Las Vegas: Larger Than Life

MARCH 2009…

I would never have made it to Las Vegas if not for the Grand Canyon. Yup, to be honest, I had used it simply as a base to head out to see the nature great. Vegas has a reputation as a gambling and entertainment capital, which didn’t quite appeal to me. It wasn’t my usual fare of museums and cultural sights, nor did it have the greenery that I crave. In fact, it is in the middle of the desert.

If you think like me, you can’t be further from the truth. Yes, Vegas’ economy is practically driven by the gambling business. But besides the casinos, there are lots to see as well.

There’re plenty of shows by big names in the music industry and the famed Cirque de Soleil, not to mention the trade shows and conventions that run all year round. There’s lots of shopping too, on the Strip itself and at the Premium Outlets. And no tourist destination would be complete without some fine dining; you’ll find a massive collection of celebrity chef restaurants in Vegas to choose from.

Even if you don’t have big bucks to spend, there’re lots of free attractions. I didn’t spend a cent on any attraction and still had my itinerary chock full with not enough time to spare. In fact, just walking down the Strip and hopping from one hotel to the next was enough to keep me busy.

Momentarily lost without the subway
There’s no subway system in Vegas so the only way to get to the hotel from the airport is to hop onto one of the shuttle services, which will cost about US$10+ depending on how far your hotel is.

Most residents drive themselves around. So, if you’re not renting a car, the only way around Vegas is by bus or on foot. A word of warning: Vegas is not a compact city, so travel on foot at your own risk (more on that later). But not to worry, there are special tourist buses that ply between Downtown, the Strip and the Convention Centre, so you don’t have to walk your socks off, literally.

Downtown Hotels: Cheaper and quieter
Since I wasn’t there for the hub and buzz, I opted to stay Downtown where it was cheaper and relatively quieter. Anywhere else on the Strip would set you back at least US$300 a night and into the thousands if you’re looking for some indulgence.

Downtown was the original central business district before the Strip was developed and where the original casinos of Las Vegas are located. The hotels are a bit older and the facades less over-the-top, but they have that old-world charm that’s missing from the Strip hotels.

Downtown: A peek into old-world America
At the heart of Downtown is the Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrianised mall that stretches five blocks. It doesn’t need any lights because it’s lit up by the frontages of the various casinos that line it, most prominently the four that occupy each corner of the main street junction – the Four Queens, Fremont Hotel and Casino, Golden Nugget and Binion’s. These are the stalwarts of old Vegas and the only time when the lights go out is when the Viva Vision Light Show starts.

Fremont Street in Las Vegas, USA.

Bright as day on Fremont Street.

The Viva Vision Light Show is the star attraction of the Fremont Street Experience. It is a large canopy (a huge TV screen really) that stretches five blocks powered by LED lights and industrial-sized speakers. It’s also been recently upgraded, so now it boasts 49.3 million LED lamps and 600,000-watt concert-quality sound. Woah.

The Viva Vision Light Show on Fremont Street, Las Vegas, USA.

Even back in 2009, the light show was already this mesmerising.

It is one of the authorities’ attempts to steal the limelight back from the Strip and steal, it does. The light and sound show at the top of each hour has the power to stop all tourists in their tracks and crane their necks skywards for the dazzling display.

A Strip like no other
After Downtown, going to the Strip felt like stepping into another world. Hotels aren’t just a place for you to spend a night here. Each hotel has its own larger-than-life attraction to draw in the crowds. They are show-stopping to say the least, each trying to outdo the next. Sometimes you don’t even have to enter the hotel; the show is right by the roadside.

The pirate ship at TI on the Las Vegas Strip, USA.

The pirate ship at TI that won’t look out of place in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

The first hotel I encountered was the Treasure Island, now rebranded as TI. The first thing that caught my attention was the large pirate ship out front. Every night, there’s the pirate show called Sirens of TI that featured singing, dancing, special effects and a fire show. But I read that it has been taken down since 2013 in favour of more retail space. Oh well.

The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip, USA.

The Venetian with its version of the Rialto Bridge…

The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip, USA.

And Doge’s Palace.

