Las Vegas – what to do when you are not gambling your money away

Las Vegas, Sin City, Entertainment capital of the world. It is a one of a kind city located in the Nevada desert with just over half a million people, not including the millions of tourists that visit every year. It is the only city where the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian pyramid, and the canals of Venice co-exist. Established in 1905, gambling was centered around downtown Las Vegas, until 1989 when the Mirage was built and the action shifted to the now famous Las Vegas Strip. The Strip is over 5 miles long and is home to some of the largest hotels in the world. Together there are enough hotel rooms in Vegas, that if you were to spend one night in every room in the area, it would take you 288 years to stay in them all.

Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas, NV
Pyramid, Luxor Hotel, Buy this photo

Day 1: Out trip started at 8 am, landing at the McCarran International Airport. Exiting the plane, the first thing we noticed was the Slot machines in the gate area of the airport. They certainly try not to waste any of our time by making slot machines available everywhere. On the way to our hotel, the Egyptian themed Luxor hotel, we were briefed by our cab driver on the basic rules of Vegas.


Wall paintings inside the Luxor, Las Vegas, NV

Number one on the list is of course, What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Second on the list, is that Vegas is 24/7 town, and that sleeping is not allowed. That soft thing in the middle of your hotel room is apparently only to spread your clothes out. The third rule is never accept any of the flash cards from the guys on the street and the fourth was that it is illegal to hail a cab on the road and that you must catch one only at the entrances of hotels. The check in at the hotel was only at 11, so we decided to head to Mandalay Bay, the first hotel to the south of ours. There is a tram that connects the Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay and at the Luxor you can catch it from the Sphinx. We found our slot machine and within the first hour of our visit we had converted $1 into $4.85. A good start.

We walked around Mandalay Bay and then returned to the Luxor, to check in and eat breakfast. We were disappointed with the hotel room in Luxor however as we expected opulence and grandeur in every Vegas room especially with the 4 stars and up. Unfortunately the room was just ordinary. Breakfast was at the Pyramid Cafe and as we confirmed at the end of our 4 day trip, food isn’t cheap in Vegas. Most of the good restaurants are in the hotels and a dinner for two would easily cost more than $50 without a cocktail. We then set out on our walking expedition of the strip. We took the free tram to the Excalibur, a medieval themed hotel and casino. While the exterior is impressive, like a castle the interiors were more muted. Next up on the strip is the New York New York Hotel. The facade is a amalgamation of many of New York’s famous buildings from the Empire State Building to the Chrysler Building. The Statue of Liberty guards them all and below at street level is a replica of the Brooklyn bridge that you can walk through. Around it all, circles a roller coaster and every few minutes you can hear the screams from the down slope. Inside the hotel is New York city as it would have been about 50 years ago.

New York New York, Las Vegas, NV
New York New York Hotel, Buy this photo

Across from NY NY is the MGM Grand and inside is the Lion habitat. A 9 million dollar home complete with caves and waterfalls has been built inside the hotel to house lions. Lions are brought in to the hotel in rotation and allowed to roam freely in the glass encased exhibit. Further down the strip is the Paris Hotel. With the Eiffel tower in front and the Arc de Triomphe at the main entrance, the hotel transports you instantly to the romantic city of Paris. For $10 you can take a ride up the Eiffel Tower but with 40 miles per hour wind blowing across the strip the ride was closed. So were the fountains in front of the Bellagio across from the Paris hotel. We had to wait for another day.

Paris in Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV
Paris Hotel, Buy this photo

The Bellagio is a 5 star hotel and one of the grandest hotels on the strip. Inside the Bellagio is a conservatory with themes that vary through the year. We saw plants and flowers that are common in China.


Bellagio conservatory, Las Vegas, NV

The next hotel along the strip is Caesars Palace and is one of the oldest and largest hotels. Inside is a long strip of shops called the Forum shops and the entire pathway is designed as ancient Rome. At one end of the mall is the free Atlantis show that occurs frequently through the day. We watched the show and then headed to dinner at Planet Hollywood. The night ended with the show Fantasy at the Luxor hotel.

Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, NV

Day 2: Since we were staying for 4 days, we decided to take a day off from the strip and caught up with an old college friend. After a tasty meal at Pin Khao Thai restaurant we drove to Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona.

Turbines at Hoover Dam, Nevada
Inside Hoover Dam

It is about 45 minutes from the strip but the traffic in the last 5 miles can almost double that time. At the time of its completion in 1935 it was the world’s largest power generating plant as well as the largest concrete structure. Today at 726 feet it is the second tallest dam in the U.S. The power plant tour costs $11 while a full tour of the dam costs $25. They are definitely worth it as you learn a lot about this engineering marvel straddled between two rock faces of the Black Canyon. Behind the dam is Lake Mead, extending 110 mi (180 km) behind the dam and holding approximately 28.5 million acre feet (35 km³) of water. Lake Mead is the largest man-made lake and reservoir in the United States. It is located on the Colorado River about 30 miles (48 km) southeast of Las Vegas.

By the time we left Hoover Dam it was almost sunset and we headed to Red Rock Canyon about 15 miles west of the Vegas strip. The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area showcases a set of large red sandstone peaks and walls called the Keystone Thrust.

Calico Hill, How many shades of Red at Red Rock Canyon?
Red Rock Canyon, Buy this photo

The walls are up to 3,000 ft (1,000 m) high, making them a popular hiking and rock climbing destination. The highest point is La Madre Mountain, at 8,154 ft (2,485 m).The best way to the see the canyon is on four wheels along the 12 mile long scenic drive. It courses its way around the canyon with numerous look-out points. The canyon is also an excellent place for biking. We spent the rest of the day lounging and drinking mojito’s at our friend’s place and ended with a dinner at Cheesecake factory.

Colorado River, NV
Lake Mead, Buy this photo

Day 3: Back on the strip, we decided to head to the Paris hotel for a delightful breakfast at JJ Boulangerie cafe. The freshly baked croissants and apple turnovers filled our appetite and we headed to The Venetian, a hotel and casino modeled like Venice, Italy. Around the hotel is a mini canal that offer gondola rides for $15 a ride complete with an Italian singing gondolier. Ours, Vincenzo, is a struggling singer from Sicily who found a steady income with the gondola company. Inside the hotel are a line of exclusive boutiques and shops along another artificial canal and with a fake sky above, you forget you are in the middle of a desert in the US. The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino is the largest AAA Five-Diamond rated Resort in the Americas with 4,049 suites and a 120,000 square foot casino.

Gondola ride, Venetian, Las Vegas, NV
Gondola ride, Venetian, Buy this photo

Combined with the adjacent Sands Expo Convention Center and The Palazzo Hotel and Casino Resort, The Venetian is a part of the largest hotel and resort complex in the world – featuring 7,128 hotel rooms and suites. Across from the Venetian is Treasure Island, famous for the original Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas, Mystère. “Sirens’ Cove” is front of the hotel is now the site of “The Sirens of TI”. This live, free show is designed to appeal more to adults by including singing, dancing, audio-visual effects, bare-chested pirates and attractive women and is staged every hour at night.

Fashion Show Mall, Las Vegas, NV
Fashion Mall

Waterfalls at the Palazzo, Las Vegas, NV
Waterfalls, Wynn

Next on the strip is the Fashion Show Mall, a large Zeppelin shaped structure marking its spot. We skipped it as shopping was not on our agenda. Instead we stepped across to the Wynn Las Vegas, one of the newest hotels on the strip. The US$2.7 billion resort is named after casino developer Steve Wynn and is the flagship property of Wynn Resorts Limited. The Wynn is an ultimate in technology and comfort with the world’s largest distribution of HDTV, into hotel rooms using high-speed Cat-6 Ethernet cables and every casino chip is embedded with RFID tags to better detect counterfeiting. Inside it is a mini paradise, with a wall of waterfalls catching your eye from many spots. The floors are all colorful mosaics and the entire design effuses class. From the Wynn we turned back and entered the Palazzo, the newest hotel on the Strip, opening in January 2008 and is operating under the Venetian’s license.

