Travel writer and photographer Jerome Shaw sets out on a mission to discover what downtown Las Vegas is all about these days.
By Jerome Shaw
Note: This trip was sponsored by Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Las Vegas is not my kind of place … or so I had long thought. But within moments of my recent trip to downtown Las Vegas, I realized that we’ve both changed a great deal since my last visit. It seems Las Vegas has become much more my kind of place: artsy, funky, friendly, pedestrian, and even a bit historic. Las Vegas has a central pulse now and it flows along Fremont Street.
I am a photographer and writer. Early in my career, Las Vegas was an annual pilgrimage for me; I’d go to the ski industry convention or to photograph for Frontier Airlines. Back then, I dutifully, but without much joy, made my treks to Las Vegas. Most of the travels in my career have centered around adventures but never let it be said that I passed up a good party. So, I am here in Vegas to relive my youth and to find out what downtown Las Vegas is all about these days.
ARRIVING IN LAS VEGAS
I arrived at McCarran International Airport (LAS) after an early morning Coach Plus Ted flight originating from Madison, Wisconsin and connecting through Chicago. The extra legroom of Coach Plus is a comfortable improvement and something I did not fully appreciate until my return flight, stuffed into regular coach.
It’s always a welcome sight to see a limo driver holding a placard with your name on it. One thing Las Vegas definitely got right is the location of the airport; it’s just a short ride to either the strip or downtown in the Lexus from Allan Waxler Group, (877-792-9537). We drove along, passing the fantasy landscape of the famous Las Vegas strip hotels. It looked like there had been a strange incident the night before, the remnants of which were still visible as we passed The Luxor. Yellow police tape fluttered in the desert breeze as news crews from local stations set up live shots. My driver pointed out the scene to me — an overnight car bombing — with the cautionary comment, “He just pissed someone off bad.” He luridly adds details that I’m sure he hopes will heighten the excitement of my first visit to Las Vegas in some 15 years.
THE GOLDEN NUGGET
The brassy porte cochere is my first glimpse of the newly renovated, four-star Golden Nugget (800-846-5336) in nearly 20 years and it looks much younger than I do. After a lengthy wait for my chance to step up to the polished wood check-in counter, I’m told that I have VIP check-in (room rates are $70 – $300). Unfortunately, waiting in line has pretty much killed the cachet of a VIP check-in ($15), especially after having to lug my bags around the corner and into the lounge. Eventually, I make my way up to my room. A housekeeping cart blocks my way. My room door is open and I can see that my room is not yet ready. They say that first impressions are all-important and after a very bright first impression, The Golden Nugget went dull on check-in and was now darkening further as I waited longingly just outside the door to my room. I must be missing the purpose of the VIP lounge; shouldn’t they keep you there, rested and distracted, possibly even with the offer of a drink, until your room is fully ready? When I’m finally granted entry, I find that my room is well appointed but not extraordinary. Of course, at that point, it would have taken a Vegas showgirl to improve my mood.
Thankfully, I have a bit of time to rest. There’s nothing like a shower, some time alone and the prospect of a party to shake off the weariness. I’m in Vegas now, BABY! My attitude is already improving.
My room has a very comfortable king-sized bed. The beige and green tones with golden accents give the room a calming appeal. The room features a full-size desk, an in-room safe, an iron and ironing board, and a hairdryer. A high speed Internet connection ($12/day) is available in all deluxe rooms and suites. My favorite touches are the stylish white robe and slippers, adorned with the Golden Nugget monogram.
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The hotel offers amenities such as bell service, complimentary valet and self-parking, express checkout, safe deposit boxes, in-room movies and same-day laundry service. The concierge can book a tee-time at any one of 30+ golf courses. The bell desk can handle tennis and sightseeing arrangements. There’s a full spa and health club ($20/day use fee plus a la carte charges). The Golden Nugget hosts an elegant watch shop carrying brands such as Longines, Montblanc and Rado. Style and Trend, a men’s and women’s clothing store, is also on site.
The location alone makes the Golden Nugget a great base of operations in downtown Las Vegas. When you add the services and amenities of this caliber, it becomes the premier hotel property in downtown Las Vegas. There are three restaurants, three bars, the Rush Lounge, the Carson Street Café and Starbucks. They also have what every hotel in Vegas must have … a buffet. The buffet prices range from $9 for the weekday breakfast to $20 for the Seafood and More Dinner.
GETTING THE PARTY STARTED
I am looking forward to meeting my hosts and the other journalists and having a drink at The Tank, the newly renovated poolside bar. Harpina, a very gracious server, intercepts me and her smile improves my mood further. A cold beer sounds more to my liking than the selection of wines that were at the ready in the cabana. The brightly decorated second floor cabanas are available for rent (Mon-Thu $150 / Fri-Sun $200) whether for couples looking for a bit of “public privacy” overlooking the pool or as a place to throw a party for your poker and golf buddies. Harpina, her big brown eyes and my beer return just as a booming voice descends upon the group. The first words I hear him say are, “I HOPE we have something to DRINK here,” as he glances, alarmed, at the wines. Harpina is soon at his side and I overhear him asking her to drown some olives in an excruciatingly dry martini. I immediately want to party with him. Mayor Oscar Goodman is not your typical mayor. He was purportedly asked by a group of fifth graders what one item he would wish to have, were he marooned on a deserted island? “A bottle of gin,” was his rejoinder. In his former career, he represented businessmen with reported mob ties and then graduated to representing Las Vegas as its chief PR agent. He seems a perfect match for the brashness of Las Vegas.
