“Can I get you girls a couple of Cosmos with those?”, the smiling waitress asked as Amanda and I ordered our pizzas. We looked at each other and shrugged. “Yes please!”, we replied in unison.
The terrace we sat on was surrounded by a constant assault of neon, music and voices. Lights flashed, people talked and danced, and slot machines made arcade noises all round, against a background of rock music. We were sitting on the outside of Fremont Street’s Golden Nugget, one of Las Vegas’ oldest casinos, wearing high heels and cocktail dresses, and taking in the sensory overload around us. We had landed just that afternoon, and everything was new to us.
I had arrived to meet Amanda in Dublin Airport at 5.30 that morning, having slept no more than 3 hours because my baby brother’s 21st birthday party was the night before. We had started the trip as decadently as we meant to continue by booking ourselves access to Gatwick Airport’s No.1 Lounge for our layover. This turned out to be £22.50 well spent. We were running on very little rest, and the lounge provided a calm, comfortable environment to wait in, with unlimited food and drinks, away from the crowds and noise of the main terminal building.
Both exhausted by the time we boarded the Virgin Atlantic flight to Las Vegas, we took sleeping tablets and slept for as much of the flight as we could. I awoke six hours in just in time to hear an announcement over the intercom that the bar had been “drunk dry” and that no more alcohol would be available for the duration of the flight. The tone was set.
In the final half hour of our flight before landing in Vegas, I looked out of the window to see a red desert, with the tall rock formations of Monument Valley protruding upward from it. Beyond that, the I caught my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon as it opened out beneath us. Finally, we were flying over the Las Vegas strip and I spotted many familiar structures from the air: the replica of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Luxor’s Pyramids and Sphinx, and the blue pool of the Bellagio Fountain. Sitting on the runway after landing, we had the surreal experience of looking out the window to see Luxor’s Sphinx not far off.
We checked into our room at Planet Hollywood and enjoyed exploring its movie memorabilia: posters and artefacts from Judge Dredd, and its striped purple walls and huge bathroom, before collapsing on our beds. We planned to sleep for an hour before heading out to explore, but we were too excited. It was 6pm local time when we finally dressed up and took the elevator downstairs to the casino floor. The scene before us was overwhelming when we first walked into it: card tables, slot machines, bars and beautiful people, as far as the eye could see. We approached a security guard for directions out onto the famous Strip, and he pointed the way past all the games and toward the front doors.
Stepping out onto the Strip for the first time, our amazement went from one level to the next. It was dark outside now, and to our right was a brightly lit, 3 quarter size Eiffel Tower. Across the road the breathtaking Bellagio Fountain was in full swing, and all around us neon lights flashed. The air was balmy as we stepped into the midst of the madness.
We took a taxi to Fremont Street, the area to the North of the Strip that was once referred to as Downtown Vegas. Here, icons from films of the 1980s and 1990s flashed in our faces: the famous cowboy and cowgirl signs.
We chose the Golden Nugget for dinner and sat eating our pizzas and drinking our cocktails while taking it all in. Our energy was flagging by now, since it was 4am at home and we had been up for over 24 hours. Not usually coffee drinkers, we both ordered Espressos after our meal, knowing that this was our one chance to have a night out in Las Vegas and not wanting to waste it.
After eating and taking in the sights of Fremont Street, we took a taxi back to the Strip. I was feeling the caffeine kick in as we arrived at the Cosmopolitan – at the time the newest and smallest 5* resort on the Strip. The Cosmopolitan is known for its glamorous Chandelier Bar and glittering casino. We settled ourselves for drinks in the Chandelier, a place dripping with shining pieces of glass that make you feel as if you’re inside a real chandelier.
While enjoying our elegant surroundings, we noticed two young men sitting nervously nearby and throwing glances at us. Eventually one of them approached, us speaking in a convincing Australian accent.
“Hello. I was wondering if I could buy you ladies a drink?”
He was polite and unassuming, so we smiled and said thank you, ordering drinks from a waiter and asking him where he came from.
“I’m from Australia”, he told us, his accent still sounding the part.
“Where in Australia?”, I asked. Amanda and I had both spent over six months in Australia a number of years before, and we knew its geography well.
The young man faltered.
“Errr… just Australia”, he said. At this point we smiled and began to play games with his lie. His friend joined us, speaking in an American accent.
“Are you from Australia too?” I queried.
“Uhhh, yeah…”, he ventured, not even attempting an accent. Amanda and I began to talk about the time we spent in Sydney and our travels along the East coast together, eyeing each other and watching the men get more and more out of their depth. Eventually the first man reverted to his own American accent, admitting “I’m not really Australian, I’m from here, I just wanted to talk to you.”
