Sunday, December 03, 2006

Bright light city

Rachel kindly took us to the Hertz rental place down the road from her. We’d pre-booked a car on the Internet the day before so just had to pick it up. Being the cheap and cautious types, we’d selected the smallest economy class car we could. This being the US though, they didn’t have any economy sized cars available and so they gave us the choice of a couple of other cars (at the lower price we’d booked). We chose the Pontiac G6, mainly because it was red. It had automatic and electric everything including, to our surprise, a remote engine start from the keyfob. Cool. Gemma didn’t have too much trouble getting used to the power of the car and I soon settled back into my leather seat as we made for Interstate 15. Thankfully we were quite close and basically only had to make two turns before we were on it and heading toward Nevada.

The sprawl of the suburbs continued for some distance before turning eventually to desert. The mountains in the distance began to look painted onto a board. Gemma’s driving was excellent. In the beginning she had a tendency to be too far to the left, a little scary for me when passing big trucks, but she soon got over that. We paused for lunch at a small service turn off just before the town of Barstow, which earned the following mention in the Lonely Planet, ‘[Lots of travellers are] not looking for charm, nor would they find any.’

The journey from Los Angeles to Las Vegas should take around four hours with no stops. When we hit a line of stopped traffic I realised that our journey would take a wee bit longer. It was only a single lane closed for roadworks but it took us about an hour to get through it. It is good that they are repairing the road as the surface is simply awful for long stretches. Just before the Nevada state line a marker informed us that we were at 4,000 feet. Cresting the hill we saw the casino town of Primm tucked in on the valley floor looking utterly out of place in the desert.

We were singing Viva Las Vegas as we turned off I-15 and into the parking lot of the Excalibur, our home for the next two nights. Although our guidebook claims that true luxury comes cheaper in Las Vegas than virtually anywhere else in the world, we had decided that we’d treated ourselves enough and plumped for the cheaper option. Entering the fantasy castle that is the hotel we’d barely made it to the check-in desk before being jumped on by very jolly staff asking whether we were a couple and whether we lived together, because of a special promotion for couples. After desperately contriving a way to satisfy their documentary requirements as to our status as a couple they offered us free show tickets, a holiday package plus a cruise. Guessing where it was heading, we asked about the catch. ‘None,’ the guy replied, ‘we just ask you to visit our property off the strip, where we’ll feed you and...’ I stopped him mid-speech to ask if it was a time-share. When he replied in the affirmative we shook our heads and said we weren’t interested. Even if all the free stuff was on the level I have known too many people who have been subject to intense pressure from time-share salespeople. I didn’t want that, and neither did I have the time to spare to sit through a sales talk. The rest of our time in Vegas we spent rebuffing such offers of free shows.

Our first night in Sin City wasn’t too sinful. We took a stroll through the casinos near Excalibur on the strip. The Luxor and Mandalay Bay join with it to create one big complex. We quite fancied getting out onto the strip to get a look at the casinos all lit up but were having trouble finding our way out of the casinos. They make it easy to get in there but don’t have any signs or other indications of where the exit is. After walking around in circles a lot we found our way out. Gemma had bemoaned the fact that she felt scruffy and had wanted to dress up. I think she’d been expecting tuxedos and glamour, but our walk around the gaming floors of the three casinos soon disavowed her of that idea. Velour tracksuits were more the norm, not what Gemma was imagining I think. On the strip the neon was burning bright through the dark. The casinos are just mental, huge insane monuments to their chosen theme. The light that shines from the top of the pyramid at Luxor can apparently be seen from space!

We continued up the strip to New York New York. Every few feet a guy would thrust a bunch of cards at us and Gemma would obligingly grab them. They were advertising escorts with semi clad ladies pictured on them. I think we collected the whole set. In New York New York we stopped for a drink and watched the beginning of Duelling Pianos. The hosts began to be a little forceful demanding that we had fun so we slid out. We had quite fancied catching a show whilst in Vegas but were a little bit disappointed by what was on. Penn & Teller appealed, but either weren’t on or were fully booked, either way we couldn’t go see them. There were other things on but I really didn’t fancy seeing Celine Dion. Actually that is an understatement, I would rather have drawing pins stuck in my eyes than being forced to endure a Celine Dion show.

In the morning we set off along the strip and westwards to Red Rock Canyon. I was freezing and forced to press the button that turned on the heaters in the seats. Mmmmm, warm cheeks. Although the park lies only 20 miles away from Las Vegas it took us about an hour. The park has an interesting visitors centre and a 13 mile loop drive which winds through a scenic vista of rocky outcroppings and flat plains dotted with low scrub bushes. The rocks here are vivid reds and yellows, hence the name of the park. Being out there amongst the natural and rather bleak splendour of the park brought it home just how astounding and out of place the spectacle of Las Vegas is.

All in the drive out to Red Rock took most of the day, so there was just chance for a Krispy Kreme doughnut before it got dark. We walked up the strip in search of the free entertainments. Unfortunately the Treasure Island show, in which a battle between a couple of full size ships leads to the sinking of one, was closed for renovations. Instead we made do with the fountain show at the Bellagio. This was pretty damned impressive, with massive water jets synchronised to classical music. By the time we’d watched two iterations of the fountain show my head was beginning to go numb with the cold so we popped into Ceasar’s Palace. We made our way back down the strip, stopping at the casinos along the way for a drink (free whilst gaming) and a go on the slots. We stuck to the 1 cent slots, sometimes winning a bit, other times losing. We are the last of the high stakes gamblers. Back at Excalibur, I quite fancied switching to a table game like roulette or blackjack (I’m no poker player), but by this time the low stakes games were all quite crowded and I didn’t fancy the $50 minimum bet ones. Instead we played some more slots for a while, trying, unsuccessfully, to win an Orange County Choppers custom motorcycle.

I quite enjoyed Las Vegas. The sheer scale of the casinos and their utter grandness and silliness is amazing. Miles and miles of neon tubing. Watching people chained to the slots is quite funny. When I say chained I mean it literally, lots of people have loyalty cards for each of the casinos on strings around their necks and plugged in to the machines. It wasn’t quite the mad cacophony of light and noise I thought it would be on the gaming floors though, in fact it was quite subdued. Perhaps because it was a weekday. At one point an alarm went off and everyone barely paused pushing buttons to crane their necks around their machines, perhaps looking for a super jackpot winner. An announcement later told that it was a false alarm on the fire system. It’s a good job that it wasn’t a real fire because nobody moved!

No comments: