Travel: Viva Las Vegas!

By Belinda Henley

Last time I filed a story from my hotel room 14 floors above the Las Vegas strip. This time I am reporting from home, where I am going to attempt to recount the four extraordinary nights I spent in Sin City.

I was on a direct flight from Auckland to Las Vegas, with almost 300 other Kiwis as part of an Air New Zealand "Grabaseat" promotion. Travellers were there for one reason only - to have a good time. United by that, the antics began.

Elvis serenaded us on to the plane. It was no ordinary flight with a Vegas Idol competition and a captain who fully entered into the spirit of things.

We arrived into almost 40C temperatures, stifling to say the least.

The airport is just a few minutes from the Strip and we were staying at The Tropicana, which had a complete makeover a couple of years ago.

Some headed straight to the pool for early cocktails and for osthers it was straight to the tables to try their luck. One "couple" even visited the Viva Las Vegas' wedding chapel to get hitched by Elvis.

I had an appointment with 22-year-old Aucklander Sarah Frances Johnston, who is earning more than half a million dollars a year singing her stunning brand of jazz at the city's top casinos. I saw her perform at T Bones Chophouse, a restaurant at Red Rock Casino, about 30 minutes from the strip and one of the most beautiful resorts I visited there.

The vibe is completely different to those on the strip, incredibly chilled out. Although she has had no formal training Johnston's voice is winning her fans all over Vegas and beyond. The day I meet her she's preparing to drive across the desert to Los Angeles for her first gig there.

Next step is to record an album, but right now she is thrilled to be performing in Vegas. "It doesn't feel like a job to me, it's a dream come true, every performance is still really special," says Johnston.

She puts me in touch with Leigh Hawira, a Tauranga breakdancer who for the past seven years has been starring in one of the Strip's most successful shows, Thunder From Downunder.

Touted as an all-Aussie strip show, there are actually five Kiwis on the show and they are among some of the highest-paid performers in Vegas.

It's a cliche I know, but the show is about much more than these boys getting their kit off. The choreography and the performance is world class and up to twice a night, the Thunder From Downunder turn it on for hundreds of screaming women.

"It's a great job, but we sacrifice a lot, being away from family and friends, eating what you want. The job becomes your life, our bodies might look good on the outside but inside it really hurts, it takes a big toll on you," says Hawira.

Away from the stage the guys lead an almost normal Kiwi existence - hanging out together, having regular jam sessions, wakeboarding, golfing, and travelling the country.

The cars may be a little more souped up and the girlfriends a bit more glamorous, but you get a sense that these are just five regular Kiwi blokes who would give anything to be doing what they are doing back home.

I went to two other, slightly more subdued, shows in Vegas: Rat Pack a tribute show featuring the songs of Sinatra, Martin and Sammy Davis jnr, and the mind-blowing Cirque Du Soleil Show Love, based around the music of the Beatles.

But I wanted to find the best places to eat in Vegas.

First, I went to Sage, a fine-dining restaurant in one of the newest casinos, Aria. The stand-out moment of this meal was actually our "server", Bond, yep you heard right, Bond. A charming and witty American, with an impressive knowledge of the menu and wine list. We were brought an amazing succession of dishes with matching wines. The Morro Bay oysters from California were served with a Tabasco sorbet and were a highlight, as was the foie gras, creme brulee, and Alaskan crab.

Next was Mizumi at Wynn's. Considered to be among the best Japanese restaurants in Vegas it has been open just a few weeks and opens on to a Japanese garden and man-made waterfall.

I started with a green tea Mojito and then the six-course Omakase menu. It is sometimes hard to be impressed by seafood when you come from New Zealand, but the tuna sashimi melted in the mouth and I had my favourite dessert of the trip, a green tea and chocolate creme brulee served with what can only be described as an upmarket brandysnap.

The third night was dinner at Joel Robuchon. Recently voted chef of the century, Robuchon has 13 restaurants around the world, two in the MGM casino. I had the four-course degustation, with wine matched by their master sommelier. As many as 40 chefs work each night in the kitchen and we were lucky enough to be put in Celine Dion's booth - she clearly wasn't dining that night.

The bread trolley had more than 15 types of bread served with churned French butter. Dishes included a cherry gazpacho, langoustine ravioli, crispy soft-boiled egg with smoked salmon and osetra caviar, and duck and foie gras served with Robuchon's signature mashed potato, which was unlike anything I've tasted.

You haven't experienced Vegas dining unless you have eaten poolside; brunch at Simon in the Palms hotel was excellent, try the cornflake crusted French toast served with fresh berries. The buffet breakfast at the Tropicana was also excellent. At Tropicana's Glow spa, I tried one of their signature facials, which included a chemical peel and an oxygen blast. Amazing to flush out some of those Vegas toxins.

The mood at the departure gate in Las Vegas was slightly more subdued to say the least. There were plenty of stories of marriages, tattoos and late night antics to be told and promises that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

- Hamilton News

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