We quickly forgave the clumsy attempt at an opener, and as our drinks arrived we talked with the two boys, as I should more accurately call them, who turned out to be 22 year old students, native to Las Vegas, who worked as lifeguards at our resort’s pool. They were friendly and excited to be alive, and if there was any amount of creepiness in their chat-up attempt it was well hidden, because we spent the next few hours hanging out and enjoying our surroundings with them without feeling any pressure or discomfort. There were, in fact, great hosts who told us all about places to go in Las Vegas (mostly bars, casinos and pools).
We left the Cosmopolitan and crossed the flyover back to Planet Hollywood, where we tried out the blackjack tables. Rather than wanting to gamble a lot, Amanda and I just wanted to try it out to experience Vegas, each putting $40 down with the assumption that we would lose it, and considering it the price of the fun. While we annoyed the card dealer with our lack of experience and laughed as we tried to learn to play, the boys bought drinks and sat relaxing in the casino’s Heart Bar. We joined them once we tired of blackjack, and didn’t notice the time passing. It is said that oxygen is pumped into Las Vegas casinos to keep punters from getting tired, and there are no clocks to be seen. Before we knew it, it was past 4am – after midday at home – and we were still up. We bid goodnight to our new friends and made our way up to the 27th floor in the elevator, and along the long corridor toward our room.
This was when we really saw the wild bizarreness of Vegas, as another young man ran along the corridor to meet us, exclaiming “I’m Australian!”
Not to be tricked, Amanda barked at him “Don’t be lying!”
He skipped to keep up with us, relenting “Okay, I’m from New Zealand!”, waving his passport at us as proof.
At that moment, he lost interest in us and was joined by two friends, one of whom was carrying a camera and tripod. We reached our room but hesitated to open the door until we were sure that the three men had gone into another room, and finally we retired.
After stumbling our room laughing while getting ready for bed, we finally got some sleep. Jet lag didn’t allow much, however, and we both awoke shortly after 8am. This was late afternoon at home, and our body clocks were destroyed. Nevertheless, after a hearty and expensive room-service breakfast of eggs florentine and tea, we dragged ourselves out to explore the Strip by day.
We devoted the day to seeing all the bizarre, unusual and exciting elements of the famous resorts. Starting with a quick photo stop at Paris’s Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomf, we moved on to Caesar’s Palace and its replica of Rome’s Trevi Fountain.
The Las Vegas Strip is truly like a kitsch version of small parts from all over the world crammed into one space. The next place we found ourselves at was the fabulous Venetian, whose ceilings evoke the Sistine Chapel and whose architecture mirrors the famous Rialto Bridge in Venice. The Venetian even has gondolas like those on Venice’s canals where patrons can take a ride, and a ceiling that looks like the sky and changes depending on the time of day. Of course we took a ride on a gondola, and our gondolier even sang to us under the bridge, where the acoustics amplified her wonderful voice.
Toward the other end of the Strip, we explored New York New York‘s Manhattan-esque buildings, including scaled down replicas of the Empire State building and Chrysler building, all bordered by a smaller Brooklyn Bridge and flanked by a Statue of Liberty.
Although our energy was failing us again at this stage, we even found time for a ride on the rollercoaster that soars up out of New York New York’s rooftops, and met various street performers on our walk back to Planet Hollywood.
Utterly worn out by now, we ate and rested before dressing up again for our outing to a Las Vegas show. We had booked tickets to Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana, an amazing, dark, acrobatic wonder, in its own purpose-built theatre at the Aria resort. This was my first Cirque du Soleil experience and it lived up to the reputation. Multiple cyr wheels spun across the stage at once, flying trapeze dazzled and acrobats performed high-flying back flips. So exhausted at this stage that I was becoming delirious, for much of the show I wasn’t sure whether what I was seeing was real or my imagination.
I fell asleep on my bed at 9.30pm that night, still wearing my dress and shoes. The next morning we were leaving Vegas on a four day tour of the desert national parks, and we needed a good night’s sleep at last. After watching the beautiful Bellagio Fountain dance from our window for a short time, I had nothing left in me.
Las Vegas lived up perfectly to what we expected of it: a glittering, colourful assault on the senses, where we crammed in parties, activities and an incredible show, and where sleep took a back seat to fun. In just two nights and one day we managed to see and do so much, and the decadence was overwhelming. It was the perfect place to start what was to become an incredible road trip across the American West.