There’s drizzle on the runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, but for the 300-odd souls about to board a British Airways 747 direct to Nevada, we might as well already be in Las Vegas.
There’s a buzz in the cool confines of Terminal 5 as a hen party – with a bride in veil – makes their way noisily to the gate. Half the flight is sports shorts and tattoos, and I swear I saw a cowboy hat just now. Vegas will do that to you, it seems.
As I head down the ramp, a south-western drawl reminds me of Sin City’s famous motto: “Just remember, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
Before I can turn around the owner of the voice turns right and I go left, up the stairs into the calm of Club World. Fast-forward 10 hours and the Nevada desert is gashed wide open by a streak of neon; The Strip, in all its technicolour glory.
We waft through security – in four visits to the States, this is the first where Homeland Security have cracked a welcoming smile – and into a cab. Minutes from the airport, we pull into the forecourt of the MGM Grand, the largest hotel on the Vegas Strip with a staggering 5000 rooms.
Its iconic lion, the largest bronze statue in the USA, growls across at the pyramid-shaped 4000-roomed Luxor hotel. It’s a touch smaller than my lodgings for the week, but then it does have the world’s most powerful beam of light flying out of its apex; a 40-billion candlepower beam that reaches for the stars.
And no, I’m not just throwing figures out at you here. This is Vegas, where bigger is always – always! – better.
“If you’re not big you’re not worth the time,” chuckles David Gonzales, my host from MGM Grand, as we settle in for dinner at Tom Colicchio’s craftsteak. I order a massive rib eye with fries – delicious; as you’d expect from this outpost of one of the USA’s most popular celebrity chefs – and a glass of Californian Cabernet.
It’s around 10pm Vegas-time; about 7am at home in Cape Town. My body clock is spinning and it feels like I should be ordering breakfast, but if there’s anywhere in the world where time – and time zones – count for nothing, it’s here on the Strip.
The MGM Grand, like the other major casinos in Vegas, is an act in three parts. The first is the hotel, a means to an end in many ways, but an oh-so-pleasant means for sure. The MGM Grand just had a $160-million nip/tuck and is looking in rude health.
As with most top-level resorts on Las Vegas Boulevard South – to give the Strip its official name – the suites are spacious and boast all the mod-cons. The only unusual addition is the electric blackout blinds that keep the Nevada sunshine at bay for those who party all night and sleep all day.
Which brings me to the second act: entertainment. Outside of your room you’ll find dozens of distractions that don’t involve gambling. Massive pool complexes attract sun-starved Europeans, not least for the daylight clubs that combine cheap drinks and scantily clad patrons. Prince Harry knows all about the likes of MGM’s Wet Republic.
Beyond the hotel the city is alive with possibility: the Pinball and Neon Museums celebrate the lost art forms of Americana, while the remarkable Grand Canyon is a popular day-trip for escaping the city. Take a Maverick Helicopters tour and you’ll skip hours of driving and get to land on the canyon floor.
Indoors in the blissful air-con – Vegas tops 40°C in the summer – Cirque du Soleil runs half-a-dozen shows in the city’s theatres, while musos from The Eagles to Bieber pull into town almost every night of the week. David Copperfield was in residency at the MGM Grand when I checked in.
Alongside the theatres, nightclubs sprout in sexy hidden corners of every hotel. Asian-themed Hakkasan boasts top-drawer DJs, Marquee draws a classy crowd at The Cosmopolitan, Light is a revolutionary new space at Mandalay Bay in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil. The list goes on.
But you can’t party on an empty stomach. Never fear, the world’s celebrity chefs are here. Sin City may be stranded in the middle of the Nevada desert – even though its bucolic name means ‘The Meadows’ – but the world has come knocking.
Gordon Ramsay has eateries here, as do Hubert Keller and Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa. You can’t take two steps without tripping over a Wolfgang Puck outlet, and Joël Robuchon is taking no chances with two restaurants on the floor of the MGM Grand alone.
So if there was one thing that surprised me about Las Vegas it’s that gambling seems to come a distant-third on the list of reasons people fly across the world to a neon-jungle in the desert.
But if gambling is what you’re after, you’ll find it here in spades. The entrance hall of every hotel – and there are dozens from the southern end of the Strip all the way up to ‘Old Vegas’ around Fremont Street – spills out onto massive gaming floors where slot machines ease into video poker and craps tables. Roulette wheels spin and blackjack cards are dealt as cocktail waitresses work the floor. Drinks are free for gamblers in casinos across the city; just remember to tip the waitress a dollar a drink or that’s the last you’ll see of her.
I paid for my own drinks and watched the casino floor whirl around me. A few dollars disappeared down the maw of a slot machine – the house, as they say, always wins – before I swopped the smoky gaming floor for the crisp night air of Vegas in springtime.
Out of the MGM Grand and across to the Manhattan-skyline of New York, New York. The next night I’d hit the Mandalay Bay and Luxor, but first I headed north. Past the glitzy façade of Aria – the newest casino-hotel on the Strip – and up to the Bellagio. You’ve seen the dancing fountains in every movie ever shot in Vegas, but they’re still damn impressive.
A hit of Bellagio’s old Europe – there’re grand gardens and an impressive art gallery steps from the gaming floor – before on to Caesar’s Palace. As I crossed the Strip to the Paris hotel a nightclub tout shoved a flyer into my left hand; into my right, a calling card for lonely ladies just dying to meet me for an hour. A voice asked me if I wanted something to party with. In Vegas, anything goes and frequently does.
At Paris, scantily clad dancers pranced seductively along the bar between the poker tables; the night disappeared in a haze of neon and clock-free gaming floors, each more lively than the next. I crawled into bed after 2am, an early night by Vegas standards.
And so the week disappeared, in a blur of neon signs and Elvis impersonators; drive-through wedding chapels and ringing casinos. Until four days later I found myself back at McCarran International Airport, boarding my British Airways flight back to London then Cape Town.
I had my boarding pass in hand, but Vegas wasn’t letting me off the hook quite that easily. Slot machines inside the terminal teased the last dollars from my pocket, but to no avail. Lady Luck was back on the Strip, holding sway over Sin City.