There’s something a little anti-climactic about arriving to Vegas in the middle of the day.
It’s like when they turn the lights on at a nightclub. You look around, startled, finding it hard to believe you were ever having a good time here, and everyone looks a little embarrassed.
Nonetheless, we arrived into Vegas in mid-afternoon, and were instantly transported back to the late 80s/early 90s. We were staying at the Hard Rock Hotel, just off the Southern end of the strip, and we both had some childhood flashbacks to good times spent staring at all the memorabilia on the walls of Hard Rock Cafes worldwide as children.
We made our way through the gaming floor, carting our luggage like hermit crabs and walked into the room. After many nights camping, and one night in a hotel with an AC unit that sounded like a jet engine, we flopped gratefully onto the enormous bed. The room was huge, with a TV the size of our old apartment. We spent most of the afternoon passed out, making the most of the air conditioning before venturing out into the heat later in the evening.
Zev’s first time on The Strip
‘WOW. It’s so much bigger than I thought it would be!’ Once the temperature had dropped to a cool 35degC, we went out in search of dinner and Zev’s first experience of Vegas’ most well known attraction – The Strip. Technically, The Strip falls outside the city limits, and is actually in the unincorporated towns of Paradise and Winchester. At 6.8km long, it is often described as an ‘adult Disneyland’ with its bright lights and debaucheries but speaking as someone who sees Disneyland as an adult Disneyland, I’m not sure I see the comparison.
As we turned right on The Strip, heading north, it was packed. I’ve been to Vegas twice before (briefly each time), and I’d never seen it this busy. It just so happened that it was July 2nd, so it looked like there were some serious crowds in town to celebrate July 4th.
As we wandered the streets, it started getting darker, and the whole street really came into its own. We headed up the street, we passed Planet Hollywood, and Paris’ giant hot air balloon and fake Eiffel Tower, before moseying down Bally’s Grand Bazaar in search of some dinner. We picked up some particularly delicious fried chicken, then wandered back to the strip to see what we could see. As luck would have it, we crossed the road just in time to catch the Bellagio fountains start dancing to Elvis singing ‘Viva Las Vegas’. Over the course of the next few days, we saw the fountains going off another handful of times, and the novelty never wore off – it’s a pretty cool show!
Deciding that we were looking forward to a good night’s sleep, we headed back to the hotel with a view to exploring more of the strip the next night.
What to do during the day in Las Vegas…
It was so unbearably hot during the day that the thought of going outside the next day made us want to weep. While most people use the day time to explore the areas surrounding Vegas by going on day trips to the Grand Canyon etc, we knew that was our next stop, so we weren’t feeling particularly motivated. Instead, we spent the day at the hotel, watching the football world cup, swimming, and generally catching up on life admin.
Later in the evening, as the temperature finally began to lower a little, we headed out for our second exploration of The Strip. After a delicious dinner at Nacho Daddy, we ventured into some of the casinos we’d admired the outside of the night before.
First up was the Cosmopolitan. This casino was a pretty classy affair, with huge shoe sculptures and multi-storey chandeliers. This was Zev’s first time in a casino, so we celebrated by losing $1 on a Seinfeld slot machine.
Next, we checked out the inside of the Bellagio, which is one of my favourite casinos on The Strip. Inside, we checked out the seasonal garden, with huge floral sculptures in the shape of lemons and swans. We walked through the gaming floor, and Zev checked out the tables. Despite wanting to play some poker or blackjack, it was all a bit intimidating for us newbies, so we gave it a miss. As we walked out of the casino, a game caught our eye. I can’t remember its name exactly, but it was basically competitive Boggle. You bet a certain amount, and you had to find as many words as you could within a grid of letters. Even though we were REALLY good at it, it still wasn’t paying off. We kissed $5 goodbye.
From there we made our way through Caesar’s Palace, then The Venetian (which was not quite as romantic as when we got engaged in the real Venice!), before catching the end of the ‘volcano’ outside The Mirage.
Then, it was time for a detour. Since arriving in the US, we’ve both been dying to go to a giant sporting goods store called Dick’s, and not just because of the amusing name. Somehow, there was one right on The Strip. We spent an hour dreaming of what life must be like in a country where you can go to a sports shop the size of a small New Zealand town whenever you want…
With Dick’s finally ticked off our to do list, we headed back to The Strip. We walked past the pirate ships outside Treasure Island, caught the Bellagio fountains again, and then headed into Bally’s the see if we could check out the Bodyworks exhibit they were showing. Sadly it was closed, so we decided to play a little more competitive Boggle. We lost another $5.
From the inside of Bally’s, we crossed into Paris, where we had a little boogie to a cheesy covers band that was playing on the casino floor. By this stage, it was getting pretty late for us old folks, and our energy levels were waning, so we headed home, planning to check out some of Las Vegas’ daytime sights in the morning.
Las Vegas: a history
Where there's gambling, there's the mafia, and Las Vegas is no exception. When the state of Nevada legalised gambling in 1931 in an effort to generate legitimate revenue from the illegal gambling rings and makeshift casinos that were already in operation in the area, nobody paid much attention - at that time, Las Vegas was still a dirty little desert town, without much to offer. It wasn't until after the end of World War II that Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel saw its potential.
