Bee Says: In 2011, my best friend and her now-husband tied the knot in Las Vegas. Whilst I loved my week of celebrating and gallivanting in sin city, I wasn’t sure if it was somewhere I would ever re-visit. However, when we worked out that our last few weeks of the trip would be in California, I started to feel the itch to return and this time get to show Nick around. After all, we have taken in many wonders of the world on this adventure and surely Las Vegas features in a list somewhere! Las Vegas is a super-short flight from Los Angeles, but being on a budget and still of the South American mindset that anything under 10 hours on a bus is short… we hopped on a 5 hour Megabus. Yes, you read correctly; Megabus! Our beloved British brand friend has now started running routes across California and at the same jaw-droppingly cheap prices. We got our bus back to Los Angeles for under $5 each. In fact the bus from our hotel to the bus station cost more, than the 276 mile Megabus. We were worried that for such peanuts, the service might be dreadful, but our double decker beaut pulled up promptly and we were boarded by a friendly chap. It was clean, the air con was pumping to protect us from the hot hot Nevada heat, there was wifi, power sockets and I managed to snooze almost the whole way. Oh, and they arrived 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Megabus UK… your USA pals are putting you to shame!
En route to Las Vegas by road, about half way there you pass a sign welcoming you to the state of Nevada and directly next to it is a large casino complex. We heard a brilliant story that a friend of ours had driven for his first time to Vegas, saw the Nevada sign and the casino, and promptly pulled in believing he had arrived AT Vegas. It took him nearly an entire day to realise that he was actually just at a random hotel (perhaps when he hadn’t spotted the Eiffel Tower… or the NY NY rollercoaster… or well, any other hotels?) and had to get back in his car! For us our arrival into Vegas was made a lot easier by the fact that I have friends who live there. Yes, people DO live in Las Vegas! I first met Che and Joe at the wedding, and we have stayed in touch via the wonders of Skype and the internet since. They have been huge champions of our blog and trip, so it felt completely right that we should share part of the emotional ending with them. it also meant that after following our journey closely, they had put together an itinerary that they felt could rival Machu Picchu… the Galapagos… the Amazon. And they weren’t wrong.
After some hugs and hellos, we loaded ourselves into Che and Joe’s car and within 30 minutes had been driven out to possibly my favourite place in the USA; Red Rock Canyon. Sitting in the shadow of the better known Grand Canyon, Red Rock is frequently overlooked by tourists, and is certainly somewhere I wouldn’t have discovered without local knowledge. Consisting of miles of arid desert cliffs, buttes and dramatically coloured rock formations,you enter the park by car and take the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Scenic Route; 13 miles of one-way winding roads with regular parking areas to hop out and join hiking trails. We were itching to be back on two feet, so at the very first opportunity we rushed out to where professional climbers were dangling like ants on the cliff-face above us. Not wanting to miss out, we clambered up a few of the easier chunks and yelled out to hear our voices echo back around us. Being the first hiking spot, it was packed with visitors, so we tootled on to a more secluded spot.
Having spent a huge portion of his life wandering these canyons, Joe had a favourite spot in mind to take us to. We ducked under cacti and clambered over scrub, clung to outcrops as we manoeuvred around the rocks, and then started our ascent. The familiar feelings of trekking through jungle or rainforest or salt flats returned, only this time we were wearing jeans and converse! At the top we had a perfect view of the breath-taking surroundings, where the crimson of the rocks dazzled against the bright blue of the sky. We chatted and chatted until a blissful calm settled on us, and we all sat silently mulling over our own thoughts, with only the distant swimming-pool sound of echoed voices and animal squawks in the far distance. We had come to Vegas expecting chaos and here we were feeling as remote as we had in the middle of Bolivia. It was hard to believe that the madness of the Las Vegas strip was close enough to be visible when we staggered out of the rough and back to the car.
Joe is a talented drummer and big music cheese on the US music scene, and he told us an amazing secret; due to the acoustics of Red Rock Canyon he sometimes takes out his drum-kit and practises for hours out in the desert. You can imagine the surprise of people driving along the scenic route and they hear the thud of a bass drum coming over the crags. Apparently people have stopped to tell him they were convinced they were hearing the ghosts of tribes from days gone by! Mostly people stop to question him about why he’s there and listen to him perform an impromptu set. I like to think of him as the Drummer of Red Rock (say it in a spooky voice in your head) and maybe one day he’ll be in the Are They Real? books alongside the abominable snowman and big foot?
