What happens in Vegas…

Me in Vegas

Here’s a thing I wrote for The Independent

I’m not a gambling man. My poker face is about as enigmatic as a Latin American football commentator celebrating a goal, and as for slot machines, I’m with British Gas – if I want to lose a ton of money just by pushing a button I can switch on a light. Still, there’s always been part of me – the part that’s presently enjoying box-sets of the “Sopranos” – that’s envied men who play poker in smoke-filled rooms, real men with big hands who talk about boxing. Maybe I’ve been missing out? So when I was offered the chance to visit Las Vegas for the first time, I jumped at it. Could this be the making of me?

For anyone with pretentions as a cigar-chomping, big-betting “high-roller”, life has just taken a turn for the better: for the first time, you can fly First Class from London. Surely, you might imagine, with recession piling upon credit crunch, it’s the height of vulgarity if the only belt you’re tightening is a seat belt in the unashamed luxury of First Class? But British Airways evidently believes there is demand for something even more stylish than Club World, and has now deployed a 747 with room for just 14 people up front.

As I boarded the plane and – oh, shallow pleasure – turned to the left, it was clear I was in for a treat. For a start, judging from this trip, every first class cabin comes with a free Felicity Kendall. You get a private seating area with three – count them! – three windows and your own little Berlin wall (no graffiti) to protect you from other passengers. But it’s the little things that count, and by that I don’t just mean Felicity Kendall: the unseen replenishment of my glass of cranberry juice (my drink of choice – another reason I find it hard to see myself playing poker with the Sopranos); the sleep mask with its little woollen bridge for your nose to help it sit there more comfortably. I felt a bit awkward stood there as the stewardess eased my chair forward and made up my bed for me (what?! No bedtime story?) but I slept for 3 hours and 40 minutes. On a plane! Without waking up with cork-screw back and a pool of drool from the corner of my mouth nestling on my shoulder! Miracles can happen!

Kendall. Included as standard?

The Las Vegas show begins as you’re landing. Those of us fortunate enough to be seated on the left of the plane (sorry, Felicity) were treated to our first glimpse of the crazed Vegas skyline, with the Eiffel tower rubbing shoulders with the Empire State Building and the Great Pyramid. And forget about all this 40-minute-journey-from-airport-to-city-centre nonsense you get in most cities. That’s a waste of valuable gambling time. The Strip – and what an appropriate name for Vegas’ main street given the city’s love of lapdancing – is right behind the airport. I practically stepped into the taxi then straight back out again, with barely enough time to take in the billboard van we passed assuring me that hot girls were keen to meet me.

Now brace yourself, stereotype fans. My hotel, the Cosmopolitan, was incredibly tasteful. The newest hotel on the Strip, it’s part of the brand new CityCenter development (that’s CityCenter in one word – don’t offend by spelling it in two). The hotel attracts a young, hip crowd to its bars and restaurants, with barely a supersized American in sight. I’d heard Vegas hotel rooms were all very average so that the guests can’t wait to get down to the casino but the Cosmopolitan had clearly screwed up here. It would have taken Usain Bolt a few seconds to sprint across mine. It even had a dishwasher (though no dishes) and a balcony with a spectacular view of the city. The other hotels on the Strip don’t have balconies, presumably to stop gamblers throwing themselves off them.

Resisting the challenge of the mini-bar – sensors register a purchase if the bottle’s removed for 30 seconds, surely enough time to down it and refill it with water – I headed down to check out the casino. Like all the casinos, it’s in the middle of the hotel. There are no windows, the theory being you can lose track of time, with no idea whether it’s day or night. And it seems to work. I walked through the casino at 5am on a Monday morning and it was still, if not buzzing then at least humming like an old fridge. I’d heard that the slot machines by the entrance are programmed to pay out more often, thus enticing you deeper into casino heaven, so I stood by the entrance, waiting for the urge to pump those machines to kick in. But despite the cheers from the tables and a granny in a tracksuit working three slot machines as if she were spinning plates, the only thing I felt rising up inside me was a rant about the fact you’re allowed to smoke in the casino. It wasn’t looking good for my Sopranos poker fantasy.

It didn’t take me long to realise that Vegas lurches from camp to sophisticated fast enough to give you the bends. One minute I’d be on my feet at “Menopause: the Musical”, whooping and cheering as an actress of a certain age sang “Only You” to a pink vibrator, the next some fascinating archive footage was helping me over my disappointment that the guy giving me my ticket at the Atomic Testing Museum didn’t have two heads (the test site was just 60 miles from Vegas).

Vegas stuff

Bellagios, one of the more upmarket hotels, took me from Willy Wonka excitement at the world’s largest chocolate fountain to the elegant sophistication of Picasso, a 2-star Michelin restaurant, in a matter of yards. Fine dining is very Vegas at the moment, with the city boasting 15 Michelin-starred restaurants. In Picasso, I tried to find a hole in our host David’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Vegas whilst stealing a piece of slow-cooked beef from his plate. Even factoring in the first rule of Food Club – that someone else’s food, whether from chip shop or posh restaurant, will always taste better than your own – this was possibly the most delicately flavoursome mouthful I’ve ever eaten. Maybe it was because I’d just been told that the five Picasso prints I could see from my seat were actually originals. Maybe it was because we were sat right by the Belaggio fountain which burst into action every few minutes, sending jets of water up to 400 feet in the air, beautifully choreographed to tracks like “Singing in the Rain” and that bit of pseudo-operatic nonsense Sarah Brightman sang, “Time to Say Goodbye”. But as the fountains did their disturbingly good impression of 50 men in evening dress dancing with canes (see it, you’ll understand), I realised Vegas had offered me a Perfect Moment, a sort of entertainment cluedo: slow-cooked beef, with the Picassos, by the Belaggio fountain.

