Travelogue USA 3: Las Vegas

12-15 October 2016

Our day didn’t start out very well. We left our printed travel pack on the plane, in which was all the paperwork we needed to check into our hotel, claim our prepaid excursions and, most importantly, the tickets for our Billy Idol concert that evening – the entire reason for the trip in the first place!

Fortunately the hotel accepted the digital copy of the booking form I was able to access thanks to the hotel’s free wifi. And the concierge offer to reprint the pack for us… at $5 a page!! We passed, knowing there had to be a better plan.

We checked into our room, which was a really lush suite on the 20th floor on the Carnival wing, one floor down from the Penthouse and with a spectacular view of the popular LINQ Skywheel; a huge circular viewing ride akin to the London Eye. I’d lucked out with this bargain, cashing in on Vegas’s willingness to lure (potential) gamblers by subsidising their stay. I’d joined a rewards programme and taken up their “first time stay” offer and paid motel prices for Harrahs, right in the middle of the Strip! They didn’t have to know that we had less than no intention of putting a cent into a machine or on a table.

Christian nipped off to the UPS business centre in the adjacent building and lucked out when the chap working at the store spotted the music folder on the flash drive we’d used to save the documents we needed printed.  Fortunately, some of it was to the clerk’s liking and he waived the printing fees in return for the music swap.

Meanwhile, in the room, I had found on closer inspection that the airline had ripped the zip off my suitcase. It hadn’t been noticeable until this point as it was only the outside part of the zip that was missing so my suitcase was perfectly intact for the time being, but the minute it was opened it couldn’t be closed again.

The hotel was quite helpful, providing a phone so I could call the airport and report the damage. 20 minutes later the report was logged and the best advice I could be given was to present the broken case at the Baggage Claims when we return to the airport on Saturday for them to replace it. A gamble (fitting for Vegas, I suppose), but the only option since the alternative given was a $75 Southwest Airlines voucher for my next flight, which was neither practical nor desirable after this poor first impression.

Determined not to let the suboptimal start ruin our day, we hit them Strip to do something we knew we’d enjoy: have lunch.

We went across the road to Caesar’s Palace and grabbed a burger at Planet Hollywood, an offer which came with our GO Card. Cheesy as it was (the burger and the venue), it was a good spirits lifter and once done we were far more ready to face the slow amble down the south of the Strip.

Our timing was good and as we exited, we were able to catch the Bellagio Fountains show with water spurting up into the air, timed to music. Along the lines of the show they used to do at Randburg Waterfront, but obviously bigger and way more impressive.

The Strip isn’t as big as we’d imagined. Granted, everything on the Strip is outsized and larger than life – including an Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty – but the Strip itself is far more compact than we’d thought it would be.  We’d been concerned about how we’d get from our hotel in the middle of the Strip to the Mandalay Bay at the very south end of the Strip which is where we needed to be – at the House of Blues, hosting the Billy Idol concert – in a couple of hours time. It was undue concern; we could see the Mandalay Bay quite clearly and while a decent walk, it was walking distance nonetheless.

It’s also much easier to negotiate Las Vegas on foot than Hollywood had been, thanks to its wide pavements and smattering of skywalks and pedestrian bridges that save the endless wait for the red “don’t walk” hand to become the white (not green, like at home) “walk” man.

Of course the layout of these paths is designed to guide you smoothly into casino and malls, because Vegas is all about getting you to spend. It is unashamed that you’re faced with slot machines as soon as you walk through any doors. There were even slot machines next to the conveyor belts in the Baggage Claims at the airport, and embedded on the counters at the breakfast bar and no doubt must be some installed in toilet booths somewhere in this town.

Unfazed by the influences, we only veered off our meander once: into Miracle Mile shopping mall to book our tickets for a show for the following evening. Given a choice between all sorts of variety / comedy / hypnotist shows, we’d opted for The Mentalist, which I seemed to remember reading about somewhere when doing the research for the trip and seem to remember it being quite famous and popular. A long-running regular in Vegas.

We got to the Mandalay Bay around 6pm. There was already a short queue at the VIP entrance even though the ticket had suggested an hour before the show, which was scheduled to start at 8.

A few minutes into our wait we made our first new friend, a lady in the queue in front of us who was bouncing with excitement. She thrust her forearm at us to reveal a squiggly tattoo. Turns out the last time she attended a Billy Idol meet-and-greet she’d smuggled a marker pen in and got him to autograph her arm – when autographs are expressly forbidden – in bold letters! – on all the literature and even the tickets themselves. Apparently Billy had conceded graciously in the moment, pleased as punch with her plan. She was now returning to show him her handy work.

Clearly popular, it was only minutes later that the lady behind us sparked a conversation with us based on the “Weiner Dog” print on my holiday bag. Turns out she has a Sausage too – and of course that now meant that we were instantly bonded.

