The phoenix is a legendary bird that, towards the end of its life, builds a nest and sits in it. It then bursts into flame spontaneously and is reduced to ashes, nest and all, only to emerge young, fresh and ready to begin a new life. In many ways, Las Vegas is like the phoenix. Each time we have visited it, and we have been there four times, it has appeared new, different and more colorful than ever.
The first time we visited Las Vegas, in 1987, it was much smaller than it is today. Despite the flashing neon signs, it appeared seedy and somewhat tacky though it tried hard to be glamorous. We were staying at one of the smaller hotels on the strip and I don’t remember much. It was a novelty to find that no matter where you wanted to go on the main floor you had to go through the casino. I was not tempted but plenty of others must have been.
We went to Vegas twice in the nineties. The first time we stayed at the Monte Carlo , the second time at the newly built Mandalay Bay. This was the period when Vegas decided to promote itself as a family destination. There were plenty of kiddie attractions including circus acts at the Circus Circus, hotel rooms at give-away prices and dirt cheap buffets ( all-you-can eat, $ 9.95). It must have worked for a while because the casinos were crowded. In between our two visits, Vegas transformed itself as older casinos were torn down and new supersized theme structures took their place. There were new entries to the Vegas scene such as the Paris( with its scaled down but still impressive Eiffel Tower), the Luxor pyramid, New York, New York with its replicas of famous NY attractions such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, the Excalibur, the Venetian ( with gondoliers plying their craft in the “Grand Canal”) and the beautiful Bellagio with its “dancing fountains”. And then there was the MGM Grand, awesome for its sheer size; it had 4,000 + rooms. Rooms and buffets were not as cheap as Vegas tried to attract the well-heeled crowd. Many of the restaurants were helmed by celebrity chefs such as Joel Robuchon and the stage shows too were more sophisticated.
When we went to Vegas last December, it had changed once again. There were even more large casino-hotels such as the Aria where we stayed. Frontage on the Strip is limited, and therefore at a premium. Some of the older hotels had been torn down so that new ones could take their place. Another big change was the replacement of pedestrian crossings with overpasses. The aim was to ease the car traffic on the Strip and it did alleviate the problem considerably. However, traffic is so heavy that it still took us twenty minutes for our taxi to go from the Wynn to the Aria. It also made it difficult for pedestrians who wanted to walk the Strip. I always try to walk around a city I am visiting; it’s the best way to really experience it. In Vegas it wasn’t easy. From our hotel, I walked to the ends of the Strip, to the north one day and south the next; it took me over an hour each time. Climbing up to the overpass and down again each time I had to cross a street was tiring. It was also unpleasant because all the panhandlers park themselves there; every few steps on the bridge there was one. I really wondered how much ( or rather, how little) they collected. There were just too many of them and, besides, vacationers in Vegas are not inclined to be charitable. Perhaps it is the high cost of staying and dining in Vegas or perhaps they want to save their money for the slots. I was happy I went on my walks though because I really got to appreciate how different the casinos were and to get a close-up look at their charms.
Yet another change this time was the tourists in Vegas. Fully forty percent of them were mainland Chinese. There were all kinds: groups of young men , families with young children, honeymooners and gaggles of young women. I suppose it was a reflection of the changing world order; in the seventies it was the Japanese , now it is the Chinese who have the disposable incomes and the yen to see the world. Las Vegas has a glamor and glitz that Macau cannot match and, on one trip to Vegas, Chinese visitors can experience New York,Venice, the Pyramids, Paris etc. Many of them were wide-eyed at what they saw; their chief activity was to take photos of themselves framed by Vegas attractions, so that they could show their folks back home.
The celebrity chef syndrome has reached new heights in Vegas. Practically every chef worth his salt has to have a restaurant in Vegas, sometimes more than one. Bobby Flay, Emeril, Giada de Laurentis, Todd English, Gordon Ramsey are only some of the marquee names I noticed. Naturally, the meals they put out are not cheap. We ordered tasting menus at two of the restaurants and prices ran between $125 and $150 per person, not including drinks and tip. I must say that the meals were awesome.
So were the shows. The entertainment scene in Vegas is dominated by Cirque de Soliel which was staging shows at no less than seven of the casino-hotels. We saw ” Le Reve ” ( the Dream) at the Wynn; it was created by the founder of Cirque de Soliel for his friend Steve Wynn and it was spectacular. It is about a girl who breaks up with he lover and is visited by a dream with angels, devils, butterflies, jesters and other fantastic creatures. Finally, she wakes up and is re-united with her beloved. The action takes place in a circular pool where the water level is raised and lowered to create elaborate tableaux. The performers are clad in unbelievably colorful costumes as they splash and cavort in the water, diving, swimming and posing to create an unforgettable spectacle. For the finale, one of them is raised into the rafters and then drops feet first into the water sixty feet below. The show is beautiful, it is scary, it is indescribable. BTW, some of the other shows were headlined by performers we thought had long since retired; remember Donny and Marie Osmond. They are still going strong.
As ever, Vegas is best at night. Driving down the Strip is one way to experience it. Another is to sit in your hotel room and look out the window at the millions of lights and the rivers of neon. Someone remarked that Vegas uses more electricity than the entire Indian state of Gujarat. It may be an exaggeration, but not by much.
Three days , maybe four, are about as much as I can take of Vegas. Vegas is exciting, it is gaudy, it is excess personified, it is enjoyable. But, in the harsh light of day, as you head out to the airport you realize that Vegas is an oasis in the desert, a mirage, a dream. Time for the real world.