz that Las Vegas might provide and no doubt ‘playing the slots’ for a bit of fun, we were also using it as a base to explore the wider surrounding area.

We left LA in super, sunny weather and travelled out through Pasadena where we had to detour to get some petrol before hitting the Mojave Desert. We joined the I-15 just outside the city, passing the lush, green LA hills and the San Bernadino mountains, where we climbed to 4000 feet. It was a strange thing, to have snowy mountains on one side and the flat Mojave desert on the other. Our journey followed much of the old Route 66 and we stopped for a comfort break in Barstow, originally a Route 66 township and now a thriving railroad town. Signs told us it had a Visitor Centre there but we struggled to find it. I asked a young local man in the car park if he knew where it might be and he Googled it on his phone (why didn’t I think of that?!) but came up with nothing. Oh well, at least we found the loos and could stretch our legs. About 15 minutes later the young man returned pleased to tell us he had found the Visitor Centre, having been determined not to be beaten and he went out of his way to come back and tell us where it was. Wasn’t that kind – and typical of the helpfulness of the Americans. The Visitor Centre was a real find (in more ways than one – it was tucked away down an internal corridor, in the corner) and I made a new BFF in Liz, one of the assistants there, who was so fascinated by our trip I was still in there 40 minutes later. She was married to a railroad man and was just about to temporarily relocate with him to another city in California, which was a significant journey for her. However, she was using her time in the Visitor Centre to pick up tips from the tourists she helped and she was already planning her ‘retirement trip’ to Europe, aiming to start in Sweden (some Scandiwegian tourists must have really impressed her!). We talked, and talked, and talked for so long I thought Steve might have thought I’d got lost or become the 5th wife of some passing Mormon.

The rest of our journey was uneventful, but really, really pretty in a desert-y sort of way. The road undulated up steep inclines where there were dedicated slow lanes for the lorries and other vehicles that had ignored the many signs telling them to check the roadworthiness of their cars before beginning to cross the desert and some were now clawing their way up the hills very slowly, hazard lights flashing in warning. Thankfully, our car was still doing fine despite telling us every time we turned it on that it was overdue a service! We passed a sign pointing to Zzyzx, renowned for being the last word in the dictionary and created by some quack in the dim and distant past who sold his medicinal mineral water from the springs there as the last word in health treatments. We descended from 4000 feet to 2000 and crossed into Nevada at Yates Well where we were immediately greeted by a huge theme park/casino type complex, no doubt a sign of things to come. We carried on in the same desert terrain until eventually reaching the Eiffel Tower and a pyramid. Welcome to Las Vegas ...

We’d decided to have a ‘splurge’ hotel during our stay in Las Vegas, but only for half the time we were there (budget!). We had found, over our months of travelling, that we tended to wait until we arrived in a place before finalising what to do. This was mainly due to wanting to experience and explore the place we were actually in, enjoying the moment. So, apart from accommodation, which we tended to book 24/48 hours in advance, everything else was pretty much a blank canvas, with no commitments. It wouldn’t suit those who like a bit of structure but it worked well for us. Each to his own ... We were going to be in Las Vegas long enough for us to do a bit of first-hand research on our indulgent hotel, which was quite a novelty for us!

So, our initial lodging was the Red Roof Inn from where we intended to do a recce of our next hotel and to sort out our activities over the coming days. We had chosen this lodging based on its proximity to the Dollar car rental agency as we had arranged to return our car in Las Vegas, this being the end of our road trip. We knew that it was also very close to the airport in Las Vegas (everything in Las Vegas is pretty close to the airport as it’s a compact place) but we hadn’t appreciated that it was directly under the flight path! We also hadn’t realised just how popular the city is and that a plane takes off from the airport every minute. Yes, literally every minute – I timed them! Thankfully, I can sleep through most things and it seems that low flying, accelerating jumbo jets can be added to the list of things I can sleep through but, boy, they were loud, especially when I was outside on the balcony. Our room (232) was lovely – clean, spacious and well-provisioned. It wasn’t until I went online to check that they had a guest laundry (yes, they did, as well as a swimming pool) that I saw from one of the reviews that a guest had been held up at pistol point in the car park some months back and his car had been stolen. Oh my! I surreptitiously eyed up other guests in the hotel to check they weren’t gun-toting armed robbers before interacting with them but they all turned out to be ‘normal’, pleasant, law-abiding citizens, thank goodness. I was the only one acting a bit shifty ....

We returned the car the following morning and were sad to see it go – it had done us proud, with no problems. We were given a lift back to our accommodation and we spent some time looking online at possible posh hotels. Many of them were located right on the Strip itself and we thought they might be too noisy (though you’d think that wouldn’t be a problem after low flying aircraft, I wasn’t sure I could cope with that and traffic and street noise too!) and soooo many of them didn’t have a balcony, which was a big drawback. Well, there was one hotel that did have balcony facilities but they were, apparently, inaccessible and not to be used. What?! Why?! The other thing that became a BIG factor was the ‘extra’ charges. If they had an on-site casino it cost more, if you wanted a cup of coffee it cost more, if you opened the mini-bar fridge door and moved things around it cost more (seriously, they have sensors on them and can tell, apparently!) – it seemed to us that we wouldn’t dare move in some of these places in case it cost more!

