Rediscover Las Vegas

Beyond the bright lights of Sin City, let loose in a bulldozer, eat steak like the Mob and play vintage pinball.

Beyond the bright lights of Sin City, let loose in a bulldozer, eat steak like the Mob and play vintage pinball.

Activities: Bulldozer therapy
The first thing to know about Las Vegas is this: whoever came up with the name Sin City really wasn’t kidding. ‘Arrive with luggage, leave with baggage,’ as the old joke goes. But hangovers and ill-advised wagers aren’t the only reason to come to this parched corner of southern Nevada, a four-hour drive from LA. There’s also the unmistakable sense that you’ve arrived in a place where the laws of reality are simply not being enforced.

This, after all, is a town where an exotic dancer was once put on trial for murdering her boyfriend over buried treasure – six tons of silver bullion, to be precise; it’s a town where tourists used to attend roof-top ‘atomic bomb parties’ to view ten-kiloton blasts, wearing only shorts and sunglasses for protection (the Nevada Test Site is 70 miles away); and it’s a town that counts among its prime attractions a fake volcano that erupts on the hour.

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Let’s not forget the more humdrum distractions, such as the pick-up trucks that cruise up and down the central thoroughfare (aka the Strip) towing billboards which read, ‘Strippers! Direct to your room!’ All of which explains why I decide to purge myself of self-destructive tendencies upon arrival – to get the sin out of my system, so to speak. And for this, there is nothing better than the ‘Dig & Destroy’ package at Dig This, a scene of diabolical hedonism on a patch of scrubland next to Interstate-15. Here, a squat New Zealander named Ed Mumm keeps a fleet of construction-grade excavators and bulldozers and, in defiance of all common sense, allows pretty much anyone (for a fee, naturally) to play with them after only a few minutes of training. This is the ‘dig’ part of the experience. The ‘destroy’ part comes later, at a nearby gun range, where automatic weapons are supplied with similar bravado.

‘Don’t worry: it’s impossible to make a mess out here!’ Ed reassures me, once I’ve been breathalysed (an insurance requirement), fitted with a fluorescent vest and handed a Diet Coke (this being America, the cabs of the bulldozers have air conditioning and cup-holders). Before long, I’m tearing up the ground, scooping it up, making hills, driving over them, then covering them back up again. Judging by my fellow diggers, it’s not just men who find this enjoyable. ‘At least half our clients are women,’ confirms Ed. ‘And they tend to be better operators, because they listen to the instructions and they don’t put as much pressure on themselves when they’re digging. They also laugh and scream a lot – which I like.’

He’s right: there are whoops and giggles as the bright yellow machines are driven as if they were life-sized Tonka toys. Meanwhile, beyond the freeway, under a sky hotter than all the ovens of Hell, the insane skyline of Las Vegas Boulevard – where the Eiffel Tower stands between Brooklyn Bridge and a lurching pirate galleon – glitters approvingly. Later, Ed tells me that his company also offers a gentler package, known as Excavate and Exfoliate, in which the gun range is substituted for a spa treatment. Strangely enough, it’s not very popular. (from £150)

Shopping: Your very own poker face
Shopping is another, albeit potentially ruinous, way to stay out of trouble in Las Vegas. And by ruinous, I mean… well, The Wynn hotel has a Ferrari dealership in the lobby. There are more interesting places to spend your money, however, such as the Gambler’s General Store. Getting there requires a car or a taxi – the nondescript warehouse is close to the downtown area – but it’s only a ten-minute drive from the Strip.

I visit on a weekday morning, and get quickly immersed in the rows of dice, poker chips, antique slot machines and used casino playing cards (99c, or 60p, per deck). ‘In the old days, dice manufacturers could sell only to casinos,’ explains the manager, Wendy Rock. ‘So in the 1980s, they set up a retail subsidiary. This is it.’ Business isn’t as good as it was during the poker craze of the early 2000s, she admits. But judging by the number of one-armed bandits on display – ‘NOT A CASINO’ reads a sign, ‘THESE MACHINES ARE FOR SALE’ – there is still plenty of demand. Also on offer are roulette wheels, card shufflers, gambling apparel (such as dark glasses to obscure ‘tells’ during poker games) and a vast library of books, mostly on strategy and odds. In the souvenir department, meanwhile, there’s a personalised poker chip service, which allows you to put your face and/or business details on Sin City’s most popular unit of currency. They cost 79c each, with a minimum 100 chip order.

Not all gambling equipment can be purchased: in many states, one-armed bandits can be sold only if they’re more than 25 years old. Roulette wheels, meanwhile, must be less than 32 inches in size. And what’s legal in America might not be the case in the UK, so the shop recommends checking with HM Revenue & Customs before taking anything home. Given some of the prices, this is wise. A slot machine from the 1940s – the days when Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel ruled the town – goes for $2,995 (£1,850). ‘For a guy who’s got a private gaming room,’ says Wendy, ‘it makes a wonderful piggy bank.’