Across the street from TI is the Venetian. Meant as a replica of Venice in Italy, it comes complete with waterways, gondolas and famous landmarks like the Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco and St Mark’s Campanile. If you think the outside is impressive, wait till you step inside. There’s a market square, gondola rides down the “Grand Canal” and a fake sky to round it up.

The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip, USA.

A take on Piazza San Marco, complete with a fake Venetian sky.

If you ask me, it doesn’t come close to the real thing. You’d need the elements (read: wind and water, maybe floods too) to make it feel like Venice. But to judge it on its own, it’s quite a charming place to stroll through.

The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip, USA.

Row down the “Grand Canal” in a gondola without flying halfway around the world.

You can travel around the world simply by walking down the Strip. To find out what it was like to live in the ancient Roman Empire, you can visit the Caesars Palace. If the pyramids of ancient Egypt are more your thing, you can see them at the Luxor. Last but not least, for a little romance, head over to Paris Las Vegas, where you’ll find the famous icons of the French city, including a half-scale Eiffel Tower.

The half-scale Eiffel Tower at the Paris Las Vegas, USA.

A piece of the French city at the Paris Las Vegas: the ever-popular Eiffel Tower.

I also visited the Mirage, where one of the attractions is a massive aquarium. I couldn’t have missed it even if I wanted to because it was right at the reception area, to keep guests entertained while they are getting checked in, I guess. There’s also a rainforest atrium in the lobby and nightly volcano shows by the curbside, guaranteed to stop both cars and pedestrians in their tracks.

The Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip, USA.

The tropical setting at Mirage, where a volcano “erupts” every night.

But the hotel I spent the most time in was the Bellagio, inspired by the same-named Italian town in Lake Como. Its most famous attraction is the Fountains of Bellagio which come alive in a song and dance every night.

The Fountains of Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip, USA.

The Fountains of Bellagio, a song and dance conducted on the waters of “Lake Como”.

Besides the fountains, Bellagio is also famous for its 2,000+ hand-blown glass flowers that adorn the lobby ceiling and a Conservatory and Botanical Gardens with lots of pretty flowers that change with the seasons.

Hand-blown glass flowers in the lobby of the Bellagio, Las Vegas Strip, USA.

The gorgeous hand-blown glass flowers in the lobby ceiling that I couldn’t take my eyes off.
Until my neck started to hurt. Ouch.

The Conservatory and Botanical Gardens at the Bellagio, Las Vegas Strip, USA.

The changing seasons bring new inspiration to the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

The Conservatory and Botanical Gardens at the Bellagio, Las Vegas Strip, USA.

The over-the-top installations that would only work in Vegas.

By the time I was done at the Bellagio, it was already near dusk. I did not venture further as I wanted to stay for the fountain show and make my way back for the Sirens of TI. I thought I was already near the end of the Strip and could skip the rest. Little did I know I skipped Hershey’s Chocolate World (which is only the largest Hershey’s store on the West Coast spanning two stories) as well. Argh!

Dusk on the Las Vegas Strip, USA.

Dusk brings about another side of Las Vegas, one awash in glittering lights.

Wear good walking shoes
Unlike other cities, Vegas is not compact. Walking to the next hotel is not like walking to the next block in other American cities. The land is vast (it’s a desert) and each hotel occupies not just a hotel block, but gardens, shopping extensions, fountains, features, etc. In short, it is huge.

Since I only had one day for the Strip and the number of hotels plenty, I had to do my research beforehand to choose only a select few to enter and visit. Most others I just walked past. If your intention is to visit every hotel on the Strip (it’s a total of 6.8 km long), be warned that it could take you up to a week. Even if not, there’s no way to complete it in a day.

Cheaper deals at the Premium Outlets
So why did I only save one day for the Strip? Because one day was reserved for the Grand Canyon and another was for shopping! Shopping on the Strip would have burnt a hole in my wallet so I headed out to the nearby Las Vegas North Premium Outlets for my retail therapy instead. It’s easy to get there with the direct bus from the Downtown Transportation Centre. With 175+ brand name stores and buses that run past midnight, you can shop till you drop.

Much as this was a stopover trip on my way home from Vancouver, I managed to get quite a bit done – I “conquered” another city, I checked Grand Canyon off my bucket list, I “raided” another Premium Outlet and I saw more than a few great (and free) sights. Come to think of it, it’s the most value-for-money trip so far!

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