For 26 years, I avoided it. Made excuses. Brought up conflicting schedules, exams to study for, a job to go to. One by one, my friends, my family members, my travel agent all made their pitch. It was a beautiful city that never slept. Lights brighter than Hong Kong, streets more crowded than Manhattan, showgirls more glamorous than in Paris, hotels more luxurious than Monte-Carlo, nightclubs wilder than Rio, a legacy full of scandals, stars and mobsters, the rat pack Part I and II. It was… Las Vegas!
I didn't budge.
Maybe all along, I was subconsciously holding out for the ultimate Vegas experience: The gaudy, cheesy, over the top, organ-grinding music in the background, jumpsuit-clad preacher, drunken in the wee hours of the morning Las Vegas wedding.
After 26 years, I stepped into Vegas as a single girl and came out a new bride.
Well, it wasn't quite as corny as I had hoped. I was really crossing my fingers for a scene straight out of Honeymoon in Vegas with Elvis impersonators jumping from the sky, a rhinestone belt on my husband's blue ruffled tuxedo and my hair teased high as if it was trying to reach heaven. Instead, I got a pretty tame and dare I say it… low-key wedding at a … gulp… “tasteful” chapel way off the strip. Really felt cheated!
Over the past year, my husband and I have returned to Vegas for the week-end a half-dozen times. It's the thing to do when you live in Southern California. Other places, you take off for the week-end and go to your cottage by the lake to inhale some fresh air, enjoy the solitude and silence, and generally be one with nature. Here, you actually go from one traffic-congested, polluted, crowded, noisy, bright lights city to another.
The most peace you encounter in your trip is the drive there (if you don't hit traffic). I actually love that particular road trip. Every time, I still manage to get awed at the sight of the desert surrounding me, a real desert! And the sheer determination, will, tenacity of humans to have built a road that drives through this scorching, unforgiving dusty heat into an oasis straight out of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's wildest imagination.
If you reach Vegas in the day, the city looks like most of its inhabitants at this hour: hung over. You are sure to be disappointed. Like a showgirl, Vegas looks best at night, all made-up and ready to party.
There are countless urban legends about the devious evil ways casinos in Vegas lure the unsuspecting patron into its claws only to release him when it has squeezed him for all he is worth. Rumors of pumping oxygen into the air, fixing all the sports games and roulette tables, painting a sky on the ceiling, avoiding any windows and clocks, plying you with cheap liquor, all in an effort to make you lose track of time and gamble away your money. Some of them are true, others I am not sure of. But at the end, there is a little something called your free will. Don't go blaming the casinos if you take a $500 cash advance at 4 a.m. at the casino ATM because you have a “system, I tell you, a system!”
There are a lot of things that don't make sense in Vegas. Like, why there are signs on the wall stating that minors are not to be allowed in the gaming area yet I constantly seem to be bumping into toddlers who have just learned to walk, tittering to and fro like drunken sailors on a 2-day leave, holding a bucket of coins in their hands while their mommy is feverishly pulling the slot machine's lever in perfect synchronicity with every puff she takes out of her cigarette.
Or the outrageous boutiques from the most high brow designers, Dolce and Gabbana, Chanel, Versace, who, as we all know, specialize in size 0 and under. Given that both the average dress size and hourly salary of Vegas visitors is probably 14 and they wear nothing but shorts, T-shirts and sneakers straight from Target, it makes you wonder if these boutiques are there just to taunt the likes of LuAnne from Frisco, Texas. Or maybe they are banking on Michael Jackson going for another huge shopping spree. After all, this is a city where all bets are on.
One of the most amazing and horrifying experiences is the Vegas buffet. Believe me my friends, you have experienced nothing like it. Let's start with the huge lines, that go on for hours, like a Disneyland ride. You are stuck in these lines, hungry and tired, and the more hours go by, the more you begin to feel like wild bulls stuck in a holding pen. And then, just when you think you cannot take it anymore, the light shines down on you from heaven in the form of the hostess opening the magical velvet rope. After that it is a stampede.
The food orgy that ensues is a phenomenon to watch. People are frantically elbowing each other in order to get to the dozens of food stations offering everything from Mexican to Chinese, seafood and even gasp! Middle-Eastern food. Or so the signs say. I understand the buffet managers' strategy. They keep you in line for so long that by the time you chow down, you are so hungry you don't care that this…well.. is just hotel food.
All that being said, I really do have fun in Vegas, even though I don't know the first thing about gambling. I love hanging out by the magnificent hotel pools during the day with a good book and an endless supply of frozen margaritas. Mandalay Bay Hotel especially has the most amazing pool which they actually call their “beach” complete with sand, a waterfall, and artificial waves. The famous Vegas shows and lounge acts are also a lot of fun.
You can go from hotel to hotel and experience all these performers, with varying degrees of talent, who offer everything from Motown to hip-hop, classic showgirls types to edgier stuff like the Blueman group. The hotels themselves are part of the show with elaborate “recreations” of the places they symbolize: the pyramid at Luxor, the skyscrapers at New York New York and an actual gondola ride that takes you from one end of the Venetian to the other. Sure the décor makes you want to puke at times but just be glad you don't live there. It's like going to your crazy aunt Rhoda's house and at the end, you always know you can come home. Thank god.