Architecture: The meaning of squished titanium
Downtown Las Vegas is worth visiting for other reasons than the Gambler’s General Store. Where Las Vegas Boulevard meets Park Paseo, for example, there’s the John S Park Historic District, named after one of the city’s pioneers, and a well-preserved timewarp of 1950s American suburbia. While it isn’t exactly a tourist attraction, devotees of kitsch mid-century architecture, as featured in, say, Mad Men or the Tom Ford film A Single Man, consider this one of the best-preserved developments of the era. Nearly every home looks as though it might once have been the subject of a David Hockney painting. And it’s a wonder they’re still there: the entire area was very nearly flattened in 1996 by the casino mogul Bob Stupak to make way for a 280-foot tall replica of the Titanic. He didn’t get his way, thankfully, and instead built the Stratosphere hotel and casino nearby. The latter’s observation tower now looms overhead like a visiting alien mothership.

A few blocks northwest, meanwhile, is Las Vegas’s architectural claim to the future, or at least its bid to be taken seriously as a real city, not just an empty pleasuretropolis: the melting steel ribbons of Frank Gehry’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, positioned opposite the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, with its Art Deco-style façade and 17-storey bell tower. If Frank Lloyd Wright had ever designed a cathedral, this is how it might have looked.

Former Mayor Oscar Goodman – the one-time mob lawyer who brags openly about getting his (now deceased) client Anthony ‘The Ant’ Spilotro out of the ‘whole head-in-a-vice thing’ – was instrumental in making all this happen, and on the whole, Las Vegans love him for it. When I go to see Goodman at his office near the Las Vegas Convention Center, he refuses to take it all too seriously. ‘Everyone tries to guess the significance of the squished titanium,’ he tells me, of the Lou Ruvo Center. ‘They say, “Oh, y’know, it’s a metaphor for the human brain”, all that stuff. Well – not so.’ Goodman, who is now 73, with a rash of white stubble, ample belly and drinker’s nose, proceeds to give the real story. ‘What happened is that Frank Gehry had an aversion to Las Vegas, and it took us a very long time to convince him to do a project out here. When he finally agreed, we went out to see him at his office, and I remember he had some crepe paper on his desk. He screwed it up, then he threw it down on the floor.’

Goodman shrugs as if in apology. ‘That was it,’ he says. ‘The design never really changed.’

Dining: Steak and cupcakes
Ask Goodman for the official dish of Las Vegas, and he doesn’t even take a breath: ‘Steak!’ The bloodier the better. When the mob still ran the city, it’s all they wanted. Clearly, the members of Sin City’s brutally violent gambling syndicates didn’t spend a great deal of time worrying about cholesterol. Indeed, in the car park of one of Sin City’s better known red meat establishments – Tony Roma’s on Sahara Avenue – you can still make out the scorch marks from the car comb that almost killed Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal in 1982. (Lefty being the former casino executive who gained infamy during a congressional mob investigation for exercising the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent no fewer than 37 times, even when asked if he was left-handed.)

Since retiring as mayor, Goodman has opened his own place, Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads in the Plaza Hotel, overlooking the enclosed and redeveloped Fremont Street, which resembles a kind of vast, post-modern take on London’s Smithfield Market. (At night, live bands play on the street while halfnaked girls dance above the blackjack tables in the casinos.) The beef and booze are self-explanatory. As for the broads, well, Goodman is known for ‘never going anywhere without my showgirls’.

In reality, these turn out to be dancers in backless dresses and elaborate headgear who act as hostesses, and while I’m enjoying my New York strip steak at the bar, one of them comes over – a vision of shimmering red plumes – and asks how I’m doing. Couldn’t be better, I blush. I recommend asking for What Oscar’s Having, a gin cocktail, no vermouth, with the olive replaced by a jalapeño. Oh, and avoid the Mitt Romney – unless you want a grinning barman to bring you a glass of water.

If you spend long enough at Oscar’s, you’ll almost certainly meet ‘Hizzoner’ himself, who spends an hour every day in his memorabilia-stacked office behind the bar, composing his memoirs. And if he’s not there, you’ll at least see his likeness plastered all over the walls. ‘Look, no-one else in this town could call their restaurant Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads without getting hit over the head by the political correctness department,’ he tells me. ‘But it’s me! People just say, “Oh, that’s Oscar being Oscar…”’

A note on dessert: wait until the next morning, then take a 25-minute drive to Retro Bakery. There, owner Kari Haskell – a rock’n’roll mum with short blonde hair and tattoos – bakes cupcakes with topping so smooth, it tastes almost like ice-cream. Justin Timberlake is one of several celebrity customers. The Hop Scotch proves why: it’s vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream, dipped in butterscotch ganache. Also highly recommended: the Pink Lemonade and the Maple Bacon. And if you don’t drive? ‘We deliver to the Strip all the time,’ says Kari. ‘Even just one cupcake, it’s not a problem. As long you pay the $20 delivery charge.’ (from £20 for a steak at Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads; from £1.60 for a cupcake at Retro Bakery)

Culture: What to do when there isn’t any
Now on to the question that, let’s be honest here, pretty much no-one will be asking themselves: what about the museums? Well, Las Vegas doesn’t do museums like other cities do museums. Instead of trying to hold its own with New York in the high culture department, it sticks to what it knows: crime, explosions and coin-operated entertainment.