Shelley was a nurse from Cincinatti, travelling with her mom who had suggested they do a girls’ getaway trip to Vegas  together, which Shelley had initially snubbed because she’d been to Vegas with her boyfriend earlier in the year for a Billy Idol concert… and then she found out he was doing a residency with meet and greet and all of a sudden it was mum’s the word.

Shelley’s experience was a little more useful and she advised us on what to do as the door opened to get the best spots with the best views. Had it not been for her, I hardly think we would have rushed the doors and placed ourselves perfectly front and centre against the rail directly in front of the stage.

We had an hour’s wait, which always brings the battle of wills between the desire to drink beer versus the very harsh reality that beer leads to bathroom breaks… and that is as complication that front row folk want to avoid! Fortunately the decision became a much easier one after we ordered our first beer and found out they were $13 each! R200 for a single beer?! One time wonder indeed.

The price tag didn’t seem to be deterring the rest of the patrons and House of Blues was an excellent venue for a very relaxed rock concert with highly spirited fans. Small open floor (where we were) which made for a comfortable crush for an authentic concert feel. Lipped around the floor was a slightly raised platform with cocktail tables and beyond that, on an higher level, big bar counters on all sides. For the more spectactor-focused, there was a U-shaped gallery upstairs with rows of cinema seating.  Possibly 1000 people in total max. Really intimate venue to contain and amplify the excitement of its inhabitants. Perfect.

The band came on stage to a roar from the fans. The lights flickered and flashed, guitars screamed and the drum beat provided the rhythm for the fans’ clapping… as Billy Idol himself hit the stage belting out “Shock to the System”.

Oh my word. Finished.

The stage was set with a big speaker in the front that Billy jumped on and off of, alternating standing directly in front of us with brief stints for the audiences on either end of the stage. All in all though we had the better part of 2 hours with Billy Freakin’ Idol about a metre away from us!

Nearing 60, he’s in perfect shape and still as trendsetting as ever, with his bleached hair, several costume changes and more than a fair share of bare-chestedness. His voice is album-perfect and his style as empassioned and captivating as any video you might have seen of his performances over the last almost 40 (!!) years.

Over the course of the concert, the band threw several collectibles into the audience. Being as strategically placed as we were, we managed to get an autographed paperplate (which was thrown like a frisbee), an autographed drumstick and a branded guitar pick! This added to the collectible poster and branded bag and Zippo lighter (odd choice) that we were given with our VIP tickets made for a quite a load of loot! And yet another bonus of being in the front? We were able to store this bag of treasure on the far side of the barrier in the passage between us and the stage, so it remained intact and safe from the enthralled masses.

And us, of course.

The set was incredible. They played all the songs we liked, none of the songs we’re less charmed with and in between Steve Stevens did some pretty impressive guitar solos, with tricks like playing the Guitar behind his head as well as using his teeth to strum the strings. He’s quite a contrast to Billy Idol. Where Billy did multiple costume changes, all perfectly tailored black pants / shirts / jackets with accents like tasteful riveted silver skulls and whatnot, Steve only had one outfit and it was a strange combo of purple stretch velvet bellbottoms, silvery sheeny shiny pointy-toed platform heeled  shoes and what can only be described as a black blouse with big gold link pattern on it. Quite comical with his skinny legs, potbelly and teased black Robert Smith hair.

When we met them afterwards (!!), we were surprised at how short they are. Looking up at the stage, even a metre away as we were, gives no perspective and the massive personalities that had rocked the stage and enthralled a theatre full of people for a couple of hours turned out to be my height (Billy) and a good few inches shorter (Steve). And, even though they were lovely and warm and polite, it made them no more human and us no less starstruck… to the point that all we managed was a garbled introduction and repeat adulation on their incredible performance. They were awesome about it, smiling and handshaking and repeating gratitude on our compliments.

Unfortunately we were not allowed to use our own cameras for photos or videos, so our fate is sealed in the agent’s hands as to which photos they send us from the few that they took for us. We also have to wait “2 to 3 days” for them to process the pics and post them for us to download. We are very unthrilled at having to wait, but I ‘spose they want flattering pics of the artists in circulation.

Hopped and high on the once in a lifetime night we’d just had, we were grateful for the walk along the Strip to calm ourselves and work off the latent energy simultaneously.

We must’ve been exhausted from the excitement of the concert because it was a case of “head hits pillow; eyes open again 8 hours later”. Literally. Not a stir.

We woke up with 2 hours to spare until our 11am walking tour of Downtown Las Vegas, so we decided to walk to the Circus Circus hotel further north up the Strip to catch the Big Bus to Freemont Street, Big Bus being Vegas’s equivalent of LA’s Hop On Hop Off bus (but, as we found out, not as good because there’s a live tour guide instead of a recorded one, which makes for a very uneven experience).

