The view from the Cosmopolitan. See a gallery of Vegas hotels & the Strip here
The Las Vegas experience is a little like Westworld, that ’70s sci-fi (and upcoming HBO series) about an adult amusement park gone wrong. The titular Westworld is just one of a series of connected “worlds” that offer immersive historical experiences, with robot cowboys, Romans and knights. Vegas offers Paris, New York and Caesar’s Palace (minus the droids), marked by a half-size Eifel Tower and Arch de Triomphe, a mini Statue of Liberty and some very artificial NYC-ish streets and the familiar statues and decadent trappings we associate with Rome.
By far the most immersive experience in Vegas is American capitalist fantasy land, founded by gangsters in the 1940s and blown out by corporations since the ’70s.
A little history
Inside the Flamingo
Bugsy Siegel was the Jewish mobster whose Flamingo Hotel was the Strip’s flagship, setting the standard for luxury and opulence in 1947. It’s one of the few old hotel/casinos still standing, right in the middle of the Strip, with a little nod to its creator inside: Bugsy’s Bar. But Texas mafioso Benny Binion made a bigger mark on the Nevada town: he invented the modern casino, installing carpeting and chairs at slot machines and establishing the free-drinks-for-gamblers rule. He also figured out how to sell Vegas to the average Joe: “Make the little man feel like a big man,” a pitch that’s as evident today as it was in the 1950s.
Fremont Street. (See more Fremont Street photos here.)
The Binions hotel/casino and old-school steak house still stands on the “Old Strip,” aka Fremont Street in downtown Vegas, a disappointing stretch of covered mall that feels a little too much like a tarted up Plaza St-Hubert. One unique attraction at Binions is $1-million in cash, with an employee standing by 24 hours a day, ready to grab tourists’ phones to capture them with a pile of old paper encased in plastic. This is part of the “big man” fantasy — in Vegas, for little to no expense, you can stand next to a million bucks, drink your face off, eat steak and lobster (as advertised at a series of sleazy downtown joints that I did not venture into) and walk a circuit through a series of palaces and designer malls. As long as you lose your shirt gambling, the other things come cheap, including accommodations, if you stay away from the heart of the Strip.
This is how you do it
Gambling bores me, but even if you do what I did about a dozen times over three days (take a waitress-adjacent seat at a penny slot machine, order a drink, play $1, tip $1 and then leave), Vegas will find other ways to drain your wallet. The restaurants on the Strip are all overpriced — a quickie pizza slice costs over $5 and a small coffee at Starbucks costs $4, so you can imagine how much you’ll pay for a main course at a nice restaurant.
A kobe burger at Gordon Ramsay Steak. (See a Vegas food gallery here.)
That said, there are ways to eat well and relatively cheaply on the Strip: You can order appetizers or bar-menu items, a method that worked well for me at the Eifel Tower restaurant, Gordon Ramsay Steak and Bouchon — this has the added advantage of avoiding American portion sizes. Alternately you can seek out off-Strip joints like the restaurant at Ellis Island (a 24-hour breakfast diner that has super specials in the wee hours) and El Dorado, a sit-down Mexican place that’s a little overrated on Yelp, but a quality alternative to pricey gringo food nonetheless.
Your Vegas to-do list
Bond, a bar inside the Cosmopolitan
El Dorado is also located right next door to the Sapphire strip club, a convenient twofer if you’re into that. Spearmint Rhino is the better known strip club of choice, at least based on online hearsay. Anecdotal evidence I’ve heard suggests that men are constantly fleeced there, and of course danse-contact is forbidden, so maybe — for guys travelling from la Belle Province — it’s not worth the price, especially given the current exchange rate. Las Vegas cab drivers apparently get kickbacks for delivering tourists to strip clubs and nightclubs, so ask them — they may be able to get you in for free. (For prostitutes, there are dozens of assistant pimps handing out business cards advertising sex services on the Strip, so that’s easy.)
