One week in Sin City

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the middle of the Nevada desert lies a place of decadence, extravagance, free-flowing booze, and a non-stop bombardment of lights, promotion, and people trying to get ahead. Las Vegas is a one-of-a-kind place with a culture all its own, but spending a week there is far, far too long. The excitement peaks at about day three and steadily declines from there, until you wonder why in the hell you decided to spend seven days in Sin City.

It all started when I heard that Shania Twain would be doing a residency at Caesar’s Palace starting in 2012. Being the unashamed, obsessed Twain fan that I am, I decided immediately that I would be buying tickets for my boyfriend and I, and that we would be making our way to Las Vegas a place I had never had the urge to go before.

I bought the tickets a year in advance. As I began planning the trip, I realized that our stay would coincide with Cirque Week, a truly wonderful event that celebrates all the Cirque du Soleil shows (seven at the time) that call Las Vegas home. Since I’m also a huge Cirque fan, I figured we might as well spend the week there and absorb as much Cirque as possible.   

We saw two Cirque shows: Beatles Love and Zarkana, and also took in a few special events, like an acrobatics demonstration and an interview with one of the creators of Ka, also a Cirque show.

Beatles Love is one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had the pleasure of being part of. Whenever people tell me they are going to Vegas, I tell them that this show is a must-see and worth the somewhat pricey ticket. For Beatles fans, it would be heaven; even for those who are not, the show is spectacular with its stunning acrobatics and immersive set pieces.

Zarkana was a new show when we were there, and it’s a dark production with tons of spider webs, a giant snake, giant eyeballs, dank cave scenes, and some creepy characters. The acrobatic scenes are impressive, and I was happy with our choice.

We stayed at the Flamingo Hotel, located centrally on the strip. The Flamingo has been there since 1946 when infamous mobster Bugsy Seigel opened it as the first luxury hotel on the strip. It’s a mid-level hotel with decent amenities and an affordable price. Its location also served us well, being across the street from Shania.

Almost everyone you pass on the strip is holding a can, bottle, or oversized cup of liquor

Entering and exiting most Las Vegas hotels required a walk through the smoky casino, and once outside on the strip, there are people ready and waiting to shove their pamphlets, flyers, or CDs in your hands. There are guys with t-shirts that shout “Girls, Girls, Girls,” passing out flyers with pictures of scantily clad women to every man. There are also plenty of hip hop musicians trying to catch a break and sell CDs to passers-by. Their sales tactics are quite amusing: after handing me the CD, he asked for a donation, and when I said that I didn’t have any cash, he said he’d need to take the CD back.

The constant stimuli can be a lot to get used to on the strip, and one of the only ways to find refuge is to find somewhere to sit and eat. That task is easier said than done, unless you’re willing to live on greasy diner style food or pay an arm and a leg for good, quality cuisine.

One restaurant that we enjoyed was a new addition to The Venetian called Rattlecan. The food was not exactly healthy, with specialties such as deep fried pickles and a variety of gourmet burgers, but it was very tasty, and the décor was done by renowned graffiti artists. All in all, it was worthwhile visit, which is why I was sad to hear that it closed its doors in 2013.

Another thing I had to get used to in Las Vegas was the prevalence of alcohol. Almost everyone you pass on the strip is holding a can, bottle, or oversized cup of liquor, and this is totally acceptable, even encouraged. It really feels like a 24/7 party.

Just north of the main strip is downtown Las Vegas and Fremont Street where the original large casinos were built. The area has its own vintage charm, and we spent an afternoon there after visiting the Neon Museum, where they collect and restore neon signs that have been decommissioned. If you’re interested in the history of Las Vegas, architecture, and cool vintage neon signs, this place will be right up your alley.

After a few days, if you want to do away with all the attractions, lights, and spectacles in Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon is only a few hours’ drive away. We did a day trip with Pink Jeep Tours (in a very comfortable, giant pink van) that lasted about 15 hours, and it was well worth it. Going there and back in one day doesn’t allow for much time at the canyon, but we were able to have a meal at an old Native American lodge and stop at a couple of different lookouts. One unnerving thing was seeing all the people posing precariously on the edge of the cliff for a photo opportunity that looked like it might cost them their life. Those guard rails are there for a reason.

There really is so much to see in Vegas between the elaborate hotels, museums, shows, and outlet malls, but after a few days the constant stimuli and contrast between the over-the-top decadence and waste of the hotels and the abject poverty of beggars on the strip begins to get you down. One night, sitting at the slot machines in the Flamingo, we watched a woman feed twenty dollar bill after twenty dollar bill into the machine. It was a sad sight to see.  

Another frustrating aspect of the strip is how long it can take to walk anywhere. Pedestrian walkways make things safer, but sometimes force you to walk far out of your way, and walking next door can feel like walking a few blocks. There is a monorail that runs behind the strip, but it can often take longer to walk through one hotel, get on the train, and then walk through another back to the strip than it would take to just take the inconvenient walk.

Vegas has a unique culture, and it can be liberating to forget about your troubles, grab a drink, play the slots, and act like nothing matters, but eventually you have to return to reality. The only reason I would return would be to see more Cirque du Soleil or other stage shows — to me they are the best thing Las Vegas has to offer.

Shania Twain’s show was everything I could have imagined. A residency at Caesar’s Palace means no expense is spared to create a stunning production that the artist is highly involved in. Shania had two horses in the show, she flew in on a motorcycle, she sat around a campfire with some lucky audience members, and each song was brought to life with custom built set pieces and spectacular lighting and video projections.
My week in Sin City was complete. Now that I’ve seen the sights of this city that never sleeps, I don’t need to return anytime soon — unless, of course, one of my favourite musicians takes up residence at Caesar’s Palace or a new Cirque du Soleil show comes to town.