Games, guns and gyrating girls in Sin City

Dominic Wells finds a way to jump the queues and does Vegas just the way the big boys do

(City A.M. March 2010)

Las Vegas

Las Vegas

FAHVE bucks? Girl, for five dollars yew can take as many pictures as yew want. Come on over, and get yo’ man over heyah too.” This was Elvis talking. Yes, Elvis. Tinted shades, jet-black jumpsuit, rhinestone belt, sideburns you could iron clothes on. Standing on a street corner. A few minutes previously, we’d been inhaling deeply in an oxygen bar while being serenaded by gondoliers on a canal replicated in every detail from Venice. But on the second floor of a hotel.

Welcome to Las Vegas, where random is what you run into every time you turn a corner. Each casino has a gimmick. The Mirage has an exploding volcano. The Luxor is a giant black pyramid which casts a vertical beam of light into the night sky as if calling aliens to land. New York New York is a perfect replica of the city’s major landmarks, except for one tiny detail: a fully operational rollercoaster winding round the Empire State Building.

And if the buildings are random, the people are more so. I played poker with JJ, a hip black septuagenarian with a 25-year-old girlfriend who claims to have known and sung with all the Vegas greats, as well as to have led the real blackjack-beating team that inspired the film 21.

I was invited to come stay in Texas by a perky blonde 50-year-old ex-stripper who’d married someone in the construction industry and was in Vegas for the Convention of Concrete. I shot a Desert Eagle handgun, more powerful than a Magnum, at the infamous Las Vegas Gun Store with a bunch of gun nuts who couldn’t have been friendlier.

Even so, you can’t leave everything to chance. Despite the recession, which has reduced hotel occupancy percentages from the high 90s to the low 80s and brought incredible deals for the traveller, the trendy places still get full. Restaurants may offer tables for just 6pm or 10.30pm.
Shows have back-row seats only. And if you’re a group of men looking to go clubbing on a Friday or Saturday night, forget it. You’re not getting in unless you buy a table with two bottles of vodka at $400 apiece.

So on this trip my friends and I took advantage of a brand-new service: Total Experiences. Any party booking five rooms or more in a Harrah’s hotel-casino (which include Caesar’s Palace, Paris Las Vegas and the Rio) will get a free concierge service who’ll pull the right strings, make the right deals.

That’s how we found ourselves with our jaws dropping in the high-roller suites at Caesar’s Palace. Not, sadly, to sleep in, but having asked just to get a glimpse of how the other half live. These 20,000 sq ft palaces are literally priceless, reserved exclusively for “whales” – the ones who’ll drop a hundred grand on the spin of wheel – and heads of state. Barack Obama was a frequent visitor during his presidential campaign.

One apartment has a billiard table, baby grand piano and private cinema, and overlooks the newly redeveloped Garden of the Gods pool complex. Another has its own butler, chef and kitchen, and stunning views from every corner across Vegas. The master bedroom has a plasma screen on each wall – presumably so that Michelle can lie in bed watching her favourite comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show (yes, really), while Barack hurls expletives at Fox News.

We then prepared for our own high-rolling night out with a spa experience, including an old-fashioned shave with a cut-throat razor of the kind Sinatra would have had at Caesar’s before his show. Ever slip and cut someone, I ask Sal the barber? “Never!” Sal answers reassuringly, and begins to glide the razor over my chin. “Well, maybe just a nick.” It’s like a trust exercise: you’re literally putting your life in his expert hands. You come out of it more alive than you’ve ever felt, your face exfoliated, moisturised and smooth as a Vegas lounge singer, ready for anything.

It was the very last night of Bette Midler’s two-year residency, The Showgirl Must Go On. Forty showgirls took to the stage in pink feather boas as Bette was wheeled across it on a sofa shaped like a giant pair of lips. Special guest stars included Celine Dion and Marie Osmond. Tickets were impossible to get. Total Experiences wangled it.

And then on to Pure superclub, whisked to the front of a long queue. Vodka flowed like water. Girls gyrated as though inspired by the adjacent Pussycat Dolls Lounge. Braziers warmed the huge roof terrace overlooking the Strip, that grand neon canyon along which all the biggest and craziest hotel-casinos are built, including the brand-new $11bn City Center complex, America’s biggest ever privately funded building project.

In the small hours, we suddenly remembered we’d arranged a session the next day at the Rio Secco golf course just outside town, with terrific views of the snow-capped desert mountains – half-price for a Total Experiences group.

But how can you sleep in Vegas? There are no clocks, nothing ever stops. Instead we finished the night playing poker, having a great craic with our table-mates and fluking a fortune (well, 200 bucks) by being drunk enough to bluff without a tremor of fear.

And that’s the thing about Vegas. You can plan your Grand Canyon helicopter ride, your spa day, your dinner and dance. But you’ve got to leave room for the random.

The last man standing at 9AM, I head for my room but instead run into a group of fellow Brits still drinking cocktails and blinking in the sun outside Caesar’s. They had an attractive and only slightly unhinged New York businesswoman tagging along who leaned on me to take off her tiger-striped shoes and proposed marriage. I might have been more flattered if I hadn’t, apparently, been her fourth proposal of the night. Now that’s Vegas, baby!

British Airways has recently launched a direct Las Vegas service to rival Virgin Atlantic’s. For more information about Total Experiences, call 020 7518 0137 or visit