We explored the Strip area several times during our time in Vegas and, almost to my surprise, I really liked it. I found it unexpectedly smaller than I anticipated, with most of the big names (the Bellagio, the Sands, the Luxor, the Mirage, MGM Grand, New York New York, Caesar’s Palace, Circus Circus, etc) being within easy walking distance of each other on the Strip front. For those who needed to get between the sights quickly, a monorail ran from one end of the Strip to the other. Las Vegas is brash, bold, gaudy and glitzy and does exactly what it says on the tin, providing ample opportunities to gamble away your hard earned cash (somebody, can’t remember who, aptly referred to it as Viva Lost Wages!) or to take in a show. Rod Stewart was headlining at one of them, presumably getting in a practice run before his main gig in Hull a month or two later. We found the street buskers provided high quality shows for just a small ‘donation’ and the Bucket Drumming Man made a well-deserved small fortune while we were watching him – support the street buskers, I say.

We visited the casinos in most of the hotels and found it easy enough to get into them, but trying to find the way out proved somewhat harder, a deliberate ploy I’m sure! We found a Blackjack slot machine in Bellagio’s (OK, we know how to play 21s) and rapidly lost $5 each. We realised we had no idea how to play poker so quickly lost yet more dollars before watching how somebody else did it so we could more or less break even whilst having a bit of fun at the same time. We discovered that, although the slot machines will accept your cash quite happily (you can even use your credit card if you feel so inclined) they will only give you a paper credit note in return for any winnings. Rather handily, these can also be used as cash for your next game - who says the bank never loses?! The casinos weren’t the dens of iniquity I had anticipated – most people we saw were happily spending a few dollars on a bit of fun, though the ‘tables’ were populated with more of the die-hard, dedicated gamblers, even at 11 o’clock in the morning. The waitresses circled unobtrusively, refilling the empty glasses of anyone who wanted a drink, but this was mainly with water. You can still smoke in the casinos (despite an enforced Government ‘clean-up’ many years ago to thwart Mob money laundering activities, Las Vegas is still degenerate enough to operate within some of its own rules!) but they either have wonderful air-conditioning or turbo-charged extractor fans because the smoke was never noticeable, though the chilly air was and I wished I’d taken my cardy. Some of the venues are HUGE; Bellagio’s has a shopping mall within it, populated with exclusive shops and the entrance foyer at the Mandalay Bay was as big as a train station – indeed a free shuttle tram operates between it and the Luxor and Excalibur hotels. Most have eating facilities (once you’re in there, they don’t really want you to go out again) and they catered for just about every need a gambler (sorry, visitor) could have and even provided those things you might not think you needed but did, really, such as slots on the bars if you fancied a change of scenery. And ‘opulent’ doesn’t begin to describe the excesses of decadent decor but they were appropriate to the setting and I thought them quite lovely. Somehow, ‘tacky’ never entered my thoughts, though it might be the first word to spring into some people’s minds.

I particularly wanted to watch the son et lumière fountain display provided by the Bellagio, at night, when the lighting would provide an additional element of theatre. The free display operates throughout the day and night, at least hourly, and is synchronised to the music by a team of 30+ staff 365 days of the year. And it shows. The night display we saw that stands out in my mind was ‘performed’ to the Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky’ and was just wonderful – a magical marriage of movement and music, a bit like us after a drink too many.

We visited the Strip on and off during our stay in Vegas. It was populated by the casually-dressed, hedonistic holiday-makers rubbing shoulders with the designer-clad retail therapists and partially dressed leather-clad girls posing for photos and there was a carefree, happy atmosphere, at least on the surface. Beggars were more obvious at night-time and some presented as sad, ravaged, possibly drug-addled victims. One of the hustlers for a local strip club (of which there are many) seemed particularly surprised when I took the leaflet Steve had refused (I wanted the souvenir!) so there is a ‘seedy’ element to it and I suspect the underworld activities are hidden but still present. Probably safer not to dig too deep ... The streets were busy with foot and motor traffic but there were some areas of calm with ample seating where we could rest our legs and watch it all go by.

We checked out our shortlist of hotels and decided upon The Platinum. It was a block away from the main drag so we hoped it would be a smidge quieter and it offered a wonderful suite on a high floor with a furnished balcony that we could actually sit on to appreciate the views. It was especially lovely at night, when the Strip lit up with twinkling lights like a fairytale. Our suite had several enormous rooms and we literally kept losing each other as we could walk into the bathroom (with his and her sinks and a spa bath - oooh, get us!) from the bedroom and exit it into the kitchen and we spent some time going round in circles. We even had our own exclusive washer and dryer in a little ‘laundry room’ within the suite and I spent some time playing the part of Widow Twankey to an audience of one. Whilst we’d stayed in accommodation with similar facilities in other places during our travels, the quality at The Platinum was a couple of notches up and we wallowed in the luxury.

I chatted with a brain surgeon from Chicago and a grandmother from Redcar (I just loved the diversity of the people I met) one morning in the smoking area. I was still in my pyjamas sporting a casual but interesting ‘bed head’ hairstyle and she was immaculately dressed and in full make-up, at 6.30 am, as she never went anywhere without her ‘lippy’ on, apparently. I mentioned the air-conditioning in the casinos and said we had put on our ‘living flame’ fire in the lounge of our suite for a brief while just to make it seem like home, even though it was 84 degrees outside. Mr Brain Surgeon thought we must be from some third world country when we told him homes in the UK generally didn’t run to air-conditioning and he found it even harder to understand that it never gets hot enough for us to need it but that if, by some freak of nature, we managed to string several hot days together people quite often literally died!

In the lift going back to our room I was joined by a woman just returning from her night in the casinos. She said she’d had a great time, had only lost $50 and she thought that was a fair price to pay for an entertaining night on the town. I couldn’t argue with that.

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