With weary legs, we were excited to check-in to our hotel, and headed there next. After our last two hotel experiences being massive fails in Belize and Mexico; surely nothing could go wrong this time? Well, they say these things happen in threes and this time it was entirely my fault. In the stress of booking the Vegas hotel at the time Nick had just injured his back on the boat of doom, I had booked the room for February, not March. What an idiot! With Nascar in town for the weekend, a room was going to set us back $100 a night last minute, so luckily Joe and Che offered us their futon for the night (thanks guys!) which would give us time to find a cheaper last minute deal for the other 2 nights. The only option was to go and drink a cocktail strong enough to make me forget my booking stupidity, so we headed to Frankie’s Tiki Room.
Frankie’s is a Las Vegas insitution steeped in tradition. The interior of Frankie’s was built by Bamboo Ben, apparently the world’s foremost tiki bar designer and also grandson of Eli Hedley. Eli was the original beachcomber, scavenging finds from the ocean to create the décor at iconic destinations such as Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Again, this is a location often overlooked by tourists, as it’s not directly on The Strip. However, anyone bothering to take the 5 minute taxi out will be richly rewarded with the killer strong drinks and the unique feeling of actually being in Beetlejuice. One of my favourite things about Frankies is the collectable cups. You can pay $10 more for your cocktail in one of their limited edition tiki mugs and take it home. Given this was my second visit, I am now the proud owner of two! We opted for the Wild Watusi as it strongly resembles a face that both Nick and I have perfected, which we refer to as the roaring goblin. It is a face we have relied upon for the last 6 months to entertain and silence crying babies on long buses journeys.
After downing a delicious Sea Hag, we returned to Joe and Che’s. I sat down on the sofa for a slice of pizza and to watch an episode of Naked and Afraid (and disbelieving this show could ever get made!) before realising that Nick was missing. Stepping into our room I found him passed out in all his clothes, his trainers and with the lights blazing. One drink at Frankies is all it takes!
Nick Says: When you think of Vegas, you think of the bright lights, the casinos, the excess, and the mega-hotels. You probably don’t think of neighbourhoods and hidden restaurant gems. While the strip loomed over everything, it was a treat to explore this more hidden side of Vegas for a few days. We got to see Che and Joe’s favourite places, realise that normal people do exist in Sin City, and step outside the madness bubble that permeates the centre of Vegas. But there’s definitely no getting away from the dominance of what locals refer to as ‘gaming’. It seems standard that everyone will know what hotels are new, which ones are being renovated, and which ones will be pulled down soon. Who’s in town to play, game, or just hang out is also discussed with the intensity of bankers discussing stocks and shares in places like New York or London, and which new night-clubs and bars will make the biggest impact. Most jobs there do seems to revolve around the gaming industry to some extent, and it’s amazing to see everyone so invested in one thing. After our time in Los Angeles, and with San Francisco looming, it makes you realise just how vast the USA is – there are entire cities dedicated to one thing, whether this is entertainment, gambling, or tech.
After waking up from my Sea Hag induced coma, it was time to experience this industry first-hand. It was time to take on the Strip. For those who don’t know Vegas, the Strip is the main street where the big hotels and casinos are based. Be prepared to do a lot of walking while there, it’s pretty massive. Oh, and be prepared to be detoured into almost every casino…Among the delights you’ll see is a fake Eiffel Tower, fake Venetian canals, a fake Egyptian pyramid, and a fake New York. And lest you forget that Vegas exists in a desert, one of the main attractions in the Miracle Mile shopping complex is a fake rainstorm. No matter the time of day, lights, sound, and people will be blaring at you on the Strip. Music pumps magically from bushes and trees. People either sit dead-eyed at the slot machines or giddy with gambling fever at the tables. The casino floors stretch on for miles. You become lost in the vastness and fear you’ll never make it out again. It took us an hour and several wrong turns to find the mono-rail in the MGM-Grand. It’s raucous and no-holds barred, and most definitely must see. I think my feelings on the Strip probably go for Vegas as a whole, I’m not sure if I liked it, but I really enjoyed it.
