Gambling and spectacle in Las Vegas

To the west, the sun has slipped away, leaving the mountains glowing red. But beneath us, as our jet ‘copter lifts off, another “day” is dawning: a pathway of lights gleams in the dark valley below. From our nighttime tour, I have a panoramic view of Las Vegas where last night I stood under a neon sky on Freemont Street and where I could see the Eiffel Tower from my window at the Aladdin shining like a wand over this fairyland.

This is my Vegas – and it has nothing at all to do with gambling. I am part of what the Las Vegas tourism people call the growing “third wave” of visitors. The first comes for gambling; the second for conventions, but more and more people from Canada – and especially Europe – come simply for the spectacle, the shows, the sunshine and the shopping.

Flunked gambling class
I have been here four days without putting so much as a nickel in a slot machine. I even flunked gambling class. And I’m having a whale of a time.

My wife and I have been coming to Vegas for more than 20 years – for its champagne air (except in the height of summer when it roasts), for its great food deals and simply fothe 24/7 energy of the place.

This time, travelling with Signature Vacations, I felt I had to make at least a stab at this gambling thing.

“It’s not that difficult,” Duane Hoffman, the instructor at the New York-New York Casino, promised. But after he’d rattled on about “picture bets” and “railroad tracks” and “straight ups,” I was completely confused. One thing he said stuck with me: “The house always has the edge.” So, why bother?

If you had only one night in Vegas, you would have to see “O,” the Cirque du Soleil production in the specially constructed $90 million theatre at the Bellagio. Tickets are $120 (all prices in U.S. dollars), and you’re wise to book two or three months in advance, but this is a show you will never forget. One minute, the stage is a 25-foot-deep pool, the next it’s a gleaming platform for a team of Mongolian contortionists. You gasp; you can’t believe what you’re seeing. With ghost ships and ghouls, a man ablaze reading his newspaper, it’s so surreal Salvador Dali would have gone out of his peculiar mind.

Yet, when we met two of the performers backstage, they turned out to be perfectly ordinary young Canadians – Daniel Headecker, a gymnast who used to pump gas in Vancouver, and Johanne Clerk, a synchronized swimmer from Montreal. They are among many Canadians appearing in this homegrown production. It makes you proud.
Shows don’t have to cost as much as “O”: another night, we went to Legends in Concert at the Imperial Palace where we saw Elvis, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and the Supremes – or impersonators so convincing it hardly made any difference. The cost: $34.50, including two drinks.

Next page: The rarest commodity in town

The rarest commodity in Vegas? Peace and quiet. I managed to find that too.

Enter the lobby of the Four Seasons, and the silence is almost eerie. Then, you realize – no pinging, ringing slot machines. In fact, there’s no casino at all.

“You can spend days here without laying down a chip or putting a coin in a slot machine,” says sales manager Jed Kimmel. Many celebrities stay here just for that reason. Its luxurious rooms are confined to the upper floors of a tower it shares with the huge Mandalay Bay resort, and if you do get the urge for a flutter, there’s a discreet door into the Mandalay casino that only Four Seasons guests can use. A 180-degree wrap-around suite with the ultimate nighttime view of the strip will cost $2,500 a night, but mid-week off-season specials start at $175.

Rent a car, and the quiet of the mountains is only 45 minutes away. Better still, do what I did – take a Pink Jeep tour ($119) to the Valley of Fire state park, an hour north of Vegas, and among once-inhabited caves and red rock formations, feel a silence broken only by birdsong. 

Or step off the Strip, through the Flamingo casino and join me beside the splashing fountain in a lush tropical garden. Of course, there are real flamingos as well as myriad other birds. You’ll find a plaque among the roses commemorating Bugsy Seigel, who built the first Flamingo, putting Vegas on the map, before dying in a hail of bullets in Beverly Hills in 1947. Rest in peace, Bugsy.

Joyfully immature
They say Las Vegas has matured. But, happily, it has still lost none of its immaturity. I like the gaudy Liberace Museum, bringing back memories for me of an evening when I went to a party at his house in Vegas. I love the cars and memorabilia at Elvis-A-Rama Museum and, even better, adored a lady of uncertain age named Ginger Bohling, who sat in the front row and threw dollars and mementoes at the Elvis impersonator in the museum’s tiny theatre.

The buffets are as over-the-top and almost as inexpensive as ever. My favourite is at the Rio where, for $16.99, you’ll break your heart trying to decide.

These memories crowd my mind as we lift off for a nighttime tour of the famous Strip in a Heli USA machine with a bold Pegasus painted on the side (the cost is $75, but mention you’re Canadian and, they claim, you’ll get a 20 per cent reduction).

Las Vegas, I decide, looking down at that unbelievable scene, is really about choice. And there is so much to experience that my advice is to do your homework before you go so you don’t waste time wandering aimlessly, mouth and eyes agape.