Our plane was landing parallel to the instantly recognisable skyline of the Las Vegas strip. I could see the shape of the Stratosphere tower at one end and the clear lettering of the luxurious Mandalay Bay hotel at the other. A buzz of excitement filled the aircraft – we were all in Vegas now, a city rising out of the hot Nevada desert, and the Daniels family were starting their long anticipated road-trip across the USA.
It was 3pm when we arrived at our hotel, the Flamingo, and 40°C. The Flamingo is the oldest resort on the Strip; it was originally built by mob gangster, Bugsy Siegel and his ‘partners’, after the fledgling resort city piqued Siegel’s interest due to its legalized gambling and its off-track betting. We wandered around the hotel to get our bearings, passing through the huge casino already filled with punters, all-you-can-eat buffet and gardens complete with flamingos, turtles and huge koi carp. Our room was on the 19th floor of the hotel, with an entire wall taken up by a huge window overlooking the expansive pools and the High Roller (Vegas’ equivalent to the London Eye).
After we’d dropped our bags off, we headed out into the 40°C heat to get our first experience of the famous Vegas Strip. As it was still daylight, the hotels weren’t yet lit up but the entrance to each blasted out loud music and the pavements were packed with people pushing through. We wandered in and out of the hotels, to escape the heat outside and take in the huge casinos on the ground floor of each hotel. These were already busy, with some people who were clearly just there for a laugh, and some people who were obviously serious gamblers, sitting with a fistful of notes and puffing away on a cigarette.
The Flamingo is located directly opposite Caesar’s Palace, one of the most famous and recognisable of Vegas’s many hotels. We crossed the bridge over the road to reach Caesar’s and strolled inside, completely unprepared for its enormity. One huge casino leads onto the next huge casino, each filled with its own poker rooms, bars and shops. We found ourselves wandering into a large atrium past the casinos, where there was an ornately fronted nightclub called Omnia which was advertising A-list DJ acts who were to be performing over the next few days. Past Omnia, the enclosed rooms opened up to an amazing ‘indoors Rome’ – complete with sunset, restaurants and even the Colosseum. It felt really strange, with the paving tiles glistening as though there had been a late evening shower and people sitting out on the restaurant terraces as though they were enjoying the cool of a romantic Italian evening.
As we walked out, we were handed cocktail vouchers for a restaurant called Margaritaville. By this point, it was around 6.30pm and we felt jet lagged and tired, so we decided to use the vouchers up. Margaritaville is located right next to the Flamingo and, as we walked in, it seemed that a show of some kind was just about to begin. Right next to our table was a huge fishbowl filled with green liquid and, moments after we were seated, our waitress pulled her clothes off to reveal just her bikini. Before we knew it, all the waiters were singing and she had pulled herself up to the ceiling where, with lots of cheering from the crowd, she pushed herself down a slide and into the big fishbowl, soaking everyone around her. We sipped on our super-strong frozen margaritas in bemusement before deciding to pay the bill and move on.
As we left that particular scene behind us, the Strip was now completely alight with flashing neon lights from the hotels and the red tail lights of the hundreds of tooting taxis and fancy limousines against the dark night sky. We had all heard about the famous Bellagio fountain display, so before we all collapsed on the pavement with our jet lag, we decided to walk across the road to watch. The display starts at 8pm every evening and there are people who queue up for up to an hour before. Luckily we found ourselves in a good spot just as the fountains burst into life, synchronised in time to ‘Your Song’. Despite the cheesiness, the display was actually three minutes of momentary calm – with the backlighting behind the water displaying each droplet like a mini diamond, and the water dancing in time just like fireworks.
As we walked back to the Flamingo, Dad was handed a selection of cards for pole-dancing girls and strippers. We saw a man walking towards us who bent down to pick an abandoned card up off the pavement, which was a strange kind of desperation since pretty much every other person appeared to be handing them out. The pavements were filled with all kinds of amazing street performers, including a ten year old Michael Jackson impersonator dancing to Thriller, a teenager on his electric violin playing along to Wake Me Up and a magician who could shuffle his pack of cards in the air without even seeming to touch them. Homeless people sat in groups on every corner, holding up signs that mocked the usual messages you see – rather than ‘Anything helps, God bless’, these signs read ‘We partied til we were homeless and now we need to party more!’ and ‘need $ for weed’.