After some time watching fake gondoliers sing for tourists at The Venetian, we suddenly got a call from Joe and Che. They had managed to get themselves the afternoon off work and were coming to pick us up! It was time to high-tail it out of Vegas for another adventure. And this time they were taking us to the Hoover Dam. Now, I don’t know about you, but we had no idea it was so close to Vegas. In fact, we found out loads of cool stuff was in reach of Vegas. Not just the Grand Canyon, but Zion, Boulder City, ghost towns, the aforementioned Red Rock Canyon, plus the amazingly named Valley of Fire. So even if gaming is not your thing, Vegas offers a place where you can take advantage of the cheap hotels, great food, and proximity to some amazing natural environments.
Another unexpected treat on our visit to the Dam was that we would cross state lines into Arizona. Our third state of the trip! What was particularly cool was that the state line crosses the Dam neatly in the middle, which for part of the year leaves one side in Nevada time (Pacific Coast Time) and the other an hour ahead in Arizona time (Mountain Standard Time). Although the title of this post jokingly puts the new build fake wonder of Vegas against all the natural and ancient wonders of Latin America we’ve seen on our trip, visiting the Hoover Dam was more than equal to any of these. It was an absolutely breathtaking piece of man-made engineering, and I highly recommend anyone in the area to visit it. The sheer scale of the project, and the speed with which it was completed (it took just 5 years between 1931-36 to construct) is mind-boggling. After parking at one of the free car-parks just over the Arizona side (do not be fooled by the $10 car parks, keep driving just round the corner), you walk across the Dam one side to the other, pausing to peer over the edge into what appears to be infinity.
The smooth sides seem seductively deceptive – like you easily slide down them and be ok. However, you’d be unlikely to survive the 220m sheer drop to the base. Everything is also in amazing art-deco style, meaning this is probably one of the best looking industrial sites in existence, Even the men’s toilets, usually a by-word for grubby unpleasantness, are beautifully elegant, with bronzed hand-rails, marble floors, and striking art-deco motifs. It makes you slightly despair over modern architecture and design. But who knows, perhaps in 80 years people will be fawning over the looks of Crossrail? While sadly we arrived too late in the day to enjoy it, you can also go on what is said to be a fascinating and dramatic tour of the inner-workings of the Dam itself, where you go inside to see the big turbines at work, supplying electricity to Nevada, Arizona, and California. The place also has to be constantly stress-checked, as the smallest crack would be disastrous. All in all, it was a towering achievement to what humans are capable of.
However, a darker reminder of what humans are also capable of sits right next to the Dam. The demands on its electricity have grown and grown, as Las Vegas and Los Angeles keep on growing. Meanwhile, the rainfall has dried up, the drought worsens and the water level has been steadily declining. Next to the Dam is a huge overspill channel, in case the water threatened to flow over the top of the Hoover Dam, which now looks like laughable optimism rather than careful planning. The rate it seems to be going, you can imagine Hoover Dam being obsolete and useless in our lifetime.
Bee Says: After our day at the dam it was time to go and find our new hotel and finally luck was on our side. In my last visit to Vegas it hadn’t taken me long to decide that I way prefer Downtown to The Strip. As Nick explained, the Strip is the bit you see on holiday brochures and tv shows. For me, I could only spend half a day there before I had a pounding headache and felt like I needed to escape. Downtown is the “original Vegas” packed with the casinos that housed Elvis and the Rat Pack. Whilst The Strip is neon and loud and in your face, Downtown is old and shambling and I feel, the authentic Vegas. For a while Downtown looked like it might slip into the dangerous end of seedy, it was losing tourism and becoming a hot bed for dodgy doings. I was relieved to see this time that some real investment is occurring in Downtown, with hotel renovations and better transport links with The Strip, to tempt tourists over.
We had chosen to stay in the El Cortez, on a recommendation from Che and also because it was a bargainous $19 a night. After struggling with my lift-phobia in Mexico and being turfed out of the Ibis, this time my irrational fear worked in our favour. The only part of the hotel accessible by stairs was their vintage suites, so we were upgraded free of charge to a huge sprawling set of rooms that looked like something out of Mad Men. El Cortez is one of the longest running hotels in Vegas, originally opened 1941 and then quickly bought and run for the next twenty years by the mob! Despite refurbishments, the hotel has ensured they maintain the decor and style from the 1950s, to the point that the hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
We couldn’t have had a better hotel experience. On arrival we were given an entire booklet of freebies, meaning we never actually paid to eat, drink or gamble in the hotel (the official term for this is juicing; where you are encouraged with treats to stay in the hotel gambling). We absolutely loved roaming the casino floors, peering at games of roulette and even partaking in a few rounds of caveman keno ourselves. Every night we would see the same people gambling at 11pm, who would still be there at 9am when we got up for breakfast! Vegas is all about psychology… Joe pointed out that you will never see a clock in a casino (and they blur the time out on any TV feeds), the windows are darkened and the lights are dim; so that no one can ever make a guess at whether it’s day or night.