The Big Bus took us past the wedding chapels, including the drive-through one where Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian tied their respective 24-hour knots! We also passed Las Vegas Grammar School which is in a charming original hacienda building.  It’s hard to imagine kids having a normal childhood amongst all the smut and neon on a road that’s even described as a “Strip”!

We had little time to spare so grabbed an “authentic New York pizza slice” in lieu of breakfast and met up with Kelly from Las Vegas Walking Tours at the Plaza Hotel on the corner of Main and Freemont, built on the site where the town started as a train station in 1904.

The train station was established by a copper mining mogul, the Clark after whom Clark County is named, because of its ideal location halfway between Salt Lake and LA, to act as a refuel and service station if needed on the long journey between his source and destination points. Ironically for a town with this much history, nobody has been able to take a train to Las Vegas since 1997 since there are no passenger trains servicing the route (although there are still freight trains).

Kelly is a downtown local and very passionate about his town. He told us that the Strip isn’t actually within the Las Vegas city limits; it’s actually in Clark County.  It’s clear that there is strong sibling rivalry between downtown and the Strip – but only about 70% of people visiting Las Vegas venture to downtown, which is such a shame because it is awesome. (Although 70% of the 40 odd million people that visit Las Vegas every year is nothing to sneeze at).

It has a far more classic feel, still with the casinos and the neon, but nothing more than a few stories high with a very 50s feel. Even though Freemont Street, which runs perpendicular to the Plaza, has now been converted into a pedestrian walkway with the world’s largest video screen (12,5 million LED lights! 550,000 watts of sound!) acting as a canopy, you can still easily imagine the red and white Cadillac convertibles pulling up outside the Pioneer casino with the enormous Vegas Vic neon cowboy swinging his arm, ushering you in.

Freemont Street has had quite a colourful history (with more than its fair share of mob activity) and has undergone more facelifts than can be described without doing the walking tour, but what is fascinating is how the city has morphed and adapted to survive and how there’s always hope that the history beneath the facades of these current businesses might be revealed again when fashion turns and the layers come off again, as has happened with the Golden Gate which is restored to its original glory.

The are lots of peculiarities to get your mind around in a gambling town (that, peculiarly, doesn’t have a lottery). The no clocks and lack of natural lighting are obvious ones, but Kelly pointed out to us the lack of patios and that the hotel pools all close at 5pm… in a desert town! The point is that everything is focused on getting people to the tables and keeping them there. And anything that impedes that is curbed. The one exception is the Golden Nugget pool where they have a glass shark tank island – with 5 sharks and some other really big fish swimming around – in the middle of the pool with a supertube that runs through it! They’ve made it a commercial feature and charge $20 to use the pool – and have poker tables in the pool area.

Other than that there are slot machines literally everywhere.  Even in the grocery stores. It’s crazy.

We saw some other crazy stuff too, like Heart Attack Grill, with a massive industrial scale outside with huge neon display for everyone to see, offering that anyone who weighs over 350lb eats free. They have waitresses in nurses uniforms, serve wine in IV drip bags, have their smallest burger (the “Single Bypass”) weighing in at 3000 calories and their biggest, “Quadruple Bypass”, 2 pounds of patties with everything you can think of, tallying the burger up to 10000 calories! What do they offer as Vegetarian options? Cigarettes!

Moving to the newly uplifted East Freemont, Kelly told us the heartwarming story of how Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, decided to convert the area into a thriving tech hub. He’s bought up literally city blocks of property and created incubators and “crashpads” and invites anyone with good ideas to bring them there, where he would at the very least provide the environment and infrastructure for people to set up their start-ups but also might potentially provide funding as well. He’s put his money where his mouth is and co-owns countless businesses in East Freemont (including in Container Park, a mall he set up made of shipping containers), giving people the leg-up without which they would never be able to launch. His only conditions for partners are that they provide high speed internet and have tolerance for entrepreneurs who want to squat for hours, as Tony himself is known to do.

Needing to get off our feet for a bit we took Kelly’s advice (and the coupon he gave us) and went to 777 Pizza Lotto for a beer and a cheese slice. While the pizza and beer were both good, we were drowned out by a busker belting out the blues. Freemont Street, as much as it feels like a mall of sorts, is still a public place so there are buskers and entertainers dotting the walkway. Add that to the 3 stages with organised line-up day and night, and the ziplines shooting people up the street just below the roof, and the bar counters outside most of the casinos serving the passersby (in an attempt to lure them in) and the road is a circus!

Las Vegas apparently, according to Kelly, also invented the shrimp cocktail, so we sampled one of its finest at Du-Pars (in the Golden Gate hotel) to line the stomach for our next stop, back on the Strip at Senor Frog’s, where we had a ticket for an hour free open bar.