The next morning we planned to explore the Strip a little further before it got too hot. We were keen to visit the Venetian hotel to witness the indoor gondoliers first-hand, so walked north along the Strip. As we did so, we passed a Walgreen supermarket where I bought an enormous Slushie and a big bag of Cheetos in true American style. This greed was my downfall just a few minutes later though – as I now had my hands full with American goodies, I was unable to hold my skirt down as I foolishly walked over a massive pavement wind vent (why put them there?!). I’d like to think I looked like Marilyn except for the fact I was holding Cheetos. When we finally made it to the Venetian, red-faced and flustered, we found not only the famous gondoliers and St Mark’s Square but also a new favourite casino game – the Wheel of Fortune. This essentially involved wasting dollars by betting that the arrow would fall onto your number, but the tense build-up music and anticipatory heart palpitations made the expenditure well worth it.
The rest of afternoon was spent by the hotel pools, which were located behind the hotel safely tucked away from the Strip. There was one massive pool party on one side, complete with DJ booth, bar, and cave and waterfall (which seemed a little hideaway for all kinds of questionable activities). We headed over to the second pool, which was a lot quieter, and sat right underneath the water vapour sprinklers in true English style. Every hour or so, William and I would venture out to sunbathe in the actual light but, in moments, come crawling back from our sunbeds in tears because of the ferocious red patches and sweat rolling down our bodies in big fat droplets.
By the evening, the sun had affected us all. We tried to find the Sky Bar along the Strip, which had been described in the guidebook as ‘Vegas’s hidden gem’, but ended up walking from one end of the Strip to the other without any luck. We found ourselves standing by the Statue of Liberty at the New York New York hotel and decided to go in there for a drink while riding the inside roller coaster. We wandered around the streets of New York and checked out Coney Island amusement park upstairs, which was filled with yet more casino games complete with dance mat, pinball machines and air hockey. We had planned to visit the One Thousand Dish Buffet for dinner, but the sun and the long walk to a non-existent bar had made us grumpy so we decided to head back to hotel where we had dinner at the poolside bar (I had the most impressive bowl of nachos ever).
We spent the next day melting next to the pool again, where I bought piña colada slushie for $16. Yes, it was delicious – but Las Vegas prices are crazy. For the same price, Mum, Dad and William bought a huge jug of beer to share between the three of them. William walked out to the Strip and purchased a new pair of Oakley sunglasses for his 21st birthday present.
We had read about Fremont Street at the end of the Strip in the guide book, which said it was quite a different experience to the Strip. We got a taxi there for our last evening and were dropped off at the Golden Nugget – the largest casino in downtown Las Vegas. We were instantly blinded by the LED canopy that covers this inside shopping corridor. The abundance of neon signs has earned the street the nickname of Glitter Gulch, and it’s not uncommon to find people zipwiring along the ceiling in a Superman position. A light display comes on every night at 8pm so we watched as the ceiling was transformed by a number of different illuminated scenes – first we were travelling through space, and then underwater, and then down a busy road. The corridor was filled with all kinds of different buskers and performers, including people dressed up in outrageous outfits for photos. There were girls dancing on the bars and a double jointed guy who bent himself so much that you could see his dislocated bones pushing out against his skin. We stopped to watch a guy who was spraypainting the most amazing pieces of art – it took him no more than ten minutes to complete each painting and he would work layer upon layer with the finished product obviously already pictured in his head. I bought the painting that we watched him work on for $40 as, by coincidence, I really happened to like the scene that he’d painted.
We marvelled at the Drop Dead Diner, where they sell a 10,000 calorie burger and people dress in hospital gowns and sit with a blood bag in the middle of their table (wine). After feeling suitably sickened, we then went for dinner at Denny’s diner.
After dinner, we jumped in a cab back to the Strip, where we sat outside at a bar just behind the Flamingo, with a great view of the High Roller and all the people parading up and down. Mum and Dad went to bed and William and I headed out for one last night at Caesar’s Palace and to get our last view of the Strip. I had secretly hoped that we might be able to go to Omnia, but when we arrived there, we saw how busy it was and how super dressed up everyone was. Instead, we played on a few of the cheap slot machines and William won an incredible $3. We spent his winnings before heading back.
The next morning, we picked up our rental Dodge from the airport ready for our road trip, starting with our drive into Arizona for the Grand Canyon. Before we left Nevada though, we stopped at the Hoover Dam to witness the enormous bridge built into the rocks and the huge drop from the dam to the river. It was then onto Route 66, where we drove along some of the most picturesque roads in America, before stopping at a small town called Saligman to stock up on American goodies for the road. As we were helped with the different petrol system there (pay first, fill up after), the cashier chatting to us was horrified to hear that us English lived without Twinkies and Cheetos. After filling up with as many classic America snacks as possible, it was time to move onwards…