The heart of Downtown is the Freemont Street Experience; the pedestrianised road that runs between the cluster of huge old-time hotels including the Golden Nugget and the Four Queens. The sky is covered in a canopy of screens that show video and light shows, set to pumping music. The street itself is dazzling, with bright lights saturating every surface. I loved watching Nick’s face as he took it all in with a gaping mouth; the huge neon cowboys and flamingoes, the people stumbling around with giant frozen margaritas, the signs claiming “loose slots and $2.99 shrimp”… I love every bit of it.
This is how I imagined Vegas before I visited and it’s always the best way to really get to the heart of it. Talking of hearts; where else in the world would you get a Heart Attack Cafe? The nurses dress in medical scrubs and anyone over 350lbs eats free. Offerings include buttermilk-milkshakes, triple-quarter-pounders and all the food has been Guinness Record approved to be the most calorific diner food in the world. We stopped to pick up a few cheesy souvenirs, claim some free mardis gras beads and then trotted back to meet Joe and Che for the best Mexican food of the trip (which I feel we were owed after our terrible Mexican in Mexico)
Nick Says: The Freemont Street Experience really was everything I imagined Vegas to be in my lurid old-school neon fantasies. Elvis impersonators sang in the streets and threw their neckerchiefs at the screaming and adoring fans, and you could easily imagine bumping into Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jnr. While I could take or leave the Strip, I think Downtown might have me coming back to Vegas for one more spin of the wheel (sorry). As well as some finally decent Mexican, we also got to visit Hash House A-Go-Go. As well as never being able to resist going anywhere with ‘a-go-go’ in the title, this place was also the scene for Lol’s pre-wedding dinner. Which considering the size of the portions, may have not been her smartest decision. Each massive plateful of food was greeted by, ‘oh my gawds’, and ‘shoot, look a the size of that thing’, as well as horrified faces. It was truly monstrous, but oh so delicious. We smugly shared a plateful of the Man Vs Food Special, and just about managed to finish.
Of course we weren’t quite finished with the secret tour of Vegas, and Joe and Che took us to one of their favourite hang-outs, the Double Down Dive Bar. This place is a riot, with a huge sign on the wall proclaiming ‘SHUT UP AND DRINK’, which I think succinctly sets out the bar’s agenda. Populated by an incredibly varied cast of characters at the bar (including on occasions former N*Sync member Joey Fatone, who went apparently went unrecognised until he wore his trademark baseball cap), the Double Down oozes authenticity – rather than some try-hard hipster spots, you believe the signs on the wall which offer ‘puke insurance’, and fear the ominously named house cocktail ‘ass juice’. While I enjoyed the suspiciously sweet concoction in small doses, I was glad to not take inspiration from Bee’s previous visit here on the wedding, where she became known as the Maid of Dishonour…
Spilling out of the bar we felt like we had really experienced the best of Vegas. Having Che and Joe guide us around their home town made sure we discovered a side of the city many could easily miss. We saw the best of the glitz and glamour, got out of dodge when it became too much and saw nature and man-made marvels at their very finest, and got to see how the locals interact with their city, one of the craziest in the world. We also felt pretty proud that thanks to our free vouchers from the hotel, we beat Vegas. By gambling $20 of free money, we won $7.50 of REAL money. We may not be high rollers, but we were winners – and the free drinks (provided to you as you place cents in the slot machines), and free food only added to it. As we rolled out of town and back to L.A. slightly broken and sleep deprived, it felt like Vegas did fit into our wider trip – a place full of surprises, brilliant people, and total mayhem.
Nick & Bee Say: As some of our more eagle-eyed readers/friends may be aware, we have actually returned to the UK (wahhh!) but don’t worry, our hearts are still in adventure-mode and TwentySomething Burnouts will continue with updates about our road trip, San Francisco and of course… how we feel now we are back to reality.
PS: Did we or didn’t we..?