Monday, 1 September 2014

Days 506 to 511: Las Vegas

Vegas. Oh Vegas.

In one city, we have five of my Wonders: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty,  the Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian pyramid, and St Mark’s bell tower (though not the Basilica – wouldn’t that make a great Vegas wedding venue?).

And there’s a lot more too: Renaissance-style halls, Venetian canals, the Doge’s Palace, the Chrysler Building, Egyptian obelisks, a freaky Sphinx, various pastiches of Roman architecture, some pirate boats, and a whole bunch of flash skyscrapers (some of which I think are alright). All put together in neon, plastic and steel, to a constant pop soundtrack in a 40 degree desert. Oh, Vegas.

And this:

The Excalibur Hotel and Casino. Possibly the worst thing I’ve seen on my travels. Ever. If I want to do an anti-Wonder list (I definitely don't), this might top it, above all the 60s tower blocks. What an absolutely stupid building. It looks like a child’s toy, expanded to garish dimensions. It's monstrously inept, an embarrassment of a pastiche by owners and architects who clearly haven't been educated beyond cartoons. I've seen a lot of ugly buildings but this goes way beyond: it's excruciating. Some might find the over-the-top castle style entertaining, but those would be the same souls who take great pleasure in lit-up and blinking festive Christmas scenes with gnomes and fairy lights set up annually in front gardens. Las Vegas might be tasteless and tacky, but even here Excalibur stands out. But not as the King, as it would probably wish, but as the Village Idiot. It's interesting to note that the hotel section doesn't even have the balls to deliver on its theme. Once, the rooms were decked out in a faux-medieval style but they've seemingly been revamped into modern anonymous minimalism. Shame the same can't be done for the outside: 500,000 tons of concrete poured over it might do the trick.

We arrived in Las Vegas with fairly low expectations: they were met. Yet, yet - I didn’t hate Vegas. It’s awful, it’s tacky, it’s a party resort with even less class than that suggests, but it’s such a wonky sidestep from the normal world that it doesn’t seem fare to compare it to the normal world. I can see how people might get sucked in, it becomes a world unto itself and a sense of perspective starts to falter. Fortunately for Danielle and myself, neither of us are gamblers and neither of us are particularly inclined to the low-brow party scene that Las Vegas pumps out. We were happy to make a few forays along the Strip, and have a couple of drinks before proclaiming ourselves exhausted and retreating back to our hotel. Because the Strip is truly exhausting: by day, the heat is searing, by night it still cooks but now the streets are solid with morons.

One pleasant side effect of Vegas is that in the clamour to attract guests, who will then spend a fortune on gambling and other entertainment, the hotels offer remarkably good deals. We stayed the first two nights in the Hilton, for around £30 a night. Over the weekend, this deal wasn't available, but we found another decent place for the same price. The Hilton especially made for a very pleasant retreat from the rest of Vegas, and a lovely luxurious change from our usual more low budget accommodation (although, generally speaking, America has treated us pretty well). Danielle was able to entertain her greatest fantasy - that she's not a dirty traveller living out of a turquoise backpack, but a sophisticated holidaymaker enjoying a well-deserved break at high-quality hotel. I did my best to burst this bubble by insisting we eat pizza and Pot Noodles in the room, and drink cheap wine bought from Wal-Mart (Vegas Wal-Mart allowed non-US citizens to buy alcohol - screw you Sioux Falls Wal-Mart).

Our reason for visiting Vegas, perhaps uniquely within the city, was a genuinely cultural one - to visit the Hoover Dam, which sits a 45 minute drive from the city. This we did so, twice, and my review will be forthcoming. Vegas has a lot to thank the Dam for - the huge influx of workers transformed the small town, which had cannily relaxed the laws of gambling and divorce. It's probably fair to say, no dam, no Vegas. Aside from the Dam visit though, we found ourselves struggling to fill the days a little. It's one of the side effects of Vegas - if you don't want to PARTY!!! or gamble, it's kind of lacking. Ok, maybe that's unfair, it does have some amazing shows on, but they were beyond our travel budget. One evening, we did try our hand at gambling, for want of anything else to do. We fancied the roulette table, but at $10 a bet, it seemed too expensive to be any fun. So we went for the 1 cent slot machines. They were utterly perplexing, a bamboozling series of glyphs and noises that seemed to bear no relation to anything, yet our cents quickly drained, only occasionally being topped up in a 20-cent chunk. After losing about $4, we declared ourselves confused and bored. Yet, some people spend their holidays on these things.

A genuine highlight was the rollercoaster. The New York hotel, rather audaciously, has a rollercoaster partly built into its structure. With a loop-the-loop and a corkscrew twist, it's a lot more vigorous than the Disney rides, and has some plunges that the human body doesn't thank you for. "I'm not sure I enjoyed that," Danielle said afterwards. I enjoyed it.

The question Danielle and I often ask ourselves about a city is "Do we want to go back?" Some places we don't want to leave, we know there's a lot more we want to see. With Vegas, we were pretty relieved to be going, but strangely, I would never rule out returning. With a bit more money, Vegas has plenty to offer beyond just the gambling and getting drunk. It offers terrific hotels at affordable prices, and a range of pretty fantastic shows: Jerry Seinfeld was playing the week after, for example. But perhaps I can see these shows elsewhere, perhaps I can find hotel deals elsewhere. Las Vegas is an intriguing city, a blip on earth's face, and for us a pretty draining one. It is a money machine that is entirely, terrifyingly, without any kind of heart or soul, the moment you think otherwise is the moment you find your life sucked away, but it does have a perverse charm. It is preposterous, and I have a sneaking affection for the preposterous. It's not high on my list of places to return to, but it is at least on that list. I don't hate Vegas.


  1. I find the history of Las Vegas quite fascinating, especially with regards to organised crime in the 1950s.

    Also apparently there is a place somewhere in the suburbs that is used as a graveyard for old neon signs, and has become something of an attraction in its own right. People go there and can see huge neon signs of the 50, 60s 70s etc that were just dumped there every time a casino upgraded its signs. I believe that quite a few of them have been restored to the point of being lit up, too. When you think about it, these kind of things are quite rare given that once they are discarded they would tend to end up in a landfill.

  2. My dream is to go to Vegas. I was looking for a long hotel in Las Vegas so that I can plan my trip and now that I read your trip report I think I am going to stay at the The Excalibur hotel. Great post! Thanks for sharing!


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