With backing money from the Mafia, the first gambling resort on The Strip, The Flamingo, opened in December 1946. This didn't end too well for Siegel, who ended up being killed by the Mafia when they discovered that he'd been skimming money out of the construction fund, and he wasn't able to pay them back. Lansky took over the running of The Flamingo, and managed to turn its fortunes around.
Within a year, the casino was exceeding all expectations, and it didn't take long for other Mafiosos to join in the fun. By the 1960s, things had reached a head. Its suspected that the Mafia had ties to every casino in Las Vegas, either through direct ownership, or payoffs. As the number of casinos increased, competition for revenue grew stiff, so developers were forced to agree to pay a share of their profits to nearby casinos in order to open. It became impossible to know who owned what.
The 1980s spelled the end of the mafia rule in Las Vegas. The FBI targeted Mafia interests and the casinos were seized and sold to legitimate owners. This marked the beginning of the transition of Las Vegas from a gangster's paradise to a familly friendly vacation spot.
To explore a little bit more of this history, we checked out the Mob Museum, which was fantastic! With a couple of special interactive exhibits, including a mock forensic crime lab that we visited, and three storeys of informative regular exhibits, it was easy to pass a couple of hours here.
Next, we headed to Fremont Street, a couple of blocks away. Fremont Street was the first paved street in Las Vegas, and is home to many of the first casinos to be built there - long before The Strip as we know it today existed. In 1994, the street was converted to a pedestrian walkway, and a huge canopy that doubles as a TV screen was installed overhead. At one end is the world's largest slot machine, Slotzilla, and there are stages with free entertainment. There are designated areas for buskers, and it's really fun to wander and take in the surroundings.
By the time we’d had our fill of history, it was getting pretty late in the day. We decided to head back to the hotel to relax a little before heading out for the night.
An indulgent night out
The whole night was a total highlight of our time in Vegas. In a decadent move, we headed back to The Cosmopolitan and went to Momofuku for dinner. It was INCREDIBLE. We started with grilled asparagus with miso butter, and a pork belly bun, and we didn't think it was possible for the meal to get any better. Then the main arrived. The grilled lamb ribs were out of this world. Add in Zev's delicious P&T (port and tonic), and it was a recipe (HA) for success. Although we were both fit to burst, of course we decided to indulge in a little dessert. It was a great decision. We ordered a slice of the ‘birthday cake’, and what appeared before us was a gigantic 4 layer vanilla cake filled with sprinkles, sandwiched with delicious vanilla buttercream. It took all of our self control to avoid slipping into a diabetic coma, and eventually, we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant.
We rolled ourselves all the way back to the Bellagio, where we headed in to watch O, the Cirque du Soleil show based in and around a giant swimming pool. Although I’ve seen the show before, I knew Zev would love it, and it was every bit as good as I remembered. For 2 hours, performers flew through the air and splashed in the water, and we were completely lost in the show.
A bonus day
We woke up late the next morning, and realised that we had left our Grand Canyon organisation to the last minute… While that’s not unusual for us, the night before was July 4th, so everyone else was on holiday too. With that in mind, we booked another night at the hotel to give ourselves another day to organise ourselves.
After a Dunkin Donuts breakfast, we got in touch with some friends from New Zealand who happened to be in town on their way to the ultimate frisbee world championships in Cincinnati, Ohio. We thought that we weren’t going to get to see them, so it was a nice bonus that our additional day would allow our paths to cross.
We met up with Sim and Taki at an escape room about halfway between our two hotels. For a little under an hour, we locked ourselves in a room and attempted (successfully) to break out. After a quick Taco Bell break, we went our separate ways to give Zev and I some time to sort out where we were going the next day.
Later that evening, after a panic regarding the rental car (the man at Enterprise in Vegas told us that their rental cars are only allowed to be driven into neighbouring states – luckily, Enterprise in New York told us it was fine) and organising our accommodation at the Grand Canyon, we headed back out to meet Sim and Taki for dinner, back at Fremont Street. It was really fun to see it all lit up at night, and we spent a bit of time wandering around, checking out the old time-y neon lights at the end of the street.
At the end of the night, we waved goodbye to Sim and Taki, and wished them luck in their journey at the world champs.
Bidding adieu to Vegas
The following morning, we packed up and waved goodbye to Vegas. It had sure been an adventure, and our Momofuku/Cirque du Soleil night was incredible, but we weren’t exactly sad to say goodbye to Vegas. Sure – there’s nowhere else like it, but it wasn’t really our cup of tea!
On the way out of town, we swung by the Hoover Dam to check it out. Constructed between 1931 and 1936, the dam blocks the Colorado River to control floods, provide irrigation water, and produce hydroelectric power. Until October 2010, a major highway ran over the dam. Following concerns regarding the damage being done to the dam by heavy traffic flow, a bypass was opened. You can still drive over the dam, but the road dead ends on the other side, reducing the traffic to tourists only, and stopping large buses and trucks.
Having finished wandering and marvelling at the incredible man-made wonder, we headed off to our next bucket list destination – the Grand Canyon!
Lots of love,
S & Z