Vegas offers more than gambling

FANTASY LAND: Street scene, fake Elvises and food lure tourists

March 20, 2011 

LAS VEGAS - Shopping, shows, museums, restaurants and a quirky street scene are enough to keep visitors busy at this gaming mecca, even if they don’t gamble much - or gamble at all.

That might seem like a strange thing to say about a city that greets visitors with slot machines at the airport, convenience stores and supermarkets. Yet Vegas offers so much to do that I barely scratched the surface during a recent three-day stay. And had the weather been warmer, I would have done even less, because both of my hotels had beautiful swimming pools.

In the touristy areas, almost every street corner seems to be home to a Michael Jackson or Elvis impersonator posing for photos. Downtown on Fremont Street on a slow Wednesday evening, I saw an Elvis in a red jumpsuit taking gulps from a 16-ounce Miller Light. Moments later, he was joined by an Elvis in a white jumpsuit drinking from a coffee cup. Then another white-jumpsuited Elvis joined the pack.

They shared the pavement with showgirls in towering red feather headdresses and fake fur coats (the evening was cool), a dancer in a bikini and fur-lined boots, a dark angel with 6-inch platform shoes and ragged fishnet stockings, a trio of Carmen Mirandas and, of course, a Michael Jackson.

Several blocks of the street are closed to traffic and covered with a 1,500-foot-long domed LED display. On the hour starting at dusk, the lights flash and swirl along with music by The Doors, Kiss, Queen and other bands.

Casinos and trinket shops line Fremont Street, the city’s original gambling district. Binion Gambling Hall and Hotel has a display of $1 million in cash, and they’ll take your picture and give you the photo for free.

With a few exceptions, though, fine food is hard to find downtown. You can grab pizza, a burger or a deep-fried Twinkie. Vegas used to be known for good, cheap food, especially its shrimp cocktails. No longer, although the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino still offers $1.99 shrimp cocktails. Too bad that the shrimp was watery and sloppily deveined, piled into an ice-cream sundae glass and topped with an orange-red dollop that looked and tasted like ketchup. We walked away from the table.

Instead, we ended our evening at Hugo’s Cellar, a steak and seafood house in the Four Queens Hotel-Casino. It’s a real touch of old Vegas. The maitre d’ hands each woman a long-stemmed red rose, then puts the flower in a bud vase to decorate the table. Entrees come with salads tossed tableside, made with the diner’s choice of a dozen ingredients, from bay shrimp to blue cheese to hearts of palm, and with a dessert of chocolate-dipped dried and fresh fruit. Prices range from about $45 to $55. At meal’s end, the waiter wraps the bottom of the rose in aluminum foil for safe transport back to home or hotel.

After spending a night downtown at the Golden Nugget, we moved to the new Cosmopolitan resort hotel on the Strip. With its enormous casinos, bright lights and street musicians, a walk on the Strip in any direction is entertainment enough, but the Bellagio’s dancing fountains in sight of our terrace were an immediate draw.

We used a car to get to another attraction, the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower’s SkyJump. Billed as the highest controlled free fall in the world, it’s a 15-second, 855-foot descent from the top of the Stratosphere Tower to a landing pad 108 floors below. Participants step into bright blue and yellow jumpsuits decorated with lightning bolts and are hooked onto a cable. The price is $100, with additional charges for a DVD of the jump and photos. Those who need a little courage can buy a shot or two at the bar before they take the leap.

Cars aren’t necessary in Vegas, however. Cabs are plentiful, a monorail runs among many of the casinos on the Strip, and buses run frequently.

We also ventured off the Strip to visit the Atomic Testing Museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Exhibitions and multimedia displays tell the story of the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear tests were set off from 1951 to 1992. For many of those years, Sam McClain worked at the site, setting off the blasts. Today he volunteers at the museum, adding a personal perspective.

The mushroom clouds from the atmospheric tests were visible in Las Vegas, 65 miles to the southeast. Protesters were regular visitors at the site. “In those days, we could agree to disagree,” Mc-Clain said. “Three o’clock on Good Friday, every year, they would line up to be arrested. When they were bailed out, they would come to my house. We had a big open house every Easter.”

For another taste of history, we had hoped to visit the boneyard of Neon Museum Las Vegas, 3 acres of unpreserved historic neon signs, including ones from Caesars Palace, Binions Horsehoe, the Golden Nugget and the Stardust. However, reservations are required well in advance, and we waited too long. Another promising attraction, a mob museum in the Tropicana, was not yet open for business, despite being touted in the official tourism website,  .

All that walking and viewing and jumping (and, to be honest, a little gambling) made us hungry. We enjoyed a memorable brunch at Hash House A Go Go in the Imperial Palace Hotel. (Another location is in the M Resort/ Spa/Casino.) The food was hearty, abundant and imaginative. I ordered sage fried chicken and waffles and was delighted to discover that bacon was baked inside the thick waffles. Fried leeks, maple syrup reduction and a towering branch of rosemary finished the dish. The corned beef hash, a banana pancake the size of a platter and the eggs Benedict were equally delicious. Prices were about $10 to $15.

We grabbed lunch at the Cosmopolitan one day at China Poblano, a noodles and tacos small-plates restaurant from Spanish celebrity chef Jose Andres. We liked some of the dishes very much, especially those from the Mexican side of the menu. Guacamole and fresh corn tortillas were a treat, and we devoured tacos piled with Yucatan-style pit-barbecued pork and marinated onions. A dish called Love is in the Air, described as farm tomatoes/sugar air, was less successful. We got a bowl of tomato chunks swimming in oil and vinegar, topped with an airy white foam that looked like soap suds and tasted like nothing. Prices ranged from about $8 to $15.

Reservations are a good idea for dinner, but we got lucky at Caesar’s Palace and snagged a table at Spago, located among the Forum Shops. We ordered off the Cafe menu, agreeing that while $21 seemed pricey for a hamburger, the Kobe beef burger topped with bacon and roasted red onions was worth it. A pile of french fries, a small but perfect green salad, and freshly made pickles and pickled onions rounded out the plate.

For our last dinner in Vegas , we went to Paris – the casino, of course – and dined at Mon Ami Gabi. We sat on the patio, with a view of the Bellagio’s fountains, listening to the music and watching the water jet into the air. The food was great, and at about $25 per entree, surprisingly affordable.

Like much of Vegas, the setting under the Eiffel Tower was part illusion, part fantasy – and plenty of fun.

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