Las Vegas on the Cheap

 

 

The Vegas Strip

The Vegas Strip

The first time I went to Las Vegas was in 1966. Flying from Los Angeles to New York, I broke the trip in Las Vegas for a long evening. Dazzled by the glitter of the place, even then, I had a fine time drinking, wandering around, and losing a little money before catching the red-eye flight to New York.

I’ve been meaning to revisit Las Vegas for some time, but only recently came up with a suitable travel plan. I would drive from Alpine across Arizona to Las Vegas (1,159 miles), spend a couple of days, and then fly Virgin America to San Francisco and visit an old friend who lives in Marin County. Then I would reverse the itinerary.

I had read about changes to Las Vegas over recent years. The city has shed its dodgy image from the past and today presents itself as a family destination as well as a choice for conventions; ever-more-spectacular hotels are being built along The Strip; downtown is being re-developed; 40 million people a year visit Las Vegas. The city’s population (2012) is 596,424.

My route to Las Vegas took me via the Hoover Dam, 30 miles south. I paid for parking and entrance into the visitor center exhibition and got an instant appreciation of the challenges facing the builders of this monumental construction project, which employed 5,200 men over 5 years before completion in 1936, resulting in the creation of 112-mile long Lake Mead. Easy to reach from Vegas, the dam gets up to 3,000 visitors daily.

Plaza Hotel and Casino 1,032 rooms.

Plaza Hotel and Casino
1,032 rooms.

Lake Mead showing high water mark.

Lake Mead showing high water mark.

 

Fremont Street, early morning.

Fremont Street, early morning.

At Boulder City tourist information office I lined up behind a Russian couple from Moscow, and for information on how to get to my Vegas hotel. Forty-five minutes later I was parked in downtown Las Vegas, right next to the 1032-room Plaza Hotel and Casino, where I had booked a room for $26 a night. The secret to finding hotel bargains in Vegas is to pick mid-week, choose a date when there is no major convention in town and check the web for downtown hotels for the best prices. I strode through the soulless lobby, where solitary people with blank faces pulled handles on the slot machines. My room, on the same floor as the swimming pool was specious and modern.

My first day’s day’s entertainment started outside the hotel, and was free. The Fremont Street Experience is a 5-block walkway downtown. Overhead is a canopy which affords shade during the day (and a zip line ride) and at night a high-tech light- and laser-show. At street level, kiosks sell snack food and souvenirs. Performance stages positioned to right and left provide periodic shows in front of the casinos which line the street. Going into a casino to find a rest room, I was startled to find on entering three Elvises, who had just been performing outside on Fremont Street, standing in a line chatting while they relieved themselves. Oh, for a camera!

If I had chosen to splurge on evening entertainment, I would have picked one of the seven Cirque du Soleil shows currently playing in Las Vegas, reportedly to 9,000 people a night. I saw an early Cirque du Soleil show in Houston in 1996 and was hugely impressed by the inventive mix of circus arts and street entertainment which this talented Canadian company was pioneering. For eating, I might have gone to the Buffet of Buffets, $49.99 for unlimited eating for 24 hours at any of six buffet restaurants. “Indulge More, Spend Less” is their motto. Instead, I opted for the Main Street Station Garden Court. Voted best downtown buffet, I could see why. The pretty, high-ceilinged room has an old-fashioned, airy feel to it. The 7 serving stations offered 60 dishes to choose from; and service was prompt and pleasant – all for $12.

For a museum experience, I avoided the over-priced downtown Mob Museum and the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts and drove to the Atomic Testing Museum near the university. Forgotten in Las Vegas’ quest to become gambling and entertainment capital of the world is the fact that very close by, from 1952-1990 the Nevada Test Site was the main location for testing nuclear weapons. In the 1960s when the population was still around 64,000, people would come out on the street to observe current testing. The demonstration had too much technical detail about nuclear fusion for my taste, and I wished I had chosen the Liberace Museum instead, particularly in view of the just-released movie, Liberace.

Gondolas on The Venetian lagoon.

Gondolas on The Venetian lagoon.

 

Bellagio front desk

Bellagio front desk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next day, I headed for The Strip, (Las Vegas Boulevard South), 4 miles of the best fantasy, style and entertainment the USA can produce. I jumped on a double-decker bus, “The Deuce”, downtown. The bus provides a Hop On-Hop Off service for $8 per day, travelling the length of The Strip. The hotels’ architecture and facilities are what visitors come to see: some of it tasteful and impressive, some of it over-the-top and outrageous, To the left and right as the bus works it way along The Strip, the iconic hotels appear: Mirage, The Venetian, Caesar’s Palace, Bellagio, New York, New York and Luxor.

On the bus, on the sidewalks and inside the hotels plenty of foreign voices were audible: Mexican families, girls with London accents, and visitors from SE Asia and China. Some of the sights are easy to mock by the cynic. In front of The Venetian I leaned over a balcony trying, in vain, to hear what an over-weight young lady, the gondolier, dressed in Venetian garb, was telling her clients as she poled the gondola under a bridge. In the Bellagio Conservatory, described by Frommer’s guidebook Las Vegas, as a “totally preposterous, a larger-than-life greenhouse atrium”, I watched a Mexican family totally entranced by the riotous colors and styles of the vegetation. The Vegas magic was working on them, and on me.

As it got dark, The Strip became a twinkling neon wonderland, using enough electricity to supply an African country. By now, I was ready catch The Deuce back to downtown.
I’d had a full day and an early evening seeing what Vegas had to offer, and I was impressed. It’s ironic to consider that this concentration of concrete, glass and metal carries a pastoral name, “The Meadows” (Las Vegas), given to it by the first Spanish explorers who found springs in the area.

Jim Glendinning About Jim Glendinning

I am a Footloose Scot who has traveled to 136 countries. "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson
Read about Jim Glendinning and his book Footloose Scot: Travels In A Time Of Change

Comments

  1. Paul Woods says:

    Jim is one of the most knowledgeable and adventurous travelers I know. His tips on great, low-cost attractions always hit the spot. His writing style is entertaining and informative. Paul Woods

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