It sounds exotic, doesn’t it? People politely ask where you are going. “Las Vegas” you say, and they give knowing looks. The name calls up images of cigar smoke curling over green tables attended by lightly-clad beauties, of days of gluttony and nights of debauchery, and of some serious shopping in the moments not spent lounging by the pool with uninhibited wantons.
The image persists because that is exactly what you could do in Las Vegas if you chose to, and if you had the money to burn. I’ve been there once or twice a year for the past decade but my vices are on the modest side. The amount I eat there would be counted gluttonous by some (there are some very good restaurants); I did once buy a jacket there but that had nothing much to do with being in Las Vegas – it was made in Slovenia by those Germans who used to make Hitler’s uniforms, and I only went shopping because it was one of those rare occasions when I, my wife, and some decent shops were all in the same place. The gambling, the lovelies, the debauchery and the pools are not for me.
That is partly because these things don’t much appeal anyway, and partly because I am always there to attend a conference which means hard work. It is partly also because the glitz rubs off pretty quickly when you look closely.
That difficult second album – Hotel Nevada
The genuine high-rollers are shut away in private suites, and the players you see are mostly depressed-looking people pouring their cash into machines which are designed to rook them, and do; we once overheard a woman trying to persuade her bank to advance enough money to get her home having (we guessed) placed her last dollar on the hope of riches.
There are indeed young ladies of great beauty, many of them dressed in anticipation that the air-conditioning was bound to fail. We saw one whose attire would have had her barred from an English beach – and that was by the conference centre. But many of them looked as if they would rather have been somewhere else, their professional smiles snapping off as they move away from your tables. You mentally invent biographies from such clues as you can observe: this one hoped to be an actress, and is waiting tables until the long-awaited call comes; that one has an abusive partner, children to feed, bills to pay and the threat of eviction hanging over her; that one was once pretty enough to work at the gaming tables, and is setting her sights lower as time robs her of her looks.
The men are harder to read. A few wear suits which would not look out of place in the Business District. Others look like the hard guys who are seen dough-nutting a president, ready to escort away those who threaten to disturb the manufactured, manicured calm. Most of the senior bar staff and maitre d’s are men; the younger ones know their place or, rather, know that the appearance of knowing their place leads to better tips and that there are a hundred others to fill their position if they are sacked.
Many musicians whom you thought long dead have star turns there. It would be distasteful to name them but this year’s stars include people born in 1934, 1945, 1946 and 1947. Good for them, I say. Top of the bill this year is one who is actually dead – the Michael Jackson show by Cirque du Soleil is packing them in.
From the air, Las Vegas seems to spread further with every year. The new estates are lapping at the mountains around as areas of desert are claimed by concrete and brick. The area one thinks of as “Las Vegas” – the Strip and the gigantic hotels and casinos – is a tiny part of the whole, standing out in a tight knot among mile after mile of low-rise development.
The border between the flashy part and the rest is very thin. At the south end, by the airport, one side of the road has giant gold-coloured hotel buildings while the other has shabby hostels, boarded-up shops and cafes, and hoardings round empty sites.
The exteriors of the vast hotels vary – and how – but their pattern is much the same. Caesars Palace (no, it has no apostrophe) recalls the splendour that was Rome.
The Venetian has St Mark’s, canals and gondolas.
The Luxor is a pyramid. The Mandalay Bay and the Delano appear to be made of gold. Inside most of them, abutting a reception the size of a cathedral, is a casino where no daylight enters. The shops look too expensive to enter with the few dollars which our Brexit-anaemic pound can buy. The restaurants vary: some are as good as their prices imply; our late dog would turn up his nose at others, and he was a labrador, a breed famed for eating anything.
I quite like some of these places; the Bellagio is almost elegant with its fountains and indoor gardens; Caesars Palace has a certain faux-grandeur; the Venetian works hard at its pastiche, perhaps an easier task now that Venice itself has been abandoned by its residents to the vulgar floating palaces of gawping tourists.
This year we were at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. Its name somehow conjours up the romance of early 20th Century travel – a flying boat and a white-hulled steamer glimpsed between exotic trees, perhaps, while a dusky maiden offers promise of eastern delights. In fact Mandalay is far inland in what was once Burma, and has no bay – Kipling’s reference to “the old flotilla” was to the paddle-steamers which came up the Irrawaddy from Rangoon, and it seems unlikely that he actually saw “flyin’-fishes” on the road to Mandalay.
Despite its gold exterior, the Mandalay Bay feels a bit down-market compared with Caesars or the Bellagio – these things are relative of course and the gradations downwards from vulgarity don’t matter much. I never saw yooves without shirts in the Bellagio reception, though, and there seems no middle ground at the Mandalay Bay between the few very fine restaurants and the, um, others.
It covers a vast area and you have to allow 15 minutes to get from the far end of a bedroom corridor to the convention centre. I clocked up 16,000 paces on one day without going anywhere much.
Its aquarium presumably began as a joke: “Name the most unlikely thing you could find in the Nevada Desert” perhaps. This hunt for polar opposites took literal form – there was a “Polar Journey” as well, and there is a Titanic exhibition at the Luxor – real maritime artefacts in a fake Egyptian pyramid in a modern city of glass and light. This hunt for opposites extends from the geography to the culture – we once walked past vans apparently offering to deliver hot babes on our way to see an exhibition of sublime Impressionist paintings at the Bellagio.
All this, I should say, is observation rather than complaint. If you want a US city with fine architecture and taste, you can go to New York, Washington, Chicago, New Orleans or San Fransisco, or to to others which I have yet to visit. Las Vegas has its niche and it fills and defines it well. It is popular with conference organisers because it has those massive venues, plenty of entertainment and air links to almost everywhere. If you don’t like it, don’t go.
Las Vegas from Departures
There are some more of my pictures of Las Vegas on Flickr here