Travel: Las Vegas

las vegasThe idea of Las Vegas as Sin City, replete with visions of the ’60s Rat Pack and Mafia era, has been a hard one to shake. But in 2014 it’s nothing like the James Ellroy novels, and hasn’t been for some time now. Making good on P.T. Barnum’s axiom that “Every crowd has a silver lining” the city is no longer primarily about gambling, and now caters to much more than roulette tables. A senior staff member of one hotel told us that gaming only accounts for around 30 percent of their revenue, with many guests never going near the slot machines. The biggest single income is now generated from the stage shows.

But even without Cirque, The Blue Man Group and Britney Spears (you’re above all that, right?) it continues to reinvent itself, and right now it’s one of the best places to eat, drink and party in the whole of the country. The Sin is still here if you look hard enough (or wander too far off the main drag) and pockets of Old School Vegas still exist, but Las Vegas remains America’s playground but in a whole new, modern way. And there are few better places for a wild week.


If you want sedate then the Aria is good (nice buffet), if you want classic then there’s the Bellagio (lovely pool area) and so on, but for an all-in Vegas experience it’s got to be the MGM. There’s a huge gaming floor, a great range of restaurants and bars — Whisky Down is brilliant — while it’s also the home to two of the best parties in town: Hakkasan and Wet Republic. And if you plan your stay here when they’re hosting a boxing bout, you’ll tick another must-do box.

Regarded by many as not only the best restaurant in the city, but one of the finest in the world. With three Michelin stars, this is French food at its finest and very fanciest. Next door is L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, which is less formal and a little cheaper, but gives you some great tasting menus (of no lesser quality) to experience what the famous and celebrated French chef is all about.

The restaurant you probably know is on one floor, with the Ling Ling Lounge bar above it, and on top is a state-of-the-art nightclub. The rotating roster of resident DJs includes Steve Aoki, Calvin Harris (pictured), Tiësto, Questlove and other A-list names. Confetti bombs, glow sticks, sprayed champagne, wads of money thrown off balconies, celebrity guests and one of the best light and sound systems are all standard at a place that’s increasingly becoming the modern Las Vegas equivalent of Studio64.

Brunch is an institution and Jasmine at the Bellagio is a fine place to experience it, Vegas style. Get a seat by the window overlooking the famous fountain and work your way through great Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan cuisine. Then, head out to the pool for a classy, old-school drink. It looks more like Italy than America and it’s one of the few places on the strip that still has the 1960s-style feel. You’ll probably be the youngest person here, but it’s still a fine place to relax in peace for an hour.

The free-standing bar has been going since 1962 and is the best little dive in the city. It never closes and is
regularly filled with a mixed but friendly crowd, from bikers and over-friendly ladies to hip locals looking for an aff ordable drink. The karaoke here is famous so if you want to say you’ve sung in Vegas, here’s the place to do it.

You’ll fly over the city then out past the Hoover Dam, across some of the most stunning landscapes and into neighbouring Arizona then into the Grand Canyon. You’ll land on a ledge halfway down one side and sit, champagne in hand, to admire what 17 million years of erosion can do. It’s one of the most spectacular things you can do in the whole country. [Note: It can be a bit hot and bumpy so it’s not recommended if you’re recovering from a big night, but sick bags are provided onboard.]

Nothing says “I’m in America and having a good time” like firing a big machine gun. Choose from Uzis, AK-47s, WWII Brownings, or perhaps the SAS combo package (HK MP5, Sniper Rifle, Glock 17, M249 SAW). But for the ultimate in bad-assery you can pay to shoot the 6,000-rounds-per-minute minigun (pictured) just like Arnie used in Terminator 2. Yes, the one you’ve mentally used at rush hour on Sheikh Zayed Road.

The strip has changed beyond recognition, but up at Fremont Street you can get a taste of what Old Vegas was like before the mega resorts moved in. The street is now pedestrianised and this area is home not only to old casinos like The Golden Nugget and Binion’s but some brilliant bars including Insert Coins, The Griffin and the oldest freestanding bar, Atomic Liquors — so-named because in the 1950s it became a viewing point for the bomb tests conducted in the desert.

Vegas isn’t really a place for shopping unless you want kitsch tat or high-end fashion that’s already available in the UAE. But it does have one of the best shops in America for rare and hard-to-get trainers. It’s not cheap, but if you want a pair of Adidas, Nike, Puma, Converse, Asics, etc. that nobody else you know will have (including some collaborations that are only available in this store) then this is the place to visit.

While Moscow has a park of old communist statues, so Vegas has the neon graveyard. In an ever-changing city, the old neon signs are all that remain from some of the old hotels and casinos. A glowing monument to capitalism and as near to sentimentality as Vegas really gets.

The afternoon pool parties are a big deal in Las Vegas and the daddy of them all is Wet Republic at the MGM Grand. Like a cross between the Playboy Mansion’s grotto and Ibiza, there’s something almost childishly brilliant about the house DJ (Tiësto, no less, how about that?) whipping up the crowd into a frenzy who then jump and slap the water creating the kind of scene pictured above. The high-rollers take one of the cabanas for personal waitress and bottle service, and if you want Fall-Of-Rome style extravagance then you can pay $1,500 to “make it rain”, which involves buxom bikini-clad waitresses bringing out 10 bottles of champagne to spray over the crowd. We saw this happen twice in the space of just one hour. Others in the cabanas chose to make it rain simply by throwing money (bills not coins, obviously) out onto the crowd. This is modern-day Vegas gone wild.

Wet Republic

British Airways fly to Las Vegas via London and, really, this is the best way to go. Direct flights to the US West Coast are a grueling 17 hours, so that stop off at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 breaks things up with a chance to relax in the lounge (*cough* open bar *cough*) and use the Elemis Spa. Business Class is brilliant and make sure you book a seat in the upper deck of the 747 jumbo jet. Frankly, it’s better than most airlines’ first-class cabins, because it’s quiet and you feel like you’re on a private jet. There aren’t many seats, so book early. Also, the beds go completely flat so you can get to sleep from in the off and be ready to hit the ground running once you land.

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