Hence I spend a day shuttling between the Atomic Testing Museum, the Mob Museum and the Pinball Hall of Fame. At the Atomic Testing Museum, I see a real nuclear warhead, view (and feel the backblast of) a simulated test explosion, and read stories about the 5am detonations that used to send fireballs above the Strip. It might seem like an odd thing to glamorise, of course – indeed the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce was recently criticised for recreating an infamous 1957 photograph of ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ wearing a mushroom-cloud swimsuit. But the curation here is unflinching and intelligent, and it’s a fact that, without the Manhattan Project scientists who arrived in Nevada to continue their work after WWII, Las Vegas would not have grown in the way it did. (admission £9)

The Mob Museum takes a similarly difficult subject matter, but treats it very differently: it’s pure entertainment, as you’d expect from one of former Mayor Goodman’s creations. Located inside the old federal courthouse building, restored for the purpose at spectacular and controversial expense, the museum features the original St Valentine’s Day Massacre wall (complete with bullet holes and blood stains), gruesome crime scene photographs, and interactive exhibits. Most impressive is the original courtroom from the 1950 anti-Mob Kefauver Hearings (the judge’s bench was built with a steel plate inside, so he could duck behind it if gunfire broke out) and the spectacular multi-screen video presentation that accompanies it. (admission £11)

And then to the Pinball Hall of Fame, in an unmarked industrial building not far from the Strip, crammed with vintage machines, all of them meticulously restored and ready to play. I choose Pinball Circus, developed at a cost of $1.5 million according to the handwritten note attached, but scrapped after only two machines were built because they weren’t generating enough income in test installations to justify the price. The owner of the place, Tim Arnold, is tinkering with an exhibit nearby, nearly half his body inside the cabinet. At 56 years old, with a head-mounted flash light, fishbowl glasses and ponytail, he couldn’t look more the part if he tried. He used to install pinball machines in casinos for a living but could never bring himself to scrap them when they were replaced. So he kept them instead, and now, more than 30 years later, here they all are, several hundred in total, all bleeping and gurgling like the day they arrived from the factory. ‘There isn’t a lot you can do in Las Vegas for less than ten bucks,’ Tim says, with pride. ‘Here, you can play all night.’ (admission free)

Nightlife: It happens during the day
After a night of pinball, what could be better than a morning of… clubbing? Yes, this is the latest trend in Las Vegas, made famous by an MTV reality show and, more sensationally, Prince Harry. Dayclubs are essentially hotel swimming pools with DJs, bouncers on the door and a recliner-side food and beverage service. Crucially, you don’t usually have to be a hotel guest to get in, as the clubs are run by outside promoters. Cover charges can also be avoided with promotional fliers – but you must agree to spend a certain amount once inside. At Liquid Pool Lounge, located inside the Aria Hotel and Casino complex, it’s $100 per chair, rising to $10,000 for a cabana fitting up to a dozen people during, say, a busy American holiday weekend.

‘People like coming here because there are no kids around, and no old people swimming laps,’ says Pearce Cleveland, a DJ and all-round ‘mood director’ at The Light Group – which operates several day club venues – when we meet for a drink at Liquid. This is one of the more intimate pool parties in Las Vegas, with a capacity of about 850, I soon learn. Others, such as Encore Beach Club at The Wynn (infamously attended by Prince Harry) can host up to 3,000.

Surrounding the pool are wicker loungers with orange cushions, and flawless young women in shiny bikinis. They alternate between serving drinks and dancing on platforms. House music pumps, courtesy of San Francisco DJ Greg Lopez. We order frozen fruit, a welcome refreshment in the heat, then move to a cabana, where there’s a pile of iced towels, a misting machine, a safe, a fridge and a flatscreen TV.

Dayclubs have become a lot more luxurious since Rehab at the Hard Rock Hotel pioneered the craze. ‘Sometimes you just don’t want to be sprayed with a water gun, or have someone throw up over you,’ confirms Pearce, referring to the city’s more hardpartying establishments. ‘Actually, here at Liquid, we get a lot of locals who just want to relax and work on their tans.’ He pauses. ‘And by locals,’ he adds. ‘I mean strippers.’(admission from £12 for women and from £25 for men)

The article ‘Rediscover Las Vegas’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.

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