Passport control at Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport, and I’m braced for a grilling from a immigration officer trained to make innocent holidaymakers feel like KGB spies infiltrating Cold War West Berlin.
But a quick glance into this particular border guard’s booth suggests I’m in for an easy ride. He has stylishly accessorised his cubicle with a pair of oversized novelty dice and framed picture of fat Elvis in a rhinestone jumpsuit. And he’s flashing me a friendly smile as round as a roulette wheel. The passport official, not Elvis.
“Have a lucky day,” he says, waving me through like a kindly lollipop lady.
Welcome to Las Vegas; a city that, from the moment your passport is stamped, goes out of its way to prove it’s like no other place on earth.
It’s tempting to leave your luggage completing endless circuits of the baggage carousel while you chance your arm on one of the airport’s 1,300 slot machines. But even those with willpower enough to wait until leaving the terminal won’t have to wait long to try their luck. The city’s glitziest hotels and casinos sit alongside the airport runway, clamouring for your cash the second you step out into the desert heat.
While checking in to the Mandalay Bay Hotel, the distant shriek of a gambler on a winning streak caused me to ditch unpacking duties and head straight to the mega casino. The rhythmic clicking of stacked betting chips, the whirl of slot machines weaving their malevolent magic, poker hustlers hidden behind caps and dark glasses and businessmen asking leggy lovelies to blow their dice a good luck kiss. All that was missing was Martin Scorsese to shout “cut!”
Giving the $25,000-a-hand blackjack table a wide berth, I opted for the less rarefied level of a $25 game being played by a group of senior citizens blowing their grandchildren’s inheritance. I sat between Andy and Isaac, a pair of cigar smoking veterans cursing their luck like The Muppet Show’s Statler and Waldorf. And it seemed my beginner’s luck was well and truly in after my opening hand of 18 beat the dealer – doubling my $25 at the turn of a card.
“Let it ride, sonny!” said Isaac, urging me to stake all my winnings on the next hand.
I recklessly followed his advice for three more glorious double-or-nothing hands that saw my original $25 swell to Rockefeller proportions. The casino’s heavies were no doubt watching my moves on CCTV and cross-checking my face with Interpol.
They needn’t have worried. A fatal fifth hand brought me back to zero with a brutal bump – the croupier casually sweeping away my mighty tower of chips like a landlord clearing the bar after last orders.
It may have been a case of ‘close but no cigar’, but that didn’t stop Issac offering me one of his Cuban Cohibas to help me come to terms with my reduced circumstances. “Go figure!” he said, shrugging his shoulders before adding. “I know how you feel, sonny. I get lucky here almost every day. I almost get lucky on Mondays, I almost get lucky on Tuesdays…”
Isaac and I comprise a fraction of the ninety-nine per cent of visitors who fail to put the bling into gambling by leaving with pockets lighter than when they arrived. Together they squander more than £9 billion every year, easily seduced by the romance of ‘one more go’ theory, which states you’re only ever one coin, spin or card away from a life-changing windfall.
Today casinos must compete with Broadway shows, celebrity concerts (Celine Dion recently ended a five-year residency at The Colosseum), designer-brand shopping, health spas and nightclubs for visitors’ time and money.
Most of the attractions are housed in 19 of the world’s 20 largest hotels. The £1.5 billion Wynn is the latest and most lavish hotel casino to open on the legendary Las Vegas Strip. But with each new development outdoing the last, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Five new resorts are due to open by 2010, two with very British themes – The Montreux, with a 465-foot version of the London Eye observation wheel and a Harrods-themed hotel and casino with replicas of Big Ben, Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Sin City famously prides itself on also being Sim City, with many of its attractions replicated, miniaturised and sanitised versions of the original. From a pretend Paris complete with an Eiffel Tower and pavement cafes to a biblical Egypt with pyramids, there’s a new and improved Vegas version of the biggest icons on earth.
For a simulated city, Vegas isn’t short on genuine sophistication. Whatever your poison, the city has options to satisfy every sense. Its cuisine has come a long way from 99 cent prawn cocktails and pile ’em high buffets. It now serves gourmet grub to rival the world’s finest.
High rollers can put their mouth where their money is by ordering an extreme dining option – a $5,000 hamburger at Fleur de Lys at the Mandalay Bay Hotel or a 16-course meal at the MGM Grand, washed down with a $1,000 shot of 50-year-old Macallan whisky.
When night falls, the city truly shows off its culinary class. The lavish Wynn Hotel offers three venues for the perfect supper. The hotel’s Wing Lei restaurant is the only Chinese restaurant in the United States to win a Michelin star while the seafood at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare is the city’s freshest, flown in daily from the Mediterranean. And leave room for dessert of the Daniel Boulud Brasserie – you’ll be dreaming about the cocoa-crusted profiteroles for months.
Elsewhere, the steaks are as big as the stakes at the Strip House restaurant in Planet Hollywood’s new hotel and casino. Chef John Schenk’s menu includes prime cuts of beef charred to perfection, accompanied by side dishes of goose fat potatoes and black truffle creamed spinach. And there’s only one option for dessert – the foot-high 24-layer chocolate cake.
Not that you can’t easily order a simple dish that goes well with a cold beer. In true American style the fast food is cheap and abundant, and the burgers and drinks are free when you are gambling.
Just one word of warning. If you’re tempted to try your luck on the blackjack tables between mouthfuls of complimentary cheeseburger, it’s probably best to ignore ‘one more go theory’ at all costs. Because the one thing the casinos don’t warn you about in the small print is that your investment is likely to go down as well as really, really down.
• First published in the Daily Mail.