Romantic breaks in Las Vegas are the hottest ticket in town
MENTION the words food, culture, history and nightlife and several of the world’s most-famous cities spring to mind – London, New York, Paris, Rome...
So when I floated the idea of a romantic getaway to Las Vegas, the look on my wife’s face said it all. She didn’t need to utter the words, but I knew she was conjuring up the image of us spending four nights playing poker in the company of a boisterous mob of Conor McGregor fans.
But if you can see your way past the flashing neon signs, roulette tables and The Notorious’ ole, ole brigade, then you’ll realise why Vegas is the hottest ticket on the planet right now.
A-list celebrities like Rod Stewart, Elton John, Celine Dion and Britney Spears are queuing up to sign lucrative residency deals (Justin Timberlake is also reportedly in talks for a 2017 run of shows), while Sin City has also become home to the greatest collection of Michelin-starred chefs in the culinary world.
We stayed at New York, New York Hotel, a Big Apple-inspired resort complete with its very own replica Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. A bit of the city that doesn’t sleep where every hour is happy hour.
In comparison to its gleaming new neighbours – the Aria, Cosmopolitan and Vdara resorts – New York, New York is considered to be one of the elder statesman of the Strip, and yet it’s no less impressive than when the hotel was built in the late 1990s.
The rooms are incredibly spacious, the pool area is the perfect spot to soak up the scorching Nevada sunshine and, if you’re feeling a little homesick, the resort’s Nine Fine Irishmen boozer serves a perfect pint of plain.
After a good night’s rest, we kicked-off our adventure away from the bright lights of the Strip. In much the same way as many visitors to Dublin never see further than Temple Bar, the majority of tourists arriving in Sin City never leave Las Vegas Boulevard (the Strip).
A short taxi ride from the iconic sights of Caesar’s Palace and the Bellagio fountains is where the whole Vegas story began - the downtown area of Fremont Street. There’s an edginess about this part of the city that you won’t get on the Strip and if you want to get a feel of what this place was like when The Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr) and the Chicago Mob ruled the roost, then this is the place you need to be.
It’s home to some of the most-historical casinos, like the Golden Nugget, Binion’s and The Golden Gate, and it’s also where Bono and U2 shot the video to their smash hit, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, back in 1987.
The city has always had an uneasy relationship with the mafia, stretching back to the days when Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky fronted the famous Flamingo Hotel, a marriage immortalised in such iconic movies as Casino and Bugsy. But instead of trying to bury its dark secrets in the desert dunes, downtown Vegas has embraced its shady past.
Just a short stroll from Freemont Street is The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement – better known as the Mob Museum.
Situated in a former county courthouse, the three-storey exhibition documents everything from the mob’s rise to power in New York to its emergence in Vegas and its famous casino ‘skim’.
The museum has gathered enough video evidence, wiretap recordings, photographs, weapons and personal possessions to bring the whole ‘family’ down, and gives a great insight into America’s tumultuous relationship with the mafia. Among the many exhibits is New York godfather John Gotti’s infamous white suit, a revolver retrieved after the bloody St Valentine’s Day massacre, the actual wall where the executions took place, and hours of never-before-seen footage and snaps from some of the country’s most-gruesome murders.
Fremont Street itself has been given a massive facelift over the past two decades, and is now totally pedestrianised and covered by a 1,500ft canopy – with its very own high-flying zipline known as Slotzilla – and regularly hosts a series of free outdoor concerts and shows.
What’s more, the prices in downtown Las Vegas are a fraction of what you pay on the Strip. The area is jam-packed with hip bars and cool cafes and it’s easy to spend the whole day here and forget that you’re in one of the glitziest cities in the world.
At 5.30am the following morning, while a host of bleary-eyed gamblers enter the last chance saloon, we are picked up by bus and driven deep into the desert. It’s a journey that many who fell foul of the mob back in the day would have made, usually in the trunk of Cadillac – never to be seen again.
But, thankfully, we’re just making the short journey to Boulder City Airport, and have a date with one of the great natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon. It’s a near-five-hour round-trip by road from Vegas, but to truly grasp the Canyon’s size and beauty, there’s only one way to travel – by helicopter.
We had booked the four-and-a-half hour Celebration Tour with Papillion Helicopters and we depart just as the sun rises in the Nevada Sky. The chopper’s route takes us out over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, before the pilot begins the breathtaking 4,000ft descent to the floor of the canyon.
We touch down close to the canyon floor, and the sheer scale of the sandstone walls, carved over billions of years by the winding Colorado River, become evident. Our pilot offers us a glass of champagne, the perfect toast to one of nature’s greatest creations.
The stop-over lasts only 30 minutes, but it’s an experience that will live with you for a lifetime and one which will leave you feeling totally drained.
Back on the Strip, the party is in full swing. It’s evening so we decide to dine at a restaurant whose chef boasts seven Michelin stars (as you do).
