‘So how long were you here for?’ the cab driver asked. We were on our way to the airport and I really, really didn’t want to leave.1
‘Just a week.’
‘A week in Paradise,’ he replied.
If you’re not familiar with the area, you think that the Strip and all the hotels you see in overhead shots of CSI is Las Vegas. In fact, what people think of as stereotypical Las Vegas is actually a city called Paradise. It was created to avoid the high casino taxes in Las Vegas itself. The name is a play on words from the original casino – ‘Pair of Dice’. Paradise.
I fell in love, instantly and completely unexpectedly.
I’ve never felt quite the same about anywhere.
I came back with 5,000 photos, no money, and plans for what we’d do the next time. With all the other places we’ve visited, we’ve done nothing more than say ‘We should go back at some point.’ We never do, even with Paris, because there are too many other places to go. This time we started planning our next trip about 48 hours into our first.
The whole holiday came about completely randomly; I noticed a really good deal on a cheap travel site and told my friends Hannah and Dan about it. There’s no peak tourist season in Vegas because it’s busy all year round, but there are a couple of slightly quieter weeks in December where there’s a bit of downtime before the busiest time of all, new year. These quieter weeks happen to fall over my birthday, so I decided to take advantage. (Incidentally, the same trip taken a week later would have cost nearly 300% more). I’m not great with hot weather anyway, and England was even more grey and miserable than usual, so doubling our average temperature and adding some sunshine seemed ideal.
We stayed in Planet Hollywood, which, while not the most amazing hotel by any stretch, was really well situated in the middle of the Strip. The fact that it had a huge theatre and 170 shops didn’t hurt either
Although our room was basic, it was high enough up for a decent view. Each room also has movie props; ours was Lost in Space themed.
It’s pretty common knowledge that, like supermarkets, casinos don’t have windows to deliberately make you lose sense of time. What I wasn’t expecting was how much the hotels and casinos tried to make you feel like you were outside. There was a huge sense of space thanks to tall ceilings, and it was pretty common to have sky painted on them.
We were absolutely exhausted when we arrived due to the long (10 hour) flight and the huge time difference. A lot of people visiting Vegas tend to be fairly local and don’t need to adjust. We ended up getting up at 4am most days, so every day was like two days. Vegas is pretty dead that early in the morning, and you can get some great sunrise photos without going too far around 5am. The people around at that time tend to be street cleaners and some super keen street sellers who were all really friendly and chatted to us.
I think Hannah and Dan were initially worried that it would be an expensive trip, but the prices are much cheaper than in the UK and you could easily just walk around for three days looking at things that cost nothing. This is especially true in December, when all the hotels have Christmas displays and decorations up. It felt pretty special.
As well as going to all the hotels, one of the things on my must-do list was to visit Buddy’s. I watch Cake Boss now and again and his stuff is legendary, so I wanted to get my birthday cake from his Vegas branch. We watched cupcakes being iced and got some and some pastries. I also took advantage of signing up for birthday offers at all kinds of places and got some good free stuff, including a free cupcake at Sprinkles where the staff were much friendlier.
For my birthday meal out, we went to ‘the D’, the best steak restaurant in Vegas according to TripAdvisor. Joe said it was the best steak he’d ever had, and while the staff and surroundings were pretty formal, the other guests were relaxed and there was no formal dress code which was good! The waiter insisted Joe had a special sauce with his steak on the basis that ‘it’s what we’ve made our name on’! Joe hates sauce so asked for it on the side, and I offered to taste it. I was simultaneously confused, surprised, and in stitches that it turned out to taste exactly like chip shop curry sauce, which can be found everywhere you go in the UK. As ‘the D’ was located downtown in Fremont Street, we spent a while wandering around and taking in all the street performers and digital displays and everything.
