x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Las Vegas: Still going great guns

Nevada's biggest city is now known as much for its shopping, entertaining, fine dining and five-star hotels as it is for its casinos, says Adriaane Pielou.

The Strip in Las Vegas is the city's main thoroughfare, and where you will find most of its famous hotels. John Hicks / Corbis
The Strip in Las Vegas is the city's main thoroughfare, and where you will find most of its famous hotels. John Hicks / Corbis

Get off the plane at Las Vegas, walk into the terminal, and about the first thing you see is a poster of a smiling woman cheerfully brandishing an AK-47. "Learn to fire a real machine gun!" it proclaims encouragingly; US$190 (Dh697) will buy 25 rounds of ammunition and they'll even pick you up from your hotel to take you to the shooting range.

"Drive a Ferrari at 100mph!" suggests an ad in the city guide I start flicking through while on the bus into the city. Las Vegas is ringed by desert and mountains and you can see the hotels on the famous Strip as soon as you emerge from the airport concourse. It's not your usual city welcome, but then Las Vegas is not your usual city, which is why it is definitely worth seeing once, even if you do feel like running away screaming after a day or two.

Having got off the ground as a resort in the 1930s, Las Vegas was a place where workers building the vast Hoover Dam across the Colorado River could enjoy some R&R. Its first resort, El Rancho Vegas, opened in 1941, and the city became famous in the 1950s. Just more than an hour's flight or five hours by car from Los Angeles, it was an easy spot for Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe to visit for the weekend before returning to the film studio on a Monday morning.

Today, with the opening of a Four Seasons, a Mandarin Oriental and the first Nobu Hotel, most visitors come to Las Vegas as a place to shop, eat and see a show. The prospect of trying out an Uzi or a Ferrari is another alternative to the world of the house-always-wins casinos.

A comfortable bed

To lure you in, hotel rates have always been relatively low in Las Vegas. On Las Vegas Boulevard - better known as The Strip - the 4,049-room Venetian comes complete with canals and singing gondoliers and boasts a vibrant pool party scene at its rooftop Tao Beach. It charges from $149 (Dh547) a night for a large standard room (www. venetian.com).

One of the best hotels - unless you're crazy for slot machines - is the Mandarin Oriental, which is one of the few non-gaming five-star hotels. The 392-room (boutique-sized in Vegas terms) establishment must be the only Mandarin Oriental where a room can be had for $195 (Dh716), although admittedly in the 38° Celsius summer heat (mandarinoriental.com/lasvegas).

Find your feet

The centre of the action is where The Strip crosses Flamingo Avenue. Here you could enjoy O, an aquatic show staged at the Bellagio, and the current hot ticket, Love, a show playing at the Mirage that reinterprets the songs and story of The Beatles. Both shows have been produced by the Canadian entertainment company Cirque du Soleil.

You can dip in and out of the famous hotels: Caesars Palace, which has staff dressed as centurions; the 3,000-room Mirage, the first of the city's mega-resorts; the Wynn, home of the biggest buffet in Vegas; and the Bellagio, with its indoor windmill.

Meet the locals

Locals aren't the people in shorts wandering down The Strip. They're the people running the show: sitting behind the tills, bringing you a zillion-calorie triple chocolate caramel sundae, showing you how to protect your shoulder when you fire that AK-47 (machinegunsvegas.com) or talking you up from five laps in a Ferrari for $299 (Dh1,1098) to 25 laps in five different Ferraris for $999 (Dh3,669, exoticsracing.com).

A session on a massage table is a popular downtime option for Las Vegans. Have a cooling mask put over your eyes, let a therapist give you an hour of reflexogy, and find time to chat.

At the Mandarin Oriental spa, a law student paying her way through college tells me: "Las Vegas was the US foreclosure capital after the financial collapse in 2008. But the upside is now you can get fabulous deals on property."

Book a table

View the scene, and be seen in a private bamboo dining pod at the world's largest Nobu Restaurant and Lounge. It is part of the Nobel Hotel, which opened in April and is itself located inside Caesars Palace - a-hotel-within-a-hotel.

As ever at any Nobu, the bento box (a compartmentalised serving of fish, seafood and salad) is a must.

Shopper's paradise

Stylish malls are ubiquitous with the names Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana etc at every turn. The newest and uniquely designed, Crystals, can be found next door to the Mandarin Oriental.

What to avoid

On arrival, it's tempting to take the $7(Dh25) shuttle bus from the airport into the city instead of spending $25 (Dh91) to $30 (Dh110) on a taxi. But the shuttle-bus drivers don't like to leave until all seats are occupied. They often have to negotiate terrible traffic on The Strip to drop off each passenger at their hotel. Therefore, a journey that takes 30 minutes by taxi can take two hours or more by bus. On the trip back, however, the 7.30am shuttle left my hotel promptly and got me to the airport 20 minutes later.

Don't miss

The city's Neon Museum, an open-air graveyard of vintage neon signs from the 40s, 50s and 60s, makes for an interesting morning, with the guide's absorbing talk about how the city has evolved. But if you have time, the Grand Canyon is about four hours away by road or about 25 minutes by helicopter. A sunset helicopter trip, touching down in the mile-deep Canyon, costs $350 (D1,285, papillon.com). There are old Gold Rush ghost towns to explore in the region, too.

Go there

There are no direct flights from the UAE to Las Vegas, so you will have to make at least one stop. Emirates flies (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to LA from Dh6,905 return including taxes, from where it's a 75-minute hop by air. As Las Vegas is one of the cheaper US airports to fly in and out of, it is a good jumping-off spot for exploring the beauty of the American South West.