Las Vegas - “Hi buddy! We’re getting married!” As salutations go, it’s not what I expected from the young couple as they burst into the plush carpeted elevator on the 18th floor of the Bellagio Hotel.
They have dopey grins on their faces – maybe dope, or booze, or both. Or maybe they really are in love.
“Congratulations,” I say, “When did you decide?”
“Today, man! Today!” says the man, who is in his mid-20s, bare-chested, dressed only in a cap, sunglasses and shorts, while showing off a tanned six-pack and an armful of colourful tattoos.
She clings to him. Then she screams: “Wrong floor! We’re on the wrong floor!”
They hit the button for 14 and disappear, their laughter trailing behind them, leaving me, and the elevator (they don’t call them lifts in America) in a stunned silence.
I shouldn’t be surprised. This is Las Vegas, after all. The City That Never Sleeps. What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas. The City For a Quickie Wedding (Vegas, not a quiet town, is the sort of place Where You Have To Use Capital Letters In Your Sentences).
As the quiet elevator heads down to “CASINO”, I wonder about the couple. Vegas is about spur-of-the-moment nuptials following a whirlwind courtship.
Then I remember the old joke about “Lightning courtships end up in thunderous divorces”.
Perhaps I should have wished them Good Luck...
It’s my first night in Vegas and it’s only 9.30pm. Things are just warming up. There are hundreds of people in the casino, playing the slot machines, the craps or blackjack tables, or giving roulette a spin.
There are even more just moving along the wide carpet and marble passages between the gaming areas. There is a whiff of cigarette smoke, because the casino floor is the only place indoors where you are allowed to puff.
Negotiating the tides of humanity on the way to meeting our group in one of the Bellagio’s restaurants, I feel like a salmon swimming upstream. It’s tiring, although I am reasonably sprightly, having got some decent sleep on the 10-hour flight from London, thanks to the excellent lie-flat beds in British Airways Club World business class.
The next morning, it is a lot quieter as I pad through the casino at 5.45am, heading out to run. But it is far from dead. There are punters still at it – frowns of concentration as they hit buttons or pull levers on the slot machines or assess the cards on the green baize tables.
A woman at one of the slot machines doesn’t even look up as I pass, but I look at her. She must weigh 200kg and overflows the seat of her electric mobility vehicle/wheelchair. There is a cigarette in her free hand (the other mashes the “BET” button) and a glass of something nearby. It’s sad. It’s the other side of Vegas. There is a saying that this town is a bitch if you’re a loser.
Losers can take many forms. Out on the concrete sidewalks, as the sun rises and visitors go jogging or walking, you see the hoboes, asleep on cardboard. As I jog past, I see one of them, with long hair, is a woman. Drool runs from the side of her open mouth. Another cares not that his donations jar – stuffed only with coins, not notes – is in full view as he snores. Further on, another is awake. A sign on his wheelchair says “Marine”. War hero or fake? Certainly, being a paralysed hero is a one-up story in a town full of stories.
It is a struggle to pay attention to the world around me. I haven’t run in a while, and the temperature is insane. Even at 6am, it is well into the 30ºCs.
When we touched down at the McCarran International Airport, the BA captain could barely hide the amazement in his voice when he said the temperature in Las Vegas was 44ºC – and the sun had been down for half an hour. I had expected it to be hot – the city is smack in the middle of a harsh desert – but not this hot. We find out later that this is a bit of a heatwave and unusual for this time of the year. These temperatures are common in July.
So far, Vegas (you end up calling it that) is living up to all the clichés. It’s hot. It’s garish – from its fake Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty to the sea of neon lights. It’s bustling – 36 million people a year visit the place. It’s gambling (there are 200 500 slot machines in Clark County – where Vegas is the capital – while there are just over 1.5 million residents). It’s Hope and Dreams – I hear a woman on the street shouting into her cellphone: “Mom! I won 760 dollars!” It’s tragic, too – like the obese woman and the down-and-outs on the street.
Yet, Las Vegas – The City Where You Can Be Whoever You Want To Be and where anything goes – is also a city of surprises, and a place where clichés (along with holy cows) are slaughtered.
I am standing in the contemplative quiet of the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, off the glitzy shopping promenade in the hotel, taking in a sensitively curated exhibition of the photographic art of Yousuf Karsh, a Canadian-Armenian self-taught photographer who produced some of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
The exhibition runs until September and includes a fascinating audio tour, recounting how some of the images were produced. One I find enthralling is about how Karsh tried to photograph an irascible Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, on his brief visit to the Canadian parliament in 1943.
Karsh set up his camera and lights the night before, knowing he would have little time. When Churchill arrived, Karsh asked him to put down his trademark cigar. Churchill refused. The photographer walked over to him and snatched it away, returning to his camera to squeeze off one frame of a bulldog Churchill irritated by the nerve of the portrait artist. It was that frame that showed the prime minister at his combative best and it became one of the best-known of the images of him.
The rest of the images in the gallery – from Ernest Hemingway, to Pablo Picasso, to Nelson Mandela – have a riveting power. Something so deep in a place apparently so shallow is a real revelation.
Another is the food. This exploded cliché was about huge hamburgers, mountains of French fries and ketchup. They are there, to be sure – but Vegas is also one of the world capitals for fine dining.
Dinner on our second night is at one of the Bellagio’s signature restaurants, Harvest by Roy Ellamar. The Hawaiian-born chef focuses on natural ingredients and is particular about where they come from. The menu states the source of the components of each dish. It includes charcuterie and artisanal cheeses and preserves; vegetarian dishes; sustainable seafood cooked in a stone oven; grilled, dry-aged and grass-fed beef and organic poultry and game from the rotisserie; along with home-grown herbs.
A feature is the cocktail selection – cocktail and food pairings are the latest foodie craze, we are told – and it includes interesting combinations of alcohol and fruit and herbs. The restaurant’s infusions are left for at least a month to brew.
Other dinners and lunches include a traditional – and lush – French menu at Michael Mina’s Bardot Brasserie at the Aria Hotel, which is close to the Bellagio and part of the MGM Resorts group; as well as a delightful Italian tapas selection at Lago by Julian Serrano in the Bellagio. All the food is stunning, world-class.
Third surprise is the friendliness of the people – even the border control staff at the airport crack jokes. Maybe that’s because Vegas is a laid-back place, or maybe it’s because it is so cosmopolitan.
Then again, residents probably realise they survive on tourists. These days most visitors, 70 percent, come for the shows and the restaurants rather than just to gamble.
Steve Wynn, the man who built the Bellagio in the late 1990s (it was then the most expensive hotel in the world), famously said: “Las Vegas is sort of like how God would do it if he had money.”
Makes you wonder if you’d see that God, down in the craps pits at the Bellagio, shooting dice and shouting: “Let the good times roll!”
l Brendan Seery was a guest of MGM Resorts International (www.mgmresorts.com) and the Bellagio Hotel (www.bellagio.com). He flew to Las Vegas with British Airways (www.ba.com). BA flies 11 times a week between Heathrow in London and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.