Arriving in Vegas on the 8th of July, the first thing that hit me was the intense heat. After 12 hours on a plane from Manila to Vancouver then another 2 hours from Vancouver to Vegas, my feet were eager to do some walking. So there I was, excitedly setting foot for the first-time in the US of A, and what greeted me was the desert heat. Imagine living inside an oven or a sauna. Intense dry dry dry heat that dries-up your eyes, cracks your lips, and suffocates you. No kidding. And I thought I knew heat from my mountain-climbing. “You’ll know why I wouldn’t go to Vegas on summer when you get there,” my friend Jeff said. I totally understood what he and all the others I’ve asked to come with me and attend the IDEA Convention meant.
“How much change you want?” Asked the chinese driver of the cab I had taken from McCarran. I had given him a 50 for a 42-dollar ride to my Downtown hotel. “Give me 5 bucks,” I answered. He was nice anyway and made for good conversation; plus he helped me with my luggage and pointed out to me where the bus stop to the Strip was. Looking like a saloon from the bygone days, the El Cortez seemed to magnify the intense heat. It stood out against the blue sky and the street fronting it was quite understandably deserted. “Everyone stays indoors becuase of the heat,” my friend Ochie had explained to me before I left Manila. It was already a little past 8 but the sun was still out still very very hot. A block across the hotel was the so-called Fremont Street Experience–four blocks covered with a canopy of lights that ran a “show” of images with a blaring soundtrack. It was like watching a huge tv screen. A few seconds of stiff neck later, I moved on. Late late dinner was at a small shop that served Middle Eastern food. I had a huge beef gyros with potato wedges and a drink for $12. My friend Ochie advised me, “if you’re gonna keep converting to pesos, you’re never gonna be able to eat or buy anything.” $12 was supposed to be cheap. I had already made-up my mind to just leave for LA on Sunday and stay an extra night so I wouldn’t have to rush-off right after the convention which ended on Saturday morning. The deuce bus stop was just at the next corner and the $5 all-day pass which included the other RTC routes was a bargain. 2 days later, I could navigate Vegas like I was born there–well, at least the main roads like the Strip, Tropicana, Sahara, and Paradise. After walking the Strip countless of times, walking to the convention center, even walking along Sahara in the wee hours of the morning coming from Commercial Center, I was, as my boss remarked, “look liked a Vegas native.” I was proud of that 🙂
City of Lights
People say the best time to arrive in Vegas is in the evening when all the lights are on creating a luminous mirage in the middle of the Mojave desert. Walking along the Strip, it’s as if the world’s lights were all lit there. Astronauts say that they can see the Great Wall from the moon. I bet, they saw that during daytime when Vegas was asleep and half of the lights weren’t lit. Otherwise, the Apollo 13 could orbit back to Earth with the Flamingo sign as its beacon.
Not just the lights, but the hotels create a magical place. Amidst the hugeness of surroundings and the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic, it is easy to see and feel why Vegas can be the stuff of dreams. Can’t travel the world? Then troop to Paris, Las Vegas hotel for a photo-op at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. New York is just a few meters away and just across the pyramid and pharaos of Egypt courtesy of Luxor. Nearby, Sir Arthur awaits at his medieval castle of Excalibur. Caged lions, pink flamingoes, talking statues, venetian canals, dancing fountains, daredevil rides, treasure ships, name it, Vegas has it. My favorite? The dancing fountains of Bellagio. They’re not really extra-ordinary but at least they’re not as tacky as the pirates and ship show at Treasure Island or the talking statues at Ceasar’s Palace. Besides, dancing fountains that shoot up water always look, well . . . sensual and sexy.
I was lucky to have been able to try staying at Fremont and at the Strip giving me a sense of both the old and the new Vegas. Thanks to the Gold’s Gym Convention, I got to stay at the Excalibur and thanks to PAL’s cancellation of my trip back home, I got an extra night but this time at the Riviera. The El Cortez at Fremont is far from glamorous but I like its quietness. The room size was comparable to the Exaclibur’s and the Riviera’s, bigger even. I actually liked my El Cortez room which was roomy and clean with 2 big beds. I think I’ll stay there again. Mandalay Bay where my bosses stayed and where the Gold’s Gym convention was, really is tops. Nice room, a pool that simulated a beach, and a really really really big hotel that actually smelled nice and not smokey. For almost $200 a night, it had to be.
All You Can Puke Buffet There are buffets and then there are the Vegas buffets. In the land of excesses, why stop at building grand and ginormous hotels. Bring the food in. The buffets are absolutely mind-boggling. You actually get option paralysis. I thought the Spiral buffet at the Manila Sofitel was the ultimate food orgy. But no. And I’m just talking about breakfast. I never got to try lunch nor dinner. But the breakfasts at the Mandalay, Fremont Hotel, and Fremont Station were enough already. Forget about simply bacon, corned beef and hash. The buffet breakfast had steak, fried chicken, enchiladas and so much more. Why stop at pancakes and waffles when you can have cheesecakes, carrot cakes, cookies, and a whole lot more that white flour, butter, and sugar can come-up with.
Charmingly Tacky Being the backpacker that I am, I never imagined that I would really enjoy all that commerical excess surrounding me. I even caught Elvis rocking and rolling 🙂 But like a persistent acquaintance that you never really like but always hangs-out with you, Vegas slowly grows on you. Walking along the Strip in the dead of night, waiting for the deuce at 3 in the morning, getting a quick bite to eat Walgreens and even walking along the empty Freemont Experience at daybreak is always magical. Admittedly, some of the attractions are downright tacky but again, one’s man’s tacky is another man’s novelty.
Vegas truly has a character of its own. The only other US city I’ve been to is LA so I couldn’t say how it measures up to the rest. LA is so sporty, fit, and chic while Vegas is oh so quaint, charming, and even pretty.
My Top Hotel Picks (because they look nice)
1. Wynn – gorgeous and stylish lobby that actually looks classy not tacky
2. Mandalay Bay – a swimming pool that looks like a beach and a shark’s reef aquarium
3. Venezia – faux Italian but nice
My Top Food Eats
1. Fat Burger – the counter guy making the burgers actually remembered me on my second outing; thick thick milkshakes and juicy burgers
2. Nestle Toll House – if all cookies were made just like these; it makes going to Miracle Mile at Planet Hollywood totally worth it.. heck, i’d wade through the Rio Grande just for this
3. Ghirardelli – To-die-for peanut butter sundae
4. Nathan’s – great hotdogs; Nathan’s at the Mermaid in Downtown has fried Twinkies and fried Oreo’s
5. Denny’s – your friendly neighborhood diner where the waitress actually serves you and seems to actually enjoy it