Las Vegas

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Las Vegas, an oasis in the Mojave Desert that thrives off the rest of the USA's ultra conservative anti-gambling stance. Anything goes here, and as well as the mega casino resort hotels there is a plethora of drinking establishments, shows, all-you-can-eat buffets and Mexicans touting girls to your door in 20 minutes or less. Crass and tacky is an understatement in Sin City, and more than 40 million people pass through every year.

I had been wanting to go to Las Vegas for years, and had in fact nearly made it twice previously, in 2001 and 2004. However in 2010 we finally made it at the start and end of our California circuit. We stayed in the Paris which was pretty good, then the Imperial Palace which was not. As is usually the case, the reality of the city wasn't as the movies would have you believe, and one thing that struck me was just how miserable so many of the punters looked! I guess gambling just isn't the route to happiness...

Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas!

Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas! The cheerful welcome signs have become a tourist attraction in their own right, and are periodically moved further out into the desert to accommodate the city's rapid expansion.

At one point in time, of the ten largest hotels in the world, all ten were in Las Vegas. South Las Vegas Boulevard, otherwise known as "The Strip", is lined with mega resort hotels, one of the fanciest of which is the Bellagio. The dancing fountains outside the Bellagio wow the crowds to music on the hour.

Starting at the top

Caesars Palace

Caesar's Palace hotel is one of the grand old dames of the strip, well known since the 1960s when Evel Knievel leapt across the fountains outside on his motorbike. It was also the inspiration for "Nero's Palace" as visited by Father Christmas on his holidays, in the book by Raymond Briggs.

We're getting on for the somewhat more ridiculous hotels now, with the New York New York, complete with replicas of the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building. A roller coaster weaves its way amongst the towers, and it's of course all fronted by Lady Liberty herself.

So good they named it twice

Most ridiculous hotel

But surely the daftest hotel of the lot must be the Excalibur, which really takes the biscuit. What will they think of next?

Each of the mega resort hotels has its own theme - why bother travelling the world, when you can see it all in Las Vegas? The Luxor is one of my favourite ones, I just really like the idea of a pyramid shaped hotel with diagonal elevators. I was surprised that there was nothing to stop you marching up the glass slope if you fancied it.

Luxor pyramid

Inside the Luxor pyramid

Inside the Luxor pyramid is a huge atrium, and overhanging corridor walkways not unlike those of the Hyatt Embarcadero in San Francisco.

No prizes for guessing the theme of the Venetian hotel, one of the higher end resorts on the strip. The hotels are all enormous, and it can often take a long time trying to find your way out of the maze of shops and casino floors. This gold statue was near one of the ground floor entrances.

Venetian golden detail

The Grand Canal, Venice

The Venetian even comes complete with its own Grand Canal, naturally. You can be serenaded by a gondalier as you take in the beautiful sights of fake Venice. It also has a sister hotel of equally mind boggling proportions in Macau.

Our hotel of choice for the first weekend in Vegas was the Paris, and Vegas being Vegas, the hotel of course has its own Eiffel Tower. Quite something in itself, it's a half scale replica of the original, but only because they weren't permitted to build a full scale tower, as it would interfere with the Las Vegas McCarran Airport flight path.

The Eiffel Tower Las Vegas

MGM Grand

The MGM Grand is one of the older hotels on the new Strip, and was once the largest in the world with nearly 7000 rooms. It also features five swimming pools.

The Wynn hotel is one of the newer ones toward the north end of the Strip, complete with Steve Wynn's signature on top. It was so successful, that he opened another one next door, called the Encore.

Wynn hotel

Fake Trevi Fountain

Outside Caesars Palace you can check out some of the splendours of Rome today, such as the Trevi Fountain. The real one isn't quite as colourfully lit, but is perhaps a little more tasteful.

Looking up the Strip from the vicinity of the New York New York, towards the Planet Hollywood hotel and of course the classiness of the Paris Las Vegas.

Looking up the strip

Money money money money

Here's the real reason Las Vegas brings in the tourists in such huge numbers. Every hotel dedicates great swathes of floor space to slot machines, poker, blackjack and roulette. The casinos never close, and there are no windows or clocks, so you can't get a sense of the passage of time. There are even no signs pointing to the exits. All part of keeping you there for longer!

Off the Strip there are some lesser known hotels, such as the Rio and the Palms, from the nightclub of which I took this shot of south Las Vegas Boulevard. At night one of the brightest lights on earth pierces the sky from the pinnacle of the Luxor pyramid.

Light from the Luxor

Wee Kirk o' the Heather

Another of Vegas's draws, the wedding chapel. This particular Scottish kirk offers weddings by either Elvis or Tim McGraw, but remember that if you're married in Vegas, you're definitely married everywhere else too!

There are two Strips in Las Vegas, the default one is where the mega hotels are on South Las Vegas Boulevard, but classic Las Vegas centres around the old Strip of Fremont Street, now known as the "Fremont Street Experience". This is the Las Vegas I remember from old movies, particularly the Plaza Hotel blotting out the sky at one end. It was used as Biff's casino/home in Back To The Future Part II, when they end up in bad 1985.

Plaza Hotel, old Las Vegas

The Glitter Gulch waving cowboy!

The waving cowboy and Glitter Gulch with the neon girl are also iconic images of old Las Vegas. Since the 1990s the old Strip has been cleaned up and covered with a giant sunshade along its length, which makes it very difficult to photograph the poor old cowboy.

However they do put on a bit of a show every so often - the giant sunshade doubles as an enormous TV screen the length of Fremont Street. The casino lights go off and the show starts in time to music, well worth watching.

Fremont Street light show

Bali Hai golf course

Las Vegas is also popular with golfers, with some world class courses such as the Bali Hai at the south end of the Strip, by the Mandalay Bay hotel.

While the other guys played golf, I busied myself with a short trip to the Hoover Dam, which I'd been wanting to see since I was little. One of the world's great structures, it was build in record time during the depression, but at the cost of an unknown number of workers who remain entombed in the concrete.

The Hoover Dam

Lake Mead drying up

The Hoover Dam holds back Lake Mead at the south end of the Grand Canyon, but it's still a bit of a trip from here to South Rim National Park, Arizona Las Vegas is a thirsty city, as you can see by the level in the lake, not helped when it's 116 degrees and the height of summer.

Almost as impressive as the Hoover Dam itself is the bypass bridge which at the time was very nearly complete. Officially known as the Mike O'Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (typically ridiculous) it spans 320 metres across the Colorado river, at a height of 270 metres.

Hoover Dam bypass bridge

That's all folks!

Back on Fremont Street, a cheery cowboy waves goodnight. That's all folks!

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2011