America: You can bet on Las Vegas

By Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin finds fun, glamour and plain working folk in America's gambling capital.

A stretch limo cruises the Las Vegas Strip. Photo / Supplied
A stretch limo cruises the Las Vegas Strip. Photo / Supplied

Driving down the main drag in a stretch limo with hip-hop music blaring would probably make you stand out in many cities around the world ... but in Las Vegas it is just the thing to do.

Channelling my inner rapper, I try to look cool. A casual glance out of the darkened window reveals at least six other such limos, which I'm sure must be full of very cool people.

We were all driving down Las Vegas Boulevard with the spectacular lights of Vegas sparkling brightly all around: it was about as far away from my normal life as I could possibly imagine.

Vegas is like that. It is not meant to be normal. It is whatever you want it to be. And at night, when it emerges in all its finery, the city shines.

Whatever you have heard about the place at night is true. It is glitzy, tacky, relentless and absolutely amazing.

By day it is equally amazing, a monument to human ingenuity in creating extraordinary buildings ranging from the elaborate to the bizarre.

It is also a city with millions of people who work for a living. And that was a subject that intrigued me: how could one lead a normal life in such an abnormal atmosphere?

"It is amazing how normal life is when you have bills to pay," was the succinct answer from Shant Apelian, a public relations specialist for MGM Resorts International, which owns many of the big hotels on the Strip.

It is these hotels, or more particularly the casinos, that make Vegas what it is.

The names are well-known - the Ballagio with its famous fountains, Caesars Palace, the Cosmopolitan, the Venetian, the Flamingo, Tropicana, the pyramid-shaped Luxor, Excalibur ... the list goes on.

Inside these ornate buildings are the endless rows of pokie machines and blackjack tables. But there is also a fascinating collection of people from all around the world. Many a foreign tongue drifted past my ears as I walked through the masses all seeking a fortune.

It is an exhilarating experience, even if you don't gamble much, but the trick is to remember it is fun.

Back outside the streets are always crowded, even at 3am. And the surprising thing is that the crowds at that time of the morning are not drunken hooligans.

In fact, three things that strike me about the Las Vegas streets were how clean they are (certainly one of the cleaner cities I have been in), how safe it is (some women in our group walked home alone with no problems), and how there is always something happening.

Although most people are attracted by the gambling, there is more to Vegas. The number of high-profile shows on at any one time is staggering. When I was there, there were signs for shows by Celine Dion, David Copperfield and many more.

Even shows by wannabe stars attract attention, a case in point being Peep Show, staring Holly Madison, a former girlfriend of Hugh Hefner.

But for most, Las Vegas is about the gambling. They come in their droves and sit in front of the tables and machines for hours. The casinos draw them in and keep them. Walk through any of the big hotels at any time of the day or night, 2pm or 2am, and the places will be packed.

Everything is designed to get people to gamble their money - the gambling halls are grand, the drinks are cheap (a beer costs about US$3 (NZ$3.68) at some casinos), ATMs are close by and the environment stimulating.

The trick is to know when to stop and to know when to go home.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand, with partner airlines, flies daily from Auckland to Las Vegas via Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Further information: See visitlasvegas.co.nz.

Andrew Austin visited Las Vegas as guest of Air New Zealand, Grabaseat and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

- NZ Herald

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