Floor deco at the Wynn, Las Vegas, NV
Inside the Wynn

Further down is the MGM Mirage one of the first mega resorts and the one that set the standards for all future resorts. Real gold was used in the tinting process to give the windows a gold shine. The Mirage was the host for Siegfried & Roy’s show till it was closed. Now there is a Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. There is also a 53 foot long aquarium behind the registration desk. Out last stop on the strip before the evening was the Flamingo hotel opened in 1946 but renovated in 2004. The original Oceans Eleven was shot here and it was also home to mobster Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel. Inside is a wildlife habitat that features many exotic birds and flamingos. The exterior is a shocking neon pink.

Mermaid at the Flamingo, Las Vegas, NV
Mermaid at the Flamingo

As the sun began to fade we headed to the Bellagio to watch the dancing fountain show, held every 15 minutes at night. Inside Bellagio, Dale Chihuly’s Fiori di Como, composed of over 2,000 hand-blown glass flowers, covers 2,000 sq ft (190 m²) of the lobby ceiling.

Colored glass in the Bellagio Lobby by Dale Chihuly, Las Vegas,

Bellagio is home to Cirque du Soleil’s aquatic production of “O”. Bellagio was also featured prominently in the film Ocean’s Eleven with the vault they rob from being located directly beneath the hotel. The Fountains are set in an eight-acre man-made lake. They incorporate an array of underwater pipes with over 1,200 nozzles and over 4,500 lights and the sequences range from lively to truly romantic.

Dancing fountains of Bellagio, Las Vegas, NV
Dancing Fountains, Bellagio, Buy this photo

As you watch the fountains dance it is impossible not to feel inspired and calm at the same time. We saw the fountains dance to Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain and then headed across to the Paris Hotel to ascend to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

South Strip later at night, Las Vegas, NV

As the sun began to plummet, we watched the fountains dance to two more songs, an aerial view that shouldn’t be missed and then caught the last rays of the sun behind the mountains. 15 minutes later, the strip was lit in every imaginable neon color and by the time we were on street level the landscape had completely been transformed. Our day was still not done.

We headed to the Venetian to catch the Blue Man Group show. We went without knowledge of their show and 2 hours later we left amazed. It is one of the smartest and most rocking shows we have seen with extreme interactions with the audience. The music, light, sound effects and commentary captivate the audience through the show and there weren’t too many people at the end of show who walked away without utilizing the opportunity to take a photo with one of the esteemed blue men. What a show!

Golden Nugget at downtown Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV

At 10 we took a taxi to downtown Las Vegas, to Freemont street. This was the original Vegas with now slightly lower budget resorts. The Golden Nugget is probably the best with a 4 star rating.

Freemont Street, downtown Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV

However at night Fremont Street is transformed into a dazzling display of brightness during the Fremont Street Experience, featuring the world’s largest LED Display, Viva Vision. The LED display “canopy”, rising 90 feet in height and stretching 1,400 feet along the Fremont Street Experience promenade from Main Street to Fourth Street. A section comprising one fiftieth of the total canopy equals the size of the world’s current largest electric sign. Originally, nearly 2.1 million incandescent lights were housed in the canopy. With the completion of the $17 million upgrade, more than 12 million LED lamps illuminate the overhead canopy. Within the canopy itself are 220 speakers capable of producing 550,000 watts of sound. While the area pales in glitz and glamour from the strip, it outshines it in pure energetic light.

Day 4: A lazy day, as our vacation approached its end. We went to the pool and lounged for over an hour with a few dips in the spa. It was 10 in the morning but never too early for a refreshing Corona and sunbathing. The air was slightly cold but we wanted to soak up as much sun as would before we returned to the wintry cold of Chicago. We also gambled a little, losing money on the slots and roulette but making back most of it on Blackjack. We checked out by 1, gambled some more and then headed to the airport by 4. Another vacation over.

Vegas is extremely well marketed. The strip contains 18 of the world’s 25 largest resorts and is a definite see-once on the list of world attractions. Restrict yourself to minimum gambling on your first strip. Save your money for the restaurants, the shows and the taxi rides as walking down the strip gets strenuous and quickly loses favor after a day or two. It is a party city, a city where the alcohol flows through the day, the money pours in constantly, and the meaning of fun is redefined. At the end, remember “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

One Million Dollars in cash, Las Vegas, NV