Another thing on my must-do list was the Titanic exhibition. While we were on our way there, we were randomly handed discount vouchers for it so it was cheaper, but to be honest it’s totally worth paying full price for. It’s located in the Luxor, which is a giant pyramid-shaped hotel with a light that can be seen from space. There was definitely something weird about going into a fake sinking ship inside a fake pyramid, but it was really interesting. They have a lot of actual items from the Titanic, and the whole exhibition is set up to make you feel like you’re on the ship. You walk into third class, complete with pipes and creaky sound effects, and work your way up through the classes to the deck, including the grand staircase. The deck is super impressive because you really feel like you’re outside in the pitch black. It’s deliberately colder and it just feels so real. The whole set up takes you through a timeline of events, and there’s even a room with a huge block of ice in that’s designed to look like an iceberg. I couldn’t believe it when we got to a room that houses a huge part of the actual Titanic. At the beginning you’re handed a random passenger card with the details and story of someone who was actually on board, and at the end you get to see if they survived. It surprised me how many people ended up on the ship by accident because of changing circumstances.
When we got to the gift shop, we happened to walk past a blonde all-American family looking at their photos (the weird thing about Vegas is you’re expected to have your photo taken everywhere, and a lot of it is green screened so you can play with fake animals, be a mobster, or pretend to be Jack and Rose on the Titanic or whatever). What I hadn’t realised, though, is that they Photoshop the photos taken on the Grand Staircase (which is a very careful reproduction and not at all green screened) to have the ghost of the captain of the Titanic in it. So this lovely smiling blonde family photo had a fake ghost captain in the background. They thought it was ‘super cute’. Joe had to drag me out because I was laughing so hard I was crying. After that, it became a theme of our trip every time we met someone asking to take pictures of us. Strangely enough, they didn’t seem to think it was weird at all…
The day after that we went to the Valley of Fire, and then up the Stratosphere Tower. I planned it so that we’d be there to get daytime photos, sunset photos, and night photos; the views weren’t as good as I expected because it’s quite far away from the action of the Strip and the viewing platform looks out in a different direction; it seems like the rides (yes, there are rides on top and they looked terrifying) had the best views. However, the revolving restaurant made up for it and we got to see everything. We hadn’t planned to eat there but we met up with two of my friends (they’ve recently moved to California and came to Vegas for my birthday). They were actually staying in the Stratsophere Tower, and we had a really fun time eating, drinking and talking.
After that we got an Uber back to the strip and spent some time wandering around, including seeing the iconic Bellagio fountains at night.
Another big highlight of our trip was The Mob Museum. It’s located in what used to be a post office and courthouse, and it’s absolutely massive with tons of videos, displays, interactive exhibitions including the whole of the original courtroom, and even a multiplayer quiz game. In addition to all kinds of Mob history, it also has some modern day stuff and some great objects from when some of the htoels first opened, like the Flamingo. We’d intended to spend a couple of hours there, but we spent about half a day and could easily have spent a lot longer. It didn’t hurt that we happened to get there for the exact day they were celebrating their millionth visitor. Free cake and alcohol, you say…
Old poker chips are ‘destroyed’ by being mixed in with concrete.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Las Vegas without seeing a show, and we saw two. The first was the V Variety Show in Planet Hollywood, which was fairly budget looking but had good, talented acts. It was a bit overpriced for what it was though, especially as some of the jokes by the host were old and there was upselling of a DVD at the end.
The other show was Zarkana. I’ve always wanted to see a Cirque show and I wasn’t disappointed. It was absolutely stunning, and best of all it’s the only Cirque show that allows you to take photos (and videos), so I can share it with you properly:
The most common question we got about Vegas was, ‘Did you gamble?’ When people think of Vegas, they typically think casinos and strippers. Hell, before I went, I thought a similar thing (maybe with a bit more crime thrown in due to my CSI addiction). But that’s underselling Vegas and Paradise, and the surrounding area. There are so many things to do. If you want to feed dolphins, you can do that. If you want to see the Titanic, you can do that. If you want to see trapeze artists, you can do that. Same goes for tigers, chocolate factories, light-up volcanoes, theme park rides, Britney Spears, pirate ships, a replica of the Statue of Liberty in jelly beans…everything you never thought of.
It was a hell of a lot more than I thought it would be. There was a permanent smile on my face because I never knew what there would be to see or do or hear or feel around the next corner. But I knew it would be something worth experiencing.
If you get the chance to go to Vegas, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Now, back to looking at prices for the next visit…
See the complete album on Flickr!
- So much so, I’d already asked a porter at the hotel to hide me in the luggage room. He laughed like I was joking and told me he could find me a job. I did seriously consider it for a minute. ↩