It’s a warm, magical summer evening; that moment when the light clicks and then, almost imperceptibly, begins to fade.
It casts a strange, glamorous shadow over the scene before me.
Lulling canals and lazy gondolas; pockets of relaxed diners eating alfresco as scents of garlic and ripe tomatoes fill the air.
But everything is not as it seems.
First up, it’s not actually summer – rather, it’s a pretty chill March night. Also, that state of twilight I mentioned? It’s perpetual. When, after 10 minutes, it remains the same, I question if I’m even awake.
Weirdest of all, I’m not even in Italy. In fact. I’m 9,834 km from Italy. And I’m indoors.
Of course, I’m actually at the Venetian Las Vegas – a staggering, five star, $1.5 billion hotel complex inspired by an iconic Italian city I’m yet to visit. With 4,049-rooms, it’s the second largest hotel in the world.
Truly, pictures do not do it justice. And neither the ornate ceilings of the nearby Armillary Sphere, hand painted by Italian artists.
I of course knew Las Vegas was a somewhat inconceivable place. A blockbuster destination in the middle of a desert, home to mini versions of the Eiffel Tower (the Paris Las Vegas hotel, above) and the Empire State Building (New York-New York Hotel and Casino). But The Venetian? That was news to me.
Stumbling on its indoor waterways (actually part of the hotel’s Grand Canal Shoppes complex, where a 85,000-square-foot Barneys New York leads the charge – that’s right, it’s also a mall) was one of the biggest shocks of my travel life.
Over a hearty Italian meal at Buddy V’s Ristorante – a classic example from the menu being ‘My Mother-in-Law’s Capellini Shrimp Scampi’ – I absorbed the experience and tried to work out how I felt about it.
Because let’s fact it: Las Vegas has its cheerleaders and its detractors. I know plenty of both. But for me, personally, Vegas has its place. Yes, its glaringly touristic atmosphere is overwhelming. But if you come here, you have to get over it. This is a place invented for tourists, for lovers of popular culture. It’s as knowingly, cunningly manufactured as a perfect pop album.
Furthermore, it was only founded 107 years ago, on 15 May 1905. To put that into perspective, London was founded in 43AD.
Tourism and gaming are now the biggest industries, allowing the city to prosper and become the largest in Nevada, home to 603,488 people. It’s a success story you can’t ignore. The garish, ostentatious displays of wealth that come with it are a prerequisite.
Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but other times, it’s illuminating. That’s genuinely how I felt when I saw The Venetian. It’s not real, but then again, it is – you can reach out and touch it. In my jet-lagged state, it threw me for a loop. The same goes for the 107m black pyramid of the Luxor Las Vegas, complete with replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza. I’ll never forget such sights, even if I wanted to.
Vegas sets out to seduce. Giving it that chance should be on your travel travel bucket list, in and of itself. But to be more specific, here are nine utterly absurd but priceless experiences you can have in Sin City….
1 Take a helicopter ride across the skyline
In my book there are two ways to quickly get a feel for a city’s layout – a walking tour or a helicopter ride. This being Vegas, my group opted for the latter, more exhilarating option.
Of course, it was hilarious seeing buildings like this one in miniature, somewhat robbed of its grandeur. It was also fascinating seeing just how small Vegas is; at 352 km², its almost a quarter the size of Los Angeles (1,214km²).
We actually left the city on our flight with the excellent Maverick Helicopters. The 2.5 hour HeliYoga Experience took us to a mountaintop in the Valley of Fire, where we enjoyed a much-needed yoga session in the sun against an otherworldly backdrop.
Just as our nerves began to settle, we were back in the helicopter taking off at what felt like a glacial pace from an impossibly precarious ledge. Honestly, do not underestimate how scary – but also amazing – helicopters can be.
2 Ride a rollercoaster in the middle of town
Take a slice out of New York City with the Big Apple Coaster & Arcade – the main attraction at New York-New York Hotel & Casino, where the carriages look like yellow cabs. It attracts 1.4m riders per year.
It’s a bumpy, noisy ride, lacking the smoothness of more modern coasters. But it has throwback appeal. Mostly we were charmed by the novelty of riding a coaster, within a city, within a city.
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3 Try indoor skydiving
If you like the idea of skydiving but fear a nervous breakdown, dip your toe in the water at the Vegas Indoor Skydiving Experience. A 1,000 horsepower motor creates winds of up to 120mph; all you have to do is step into its path (over netting, of course) and before you know it, you’re flying around a wind tunnel.