Vegas nightlife is as vibrant as you would expect, with downtown clubs attracting more locals and hotel clubs reeling in the younger tourists (and there are lots of them). To get a little Stefon on you here, the hottest club in Vegas right now is the Marquee, located in the swank, ultra-modern Cosmopolitan hotel. The ambiance inside is somewhere in the middle of the chill-to-sloppy spectrum (its tagline is “just the right amount of wrong”), split between indoor and outdoor spaces, the latter a wicker lounge around a shallow pool, the former encompassing a jumping dancefloor and layout that looks like the clubs you see in movies and TV shows (when it’s not a biker or goth joint, that is). Expect line-ups to get in, expensive booze (of course) and cover charges that most Montrealers would not tolerate — you won’t see prices in ads or on flyers for the clubs, so you’ll have to dig for that detail. It’s worth noting that men always pay more than women at Vegas clubs.
The old Sahara sign at the Neon Museum. (See more photos of Vegas art here.)
Leave the Strip(s) to check out the Neon Museum (a must) and the art district, which actually exists — there’s also art on display in all the big hotels, and in Distroboto-style vending machines called Art-O-Mats. And it’s pretty much mandatory to see a show, but choose wisely. The biggest Vegas spectacles are advertised on billboards that tower over the Strip’s Times Square-style intersections, and on the hotels that house the shows. Celine has returned, and shows by Donny & Marie Osmond, Britney Spears and Billy Idol are coming to has-been paradise soon. Le Reve is the acclaimed Cirque du Soleil-style show that is not produced by Cirque du Soleil, and old-school showgirls do their thing downtown via Showgirl Mafia.
Ghosts of the Strip
The Rat Pack lives on as Sinatra echoes from the Bellagio Hotel walkway and ads for a Sammy Davis Jr. imitator occupy real estate on the street. Other ghosts of Vegas and American pop culture are represented everywhere, from the Fremont Street performers to the shadows and holograms on the grand stages where Cirque mounts its tribute shows (two of at least six Cirque shows on in Vegas right now).
I saw both of them: The Beatles Love, which is a safe choice despite its fleeting moments of absurd Cirque tomfoolery, which are to be expected. The box office at the Mirage, where the show has been running since 2006, now offers a second ticket for $15 with the purchase of one at full price, and that’s pretty reasonable for Vegas. The music is air tight, as is the way they mash up Beatles classics, with the approval of the remaining band members and their producer.
Less impressive was Michael Jackson One, a show dotted with the real Michael (on film and, for one song, as seen at the 2014 Billboard Awards, as a hologram), but his absence is felt, to the detriment of the show. Perhaps it’s because his death was relatively recent, or because the show opens with an empty chair, or maybe it’s the ghost glove that crawls around in Addams Family fashion, or the fact that none of the dancers are as good as he was.
The average Cirque narrative is slight and abstract, but this one was more nonsensical than usual: teens on a mystery mission, surrogate Jacksons popping up along the way (out of what looked like a coffin in one case), disconnected circusy asides like Chinese twinks flipping hats, and allusions to the scandals that dogged Jackson for the last 15 years of his life — awkward, though perhaps unavoidable. Seeing the show on Halloween weekend made “Thriller” extra fun, but the choreography was straight out of the famous music video. The zombies strut into the aisles and trapeze artists zip overhead from the corners of the theatre, but that’s as “immersive” as the show gets.
There are other Michael Jacksons alive and well and performing in Vegas (and a lot of resorts in the Caribbean, apparently), and there are also Tupacs — he died in Vegas. At one point I saw one of each, total dead ringers, talking to each other. I was too stunned to take a photo, but Vegas street performers and look-alikes do not appreciate photos without tips anyway, as I found out by snapping some Pirates of the Caribbean types.
Halloween at the Venetian
In any case, Halloween made it hard to tell who was a tourist and who was a pro. It was fun to walk around in warm weather amid hundreds, thousands of people in costume, including dozens of Hunter S. Thompsons. There’s plenty of fear and loathing to be had in today’s Vegas, but the place has changed completely since the ’70s. It’s a vacation destination for families now, and a place for the big men to play and the little men to try their best. If the massive, sprawling plans for Resorts World are ever realized, it’ll be even closer to Westworld than it is now, adding the Chinese experience to the mix. If not, there’s still the American capitalist dream world, an empire we may live to see crumble. ■