Bouchon French bistro (above) at the Venetian is one of chef Thomas Keller’s flagship restaurants and follows in the proud footsteps of his eatery of the same name in Napa Valley.
Keller, who was once voted America’s greatest chef – and who also owns the famed French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York City – is renowned for using only the freshest local produce available, and at this Vegas establishment it’s no different.
A stickler for detail and high standards, he has installed a live video link in the kitchen which allows his chefs interact with their colleagues in New York and Napa, and the food that flows from the kitchen is, without any doubt, the finest I’ve ever eaten.
Dishes like lobster beignet, pork belly toast, poached ricotta dumplings with truffle and sole meuniere arrive at our table with military precision, and by the end of the evening we’re both speechless. The restaurant also has its own bakery and, as we leave, the maitre d’ presents us with a selection of pastries and croissants to take with us. An edible souvenir of a memorable evening.
To finish the night off we take the short stroll to the neigbouring Mirage Hotel and to a musical experience with a difference. Of all the shows currently running in Las Vegas, Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Love’ consistently attracts the most attention. The show is a musical biography of The Beatles, from their early days in Liverpool’s Cavern Club to their break-up in 1970, and features a host of fictional characters plucked from the Fab Four’s most-famous song lyrics – Sgt Pepper, Eleanor Rigby and Doctor Robert.
The gravity-defying stunts performed by the cast of gymnasts has to be seen to be believed, and with the band’s greatest hits serving as a brilliant backdrop, this is big-top
Beatles at its best.
Las Vegas may have, in the past, been seen as more Penny Lane than Rodeo Drive as a holiday destination for a couple, but the new-look Sin City will definitely make you want to Twist and Shout.
STAY: We stayed at the four-star New York, New York Hotel, in the heart of the Strip. This Big-Apple-themed hotel has a fantastic open-air pool and also has its own rollercoaster. See newyorknewyork.com for prices.
EAT: Giada’s Italian eatery at Caesar’s Palace is the first restaurant opened by famed American TV chef Giada De Laurentiis. It overlooks the Strip and has fab views of the Bellagio fountains and neighbouring Paris Hotel. If you can manage to get a table by the open windows, it’s a super spot for people watching. The antipasti platters and wood-fired pizzas are to die for, and very reasonably priced given the location.
Holstein’s Shakes and Buns in the super-cool Cosmopolitan Hotel serves up some of the best burgers you’re ever likely to taste. There’s crazy concoctions like the Big Fat Greek (spiced lamb, feta and tzatziki), the Captain Hook (seared and smoked salmon) and the Billionaire Burger, which is made with kobe beef and foie gras. Average price of a burger is around $17. Bring your appetite.
For good old southern comfort, head to Yardbird in the Venetian. There’s succulent smoked brisket with homemade biscuits, mac ‘n’ cheese and St Louis-style pork ribs. It’s worth the near-8000km trip to Sin City to try Yardbird’s signature fried chicken. It may not be good for your health, but no visitor to Vegas should ever leave without trying it.
To push the boat out, a window-side table at the Bellagio Hotel’s Lago is the perfect setting for a romantic dinner. It has the best views of the resort’s famous dancing fountains and counts many A-list celebs among its regular clientele. The cocktails are mind-blowingly good (and strong), and shared plates of slow-cooked short ribs, shrimp-stuffed squid and lobster risotto will leave you gasping in amazement.
Downtown in the Fremont Street area, Glutton (on the corner of Carson St and 7th St) is a cracking little neighbourhood joint that serves up the best of local produce - there’s great sharing plates like Ahi tuna tacos, calamari fries and wood-roasted shrimp. The homemade pastas are killer and there’s top craft beers on tap.
FUN: A helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon is an absolute must. We took the five-hour Grand Celebration Tour with Papillon Helicopters. The tour includes pick-up and drop-off at your hotel, and a champagne picnic in the canyon. Prices start from $359 per person. Check out papillon.com for details.
And while you have your head in the clouds, be sure to take a ride on the aptly-named Highroller Ferris Wheel at the Linq Hotel. It’s the tallest observation wheel in the world, eclipsing both the London Eye and Singapore Flyer, and gives you a great perspective to the sheer size and scale of the iconic hotels along the Strip. Prices start from just $18 for adults and $15 dollars for kids. See Caesars.com.
DEALS: If you want to banish those winter blues, Tour America has some cracking deals available for Vegas in the coming months - four nights at the Excalibur Hotel in November, including return flights, is available just from just €539pp (based on four adults sharing. Ref 520356). A four-night stay at the same hotel in December can be booked from just €629pp (based on 4 adults sharing. Ref 520357). See www.touramerica.ie.
For further information on all the latest happenings in Vegas, see www.lasvegas.com. The site has got some great recommendations as to the best hotels, the hottest shows and the hippest restaurants in town.