Tom Daley: impressed

I wasn’t expecting any Perfect Moments from Cirque de Soleil’s “O”. With seven shows in town and more on the way, Cirque de Soleil have the sort of hold on the city previously only enjoyed by the mafia. I’ve never been a fan of their circusy ways and at $117 a ticket I was, to paraphrase Ant and Dec’s one-hit wonder, getting ready to grumble. But the show, featuring a huge pool and a stage about the size of Birmingham turned the imagination and daring dials up to 11. It was as if Hieronymus Bosch had taken happy pills and agreed to choreograph the greatest show on earth. As a man dived into the pool from a height Tom Daley would call suicidal I screamed like a girl at a Justin Bieber gig (most un-Sopranos). By the end of the show the auditorium was littered with Disney executives with their heads in their hands, knowing they could never compete.

If you want to escape the Strip for a bit then why not Petula-Clark it and go downtown. Downtown is “old” Vegas, Rat Pack Vegas, with familiar hotel names and neon signs that make you feel like you’ve fallen into a Scorsese film. A few years ago, this was pretty much a no-go area because of the street crime, but as our guide Brian pointed out without irony, the district regenerated itself by consciously “trying to create a pub crawl”. It makes you wonder how bad an area has to be for it to be radically improved by turning it into Basildon city centre on a Friday night, but it’s worked. At night-time the place is packed, with free concerts and the largest TV screen in the world: a canopy over the street that’s four blocks long, which is widescreen in anyone’s book. The music and light show is extraordinary but, because it takes place above your head, so is the bill for the chiropractor.

Not another Vegas wedding

In my thirty minutes downtown I saw no less than six brides. Brides are everywhere in Vegas. They’re a bit like urban foxes: the first time you see one you’re all excited but then gradually you take them for granted. One bride actually flew past me on a zipwire under the TV canopy. I barely reacted, beyond making a mental note to write a novel called “Bride on a Zipwire”. That’s Vegas for you: the extraordinary starts to become everyday. You become like an addict, constantly chasing weirder, camper, crazier stuff. Lion in the middle of a casino? – What else you got? Water flume that goes through a shark pool? – Meh!

I decided to go cold turkey for a bit and get out of the city. Heli USA offer a 45 minute helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon and back with a stop-off in their fully-functioning cowboy ranch. I have to confess my first impression was more Fairly Good Canyon than Grand Canyon. I was hoping for that “Ooh! Nature! I’m so insignificant!” feeling you undoubtedly get when stood on the edge or at the bottom of the canyon but it’s harder to get that when hovering, God-like, above. But such niggles were massively offset by the rest of the trip and our pilot who was called Roger, much to my delight as a fan of “Airplane” (I just hope his surname was Over). He flew us over the breathtaking Mojave desert and Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in the US (believe me, that’s large), pointing out the Hoover dam, the place where Thelma and Louise went over the edge and a geological fault line you could actually see. It was a geography teacher’s wet dream. He even shared his thoughts about Area 51, not far from Vegas, where they, er, keep the Roswell aliens. Drawing on his experience as a military pilot he was convinced they’d captured at least three spaceships. We nodded politely – after all, he had the controls.

Hoover? Dam!

Back in Vegas, even the brides were exciting again (I saw one with an Elvis lookalike – surely there’s a name for that: a full house or something). But I remained completely impervious to the pleasures of the casinos. I wasn’t so much a gambling virgin as a gambling eunuch. I needed to up my macho ante, so I headed for the Gun Store Indoor Shooting Range. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

The Gun Store is like a parody of itself. Outside there’s a large sign with a picture of a machine gun and the words “Try Me!”, like some strange kick-ass version of “Alice in Wonderland”. Inside, as people queue for up to 4 or 5 hours, the store offers a variety of packages: there’s the “World War 2”, allowing you to fire three different guns from that era for $119.95, or for just ten dollars more, there’s “The Coalition”. The “Ladies” includes a pink AK-47, and if you’re worried the littl’uns might feel left out, there’s the “Kids” – 40 shots with a .22 weapon for just $40. Obviously all this is wrong wrong wrong and as a wishy-washy leftie of the worst sort I floundered a bit when my “hostess” Nana, a former cocktail waitress who found she preferred serving guns to mojitos, offered me my choice of weapons. In the end I went for the Beretta M9 because Nana said it was James Bond’s gun, and a Rambo-style machine-gun, the MP40, which I mostly chose so I could make jokes about it being better than the MP3, which only plays music.

At a gun range. A gun range. Please don't arrest me.

I had a hunch the vetting process wasn’t the strictest when I saw a picture on the wall of Ozzy Osbourne at the range firing a machine gun. Sure enough, all I had to do was sign a waiver stating I was “free of emotional impairment” and the like and I was ready to shoot. I have to say the handgun felt a bit dull after a few shots, but the machine gun was another matter. Within seconds I was screaming abuse at the target in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. It’s probably saved me a fortune in therapy bills. Surely now I was ready for poker with the men who talk boxing.

But testosterone dwindles quickly at my age. I was too distracted by the possibility of a stress-busting spa treatment and herbal tea at the Cosmopolitan. And so, dear reader, I never gambled. There was one frantic moment before I set off for the airport where I finally put a dollar into a slot machine only to realise I didn’t know how to work it. I ended up pulling at the one-arm-bandit arm at the side of the machine which was, I soon realised, purely decorative. Tony Soprano would have put a bullet through my head for my own benefit. But let’s keep that failure between you and me. Like they say: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

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