As neon lights from a billion tiny bulbs dapple your bonnet and flash across the windscreen of your car, you realise that there’s no such thing as too big or too bright in Las Vegas. Showing-off is everything in this city.
Thankfully, you don’t need to be rich to enjoy Las Vegas. Each casino is a tourist attraction in itself, offering the visitor the opportunity to gawp and shake a head at just how over-the-top one city can be. Alexis Conran, presenter of the Channel 5 programme, Hustling America, list the five Las Vegas Casinos that always bring a smile to his face.
Some casinos try to offer you an experience; New York New York offers a miniature version of the entire Empire State. Excalibur boasts a fairy tale castle to rival that of Walt Disney. But if ancient Egypt is more your thing then you’ll definitely want to pay a visit to the Luxor.
Shaped like a giant pyramid this impressive structure dominates the Vegas skyline with a giant beam of light which protrudes from the apex of its roof and drives high into the night sky. If ever proof were needed that Vegas isn’t short of electricity then this is it. Two enormous monoliths and a sphinx guard the entrance of the Luxor, leading you inside its slick black sloping sides.
Unlike the true pyramids of Egypt, the Luxor is completely hollow on the inside with a dizzying view overhead. A dozen floors and hundreds of hotel rooms lie inside the massive walls of the giant structure. And row upon row of overhanging balconies peer down into the belly of the casino below. Those who lack a head for heights would do well to ask for a room on one of the lower levels. The quirkiest feature of this bizarre building are its elevator shafts which don’t go up and down like a conventional lift, but instead slide diagonally as they ascend the Luxor’s sloping sides. New guests to the casino never fail to stumble sideways as they first experience this strange sensation.
Although impressive in their size and undertaking, many of these themed casinos are, in all honesty, a little tacky and don’t quite live up to their hype. One which definitely does is the Venetian.
At the north end of the Strip, the boulevard opens out into a marble tiled plaza framed by tall Venetian buildings and a meandering canal. Gondolas ferry the casino’s guests around this pleasing diorama before disappearing beneath arched brick bridges and into the building beyond. Many Vegas casinos attempt to whisk you away to another corner of the planet with a comical facsimile of a foreign city but the Venetian is the only one which comes close to confusing your senses.
Once inside, winding Italian passageways and cobbled streets run parallel with the ever present canal, forcing guests to regularly cross arched stone bridges from one side to the next. What makes this labyrinth of Italian architecture so breathtakingly realistic is the artificial sky, which adorns every ceiling. Painted with astonishing realism and lit perfectly from either side, the concave roof gives the unnerving impression that the clouds are moving with you.
Eventually all roads seem to lead to the central plaza where the smells of ice cream parlours and pizza stalls add to the sensory illusion.
The newest casinos avoid recreating a particular corner of the globe and instead offer the perception of wealth. The Wynn and the Encore have gone for a Renaissance look with marble pillars and posh paper lanterns. But right next door, on the edge of the new ‘CityCentre’ development is a casino which is unmistakably modern. With its jet-black sides and neon blue edges, the Cosmopolitan resembles a state-of-the-art super computer. Inside, it’s a maze of crystal bead curtains and ornate silver stairs all surrounded by jet black walls and deep purple carpets.
Suspended at the centre of the casino is a cocktail bar hidden inside an enormous chandelier. If the next Bond movie was to be set in Vegas then this is undoubtedly where they would come. It’s easy to imagine rich Russian gangsters going head to head with wealthy Arab oil barons in one of the many high roller rooms tucked away behind a secret door.
The Cosmopolitan’s lobby is its most impressive feature; a hall of mirrors with six square pillars at the centre. Periodically these pillars spring to life as high definition flat screens provide a very convincing illusion of scantily clad models trapped inside.
Every Vegas casino has a show-piece which sets it apart from the next, often a physical spectacle or a dramatic daily event. The Mirage boasts a fake volcano that erupts twice a day. Treasure Island is surrounded by a moat which sports two full-size pirate ships. Once a day these boats collide and onlookers are treated to a sight best described as ‘sexy pirates swash-buckling’. But arguably the most impressive and certainly the most famous is the Bellagio’s fountains.
Every 15 minutes thousands of gallons of water explode 100 feet into the air as powerful jets of water dance in time to music. This has to be the most watched and most iconic spectacle in Vegas.
Hoards of onlookers gather outside at the head of the Bellagio’s giant lake to witness the show and the sound of the water crashing back down to earth can be heard almost anywhere on the strip. Framing the enormous lake is the iconic Bellagio building itself made famous in the movie, Ocean’s Eleven.
The best way to enter is from the left-hand promenade, which leads you down a long line of (very) designer clothes stores. If you’re a fan of the movie then the inside will be no surprise with opulent Chinese lanterns and gold-guided ceilings. And if you are able to book a table at one of the Bellagio’s world-class restaurants then you’ll be treated to a back stage view of the world’s most impressive water feature.
Many people don’t realise that ‘The Strip,’ which is home to all of the modern day mega casinos, isn’t actually in ‘Las Vegas’ City. It’s in a twin city on the other side of the Clark County border, simply known as ‘Paradise’. Continue four miles north up the Las Vegas Boulevard, past the statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, past the drive-thru wedding chapels and the world’s biggest souvenir store and you’ll come to the true Las Vegas City.
50 years ago, you would have seen a giant neon cowboy waving back at you. Now you’ll be greeted by the sad, empty shell of what used to be ‘Sahara,’ the iconic casino which once hosted Frank Sinatra. Today it is a crumbling shrine to the fact that Vegas is a money making machine with no interest in preserving its own past.
Known locally as ‘Downtown’, this is where the casinos smell how casinos should – of beer and cigar smoke. It is also home to one of the city’s oldest and most historic casinos – Binions.
Binions was the original home of the Poker World Series, and has one of the most impressive poker rooms in the whole of Vegas, hosting a rogue’s gallery of everyone who’s anyone in the world of Poker. At the centre of the casino guests can have their photo taken next to one million dollars, heavily guarded and under a thick perspex screen. And at the rear of the casino, you’ll find a small crowd of hopefuls trying to win it, pulling the oversized handle on Binion’s million dollar slot machine.
Alexis Conran's latest programme, Hustling America, will air on Channel 5 weekly from Monday 9th September at 7pm
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