It’s no secret that the concept of Las Vegas doesn’t excite me. I’ve never been a partying, gambling, drinking kind of girl. My first impressions were not favorable – an overwhelming jumble of clashing themes, lights, noises, and people. There seemed to be no escape from the oncoming tide of humanity engaged in raucous entertainment.
For me, Vegas is the epitome of artificial – a frolicking city of sin and no-holds-bared fun in the middle of the barren desert, a mirage that never quite feels real. The Disney-esque themed casino hotels only cement this impression. The painted “sky” of Paris that looms over the beeping slot machines, invoking claustrophobia. The lack of windows and clocks, wiping out all notion of nature’s cyclical rhythm of night and day. The bizarre sight of a fairytale castle sharing space with a hodgepodge of New York City landmarks, a giant golden lion, a gleaming pyramid guarded by a sphinx, and the Eiffel Tower visible down the street. I was unnerved in the first hour.
Yet slowly Vegas shared with me a another side beneath the crass commercialism and escapism. There is quality and culture to be found if you allow yourself to explore. My first hint of this came when we stumbled upon the City Center, a brand-new, expensive, and controversal development on the Strip. We whisked for free on the tram between the City Center and the Bellagio, giving our weary feet a break and avoiding the criminally expensive monorail. We goggled at the delicate, fanciful cake designs at a shop within the City Center. Giant chocolate flowers graced a wall like a modern art installation. Outside, a hulking sculpture made entirely of kayaks reminded me of a prickly porcupine.
Over at the Bellagio, more discoveries awaited. In the grand lobby of the hotel, we halted in our tracks to stare up at the delicate and whimsical glass sculpture in the ceiling. Designed in 1998 by Dale Chihuly, it is made up of 2,000 handblown glass flowers. The result is stunning enough for the most renowned fine art museums of Europe.
Just steps away is another gem of the Bellagio – the casino’s conservatory. The exuberant displays of art and flowers are changed with the seasons and holidays. While we were there, the vast arrangements of mums, marigolds and other flowers made up a Alice-in-Wonderland make-believe harvest world, with giant pumpkins, twisted, spooky trees, and splashing fountains. During the day, the display is friendly, invoking that cozy feeling I associate with autumn walks through crunching leaves and sipping apple cider. The thousands of flowers scent the air with enticing spices. But visit at night and the low lighting creates a spooky, haunted pumpkin patch. The gnarled trees, so delightfully playful during the day, are menacing at night. An artistic botanical genius by manipulating mood with light and shape.
As I discovered the intellectual side of Vegas, I also allowed myself to surrender to the other more traditional pastimes of Sin City. Feasting at the famous (though definitely not cheap!) buffets, sampling Japanese sushi, pastas, Chinese stirfry, and decadent desserts at the Mirage Buffet. Savouring an impressive array of craft brews at Pour 24 while mingling with friends post-wedding inside the New York-New York. Browsing stylish shoes at a boutique inside the MGM Grand. Lounging poolside in the mid-afternoon sun before diving into the nightlife. Even the raved-about Bellagio Fountain show lived up to the hype. I was lulled by the graceful beauty of a lyrical ballet dance and laughed at the humor of “All That Jazz”. I never imagined I would actually be able to perceive the cheekiness of the top-hatted entertainer from the musical Chicago perfectly captured in the movement of a fountain.
By the end of the weekend I was even enjoying the unapologetic irreverence of Vegas. I strolled the atmospheric “cobblestone” shopping street of the Paris Hotel, treating myself to a surprisingly good crepe and peeking into unique shops under a canopy of stained glass. Inside the Venetian, I stumbled across a quirky operetta performed live by costumed actors in the grand piazza and paused to watch an artist painting a mask in the glittery Venetian style as a serenading gondolier slid past in the shallow fake canal, his baritone voice reverberating off the arches of pedestrian bridges spanning the canal.
My final surrender came as I passed through the gaming hall of the Vegas classic Flaminco, a 1950’s-style casino still outfitted with pink neon lights and inhabited by feather-coiffed showgirls. I dodged drink-laden tuxedoed waiters to reach a garden oasis in the center of the casino. Standing on the bridge over the koi fish-inhabited waters and surrounded by palm trees, birds, and graceful flamingos, I let in Vegas, with all its artificial, over-the-top glory.