The paper place mat at Du-Pars was a wealth of information, reinforcing that it was actually Golden Gate in 1959 that brought shrimp cocktail to life, starting a Vegas tradition that continued to having sold 25 million of them by 1991. It also told us that the Golden Gate hotel got the first phone in Las Vegas. The phone number? “1” of course! But who was going to call them if they had the only phone?!

Clearly nourished in body and mind, we were ready to move on.

Senor Frog’s is a fun bar/restaurant in the Treasure Island hotel and casino. It’s decorated in bright colours with witticisms emblazoned on boards and signs affixed to the ceiling. The drinks menu is more extensive than the food menu (which is mostly burgers and Mexican), comprising sections like “Frozen” and “Rocks”. We started with a daiquiri and a margarita, which were served in our dedicated plastic pint cup.

Ice-cream headaches led us back to beer and we passed a relaxed hour sipping our sundowners and people-watching.

Our timing was spot-on and we were able to catch the last Big Bus to get us down to Miracle Mile in time for our show, The Mentalist.

On our way into the Mall, Christian spotted none other than Steve Stevens, heading into Lush, a Body Shop sort of store, with a lady friend.

Of course we stalked him.

We followed them in, circled the store and doubled back to where Steve and Lady were loading a little basket with their chosen bath salts and soaps. I sidled up to Lady and asked her if I could get a whiff of the soap bar she was holding. She was very pleased at my interest and told me enthusiastically that they were deifinitely taking it. Steve stood holding the little basket with both hands, seemingly numb to the whole experience.  I gave him a “hello” and got a little nod by return.

It was obviously quite an unremarkable exchange because The Mentalist starts his show with selecting members of the audience and providing some tidbit of info about them that nobody could know… and he picked out the chap sitting next to us AND a woman sitting directly 2 rows behind us!

There was no more time for mingling with the stars after the show because we needed to be ready for collection for the Grand Canyon trip at 6.30 am, so it was early(ish) to bed for (very) early to rise.

It was a struggle to get up and out on Friday… but we did it. And were at the bus stop spot on time.

It’s a proper trek from Vegas to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We napped through the first section of the trip and woke up at the 9.30 pit stop In Kingman, a 1-horse town… and fastfood wonderland. Almost every chain was represented in a semi circle around the service station – McD’s, BK, Pizza Hut, Arby’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Jack in The Box. If this was the main artery into town, it was a clogged one no doubt!

BK on board, we were a bit perkier for the  next stretch of the journey, which was 2 hours and felt shorter thanks to the driver putting on a movie that displayed on the little screens suspended from the overhead storage units like they had in planes in the old days.

The tour included lunch in a town called Williams at around midday. It was a buffet of mostly Mexican food; all the ingredients to make up tacos, burritos, nachos etc.

Finally we arrived at Grand Canyon.

It was a welcome to be able to hop off the bus and stretch legs at Mather Point. Fortunately there are kilometers of walkways around the rim of the Grand Canyon, so a better place to leg stretch one could not ask for!

The views are spectacular! The mere magnitude of the mountains stretching from the rim where we were standing, rippling strata all the way to the bottom, glowing with the characteristic red.

The info boards gave us the lowdown on what we were looking at.

Although the Grand Canyon’s origin is complex and not entirely certain, the simple answer is that it’s the result of erosion; the incision of the Colorado River carving the depth of the Canyon as it cut its way through the Kaibab Plateau. Side canyons, scoured by summer thunderstorms and winter snow melt produced much of its width. Compared to the rocks exposed in its 1500m (!) walls, the excavation of the Canyon is relatively young, occurring within the last 6 million years or so.

The paths are unrestricted by boundary rails of any kind, so you’re free to move as close to the rim as you’d like. We made an effort to inch out on Mather Finger to get one of those pictures with the panorama unobscured in the background but, to be completely honest, it’s not my kind of adrenaline rush, so for the most part we kept to the path, stopping to take pictures where the view looked a bit deeper or more vast (but I anticipate all the pictures will look the same).

We had an hour at Mather Point and then moved down the rim to Angel Lodge, where we had another hour and a half. We probably didn’t need that long (you seen one rim, you seen ’em all), but it was probably to balance out the travel time; spose most people aren’t keen to travel 5 hours, hop out to take a few snaps and then turn around to get back again.

We of course were quite motivated to do so since Yellowcard was playing at the Brooklyn Bowl right next door to our hotel at around 9 and we were hoping to catch them.

No dice, leaving the Canyon at 4pm and with a 40 minute dinner stop in Kingman at Carl’s Jnr (with a burger with 3 types of bacon on it!) we were only back at the Strip around 10pm.

No matter though, that was a big bucketlist tick!