It’s a bizarre, unpredictable ride. I’ve done it once before, but was far more more reserved about it this time around. There was something about the sight of a huge, grown man, whipped up into the air like a feather that unsettled (and amused) me. That said, being able to share the sensation of free fall with friends and family, and without copious amounts of training and preparation, is the USP of this experience.
4 Bulldoze the hell out of some stuff
The tagline is ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’ and this too applied to my short-lived foray into demolition and construction. Unless I have a career change in the future which, on reflection, I might. That’s how much fun this was.
At Dig This, ‘America’s Adult-Sized Sandbox’, you can learn to operate bulldozers and excavators. In one sense all I did was dig a hole, make a mound of earth and assemble an impeccably neat pile of giant tyres. But there’s a real sense of achievement in taming these exquisite machines – they’re so fantastically sensitive to the lightest of touch. Be warned: you might get turned on.
5 Stay in a ridiculously fancy hotel
There are plenty to choose from – Vegas boasts over 150,000 hotel rooms, and 14 of the world’s 20 largest hotels. We stayed at the brand spanking new four star W Las Vegas. It has 289 rooms, a gym, spa and seven restaurants. Naturally, the complex has its own casino (even the laundrettes have slot machines in Vegas) where we allowed ourselves to play one sole game of Craps – it’s a dice game, if you’re wondering – and somehow quadrupled our money.
The W brand, with its glitzy, playful decor, feels right at home on the Strip. Best of all, it’s a short walk from Vegas’ most famous landmark, the 350m Stratosphere Tower. It’s the tallest observation tower in the US, and the tallest structure in Nevada.
6 Catch pop icons in concert
Residences are synonymous with Vegas. We were distraught that Britney Spears and Mariah Carey weren’t performing on the nights we were in town, but it’s all the more reason to return. Britney: Piece of Me is booking until the end of 2017 while Mariah’s #1 to Infinity is booking into July. (She’ll be returning to the Colosseum in December 2017 with six holiday shows.)
Other stars with residencies now or in the foreseeable include Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Shania Twain, Cher, Backstreet Boys, Elton John and my imaginary husband Ricky Martin.
7 Take in the view from a super glam bar
Namely, the 180 degree view at sunset from the sultry and chic Skyfall Lounge at Delano Las Vegas, where the furniture is gorgeous and the service super quick.
8 Go gambling and zip-lining on the same street
Perhaps not advisable after a few drinks, but definitely before dinner is Slotzilla’s Fremont Street Experience. You’ll race down Vegas’s famously retro gaming and shopping strip from a 10 storey, 34m tower, spat out like coins from a slot machine, while reaching speeds of up to 40mph as you dart 1,750 feet.
Again, I found this terrifying. Actually, I find zip-lining gets scarier with age and I don’t know why. In this case, perhaps it was because we were strapped into our harnesses from our backs, so flew horizontally rather than in a seated position, as pictured above. Scarier still: the sight of the ageing playboys doing the rounds in the decades-old casinos on this street.
8 Have an extravagant dinner
The legendary Caesars Palace is more than just a hotel/casino. After all, it’s essentially its own character in The Hangover franchise, plus it’s currently the on/off professional home of the Rocket Man himself. But Caesars is such a behemoth that, unless you’re staying here for a week, you need to pick just one or two facets to focus on, at least initially.
Step forward the ultra-modern Mr Chow, and the shape-shifting, sci-fi-esque sculpture that hangs proudly from its ceiling. The Chinese food at this glorious, world-renowned restaurant, opened in 2015 was faultless. Especially the prawns, seaweed and dumplings. As statement dining goes, it’s unbeatable: from the decadence of the Champagne Trolley to a chef turning the creation of noodles into performance art, this was more than a meal – it was an escapade.
9 Struggle to stay awake through an amazing show
My companions and I caught Kà by Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand on one of our last nights in Vegas. Sadly, we’d spent so much adrenaline in the days previous that half of us fell asleep by the end. (The chairs were SO comfortable.)
The parts I did see, though, through tired, half-open eyes were stunning, akin to a strange, beautiful dream. I’m not a massive fan of Cirque – I struggle with any stage production without proper dialogue – but this was something else. There’s a vague coming-of-age story I struggled to follow; more important is the elegant choreography, the stunning acrobatics and the shocking vertical battle scene on a 360 degree moving stage that beggars belief.
Return flights with Virgin Atlantic from £900. Rooms at W Las Vegas start from £153 ($187, €175) a night. For more information please visit lasvegas.com/uk.
Gay Star News traveled to Gatwick Airport on the Gatwick Express: get 10% when you book online. Trains run every 15 minutes from Victoria and Gatwick Airport.