The party moves indoors. Vic and Anthony’s (800-634-3403) is a rather recent addition to The Golden Nugget, yet it feels like a restaurant with history. The steak house ambiance is warm and welcoming. The menu is a la carte and entrees range from $22 to $46. The iceberg wedge salad ($8) is huge and especially cold and crisp. My New York strip steak (market price) is perfectly prepared, tender and flavorful, served with a trio of vegetables and a baked potato. Food, wine and conversation are a great way to get to know my fellow travelers. A flourless Valrhona chocolate cake ($10) is a decadent capstone to a fine meal.
The party moves outdoors and east on foot on Fremont Street. We cross Las Vegas Boulevard and venture about a half block to the south. There is neither a sign nor a discernible door for Downtown Cocktail Room (DCR; 702-880-DOWN). The DCR is secret Vegas and hidden chic. We eventually locate the door and enter into a welcoming atmosphere of secluded tables, progressive/alternative music and red walls vibrating with paintings by local artist Mike Wardle. Watching non-regulars through the smoked glass outside the entrance blindly grope for the door must be a constant source of entertainment for the regulars. The place suits me to a tee; they know how to make a Caipirinha, my favorite Brazilian cocktail. The DCR cocktail menu ($7to $9) lists many old favorites: Sidecars, Manhattans, Gimlets and several not-so-familiar concoctions like Bangkok Streetlight, Cucumber Martini, Pisco Sours and Downtown Ginger. If I were a Las Vegas denizen, I’d be a regular here. Owner Michael Cornthwaite makes all who enter feel like it’s their place not his. This was a great place to end my first night back in the New Vegas.
THE OTHER VEGAS
What else does Las Vegas have to offer besides bars, babes, betting, and buffets? I’m about to find out. We’re off to visit some of downtown Las Vegas’ features just out of the city center with Celebrity Tours. To call the vehicle we are riding in a bus is most inappropriate. Rather, it’s a rolling party with disco decor, great for group cruising.
The first stop is the Arts District and S2 Graphics. S2 produces some of the finest limited edition prints and were a fixture in SoHo in NYC for years before making the move west to the newly designated Arts District. The Arts District is most active on First Fridays when businesses, galleries, and artist studios remain open into the evening.
VIVA LAS VEGAS
But back to the coach and on to our next stop. The Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel is everything you dreamed it might be, a few things you feared it would be and perhaps, even a bit kitschier than you expected it should be … even with a name like Viva Las Vegas. Here, you can be delivered to the altar in a pink Caddie by guess who? The King, of course! If you’re so inclined, you can have Elvis marry you while belting out It’s Now or Never. You can also choose from several other theme weddings such as Goth, ‘50s Diner or a more traditional garden theme. We are treated to a faux Elvis soiree for two of our travel-writing compatriots. Bill and Lark dance their way through the ceremony and out of legal matrimony through a loophole in the process; no marriage license. However, if you do dot the i’s and cross the t’s, your Elvis nuptials, replete with photo coverage and a live web cast, will be perfectly legal. Prices start at around $150.
It’s a bit of drive to the Neon Bone Yard, where all the great old signs, those icons of Las Vegas, come to retire. The Neon Museum will eventually be built on part of this property to house some of the rejuvenated neon signs. The Neon Bone Yard reminds me a bit of a macabre carnival in the process of setting up. It is unfortunate that they don’t allow any photos to be taken while on the grounds unless you pay a photography fee. It would make a great location for a horror film with Mr. Lucky, the burnt out hull of a 20-foot tall, laughing Leprechaun that lies menacingly on its side at one end of the yard. Other signs from Vegas landmarks litter the dusty grounds waiting for their time to burn bright again.
After that scary Leprechaun, I needed a break and a beer. Lunch at Triple George is hearty and ample. I order a beer, an IPA (India Pale Ale). This brings a lost look to the face of the server so I try again with, “the hoppiest beer on the menu.” I am served something by Gordon Biersch. Certainly not an IPA, nor highly hopped. I’d recommend skipping lunch and beer and going straight for the basket of assorted freshly baked cookies.
MORE SECRETS OF VEGAS
Brian Paco Alvarez, curator for the Las Vegas New Bureau Photo & Film Archives, LVCVA, leads a walking tour after lunch. Though Brian says, “Las Vegas is a city of cars,” a walking tour is a great way to experience downtown. Our first stop is the former Post Office and Federal Office Building built in 1933. In many cities, a building from the ‘30s might not seem very historic but by Las Vegas standard, it’s one of the oldest standing structures in the area. It is surrounded by buildings and parking garages from the ‘60s, whose architectural style Brian smilingly defines as “Brutalism”. The Post Office Building will house a museum dedicated to Las Vegas’ historic ties to organized crime, a.k.a. The Mob. It seems that the name is a bit of a secret or at least the subject of discussion but … I have a suggestion. How about The Mob Museum? Duh? It is appropriate that the Federal Building house the as yet unnamed museum as it was the site of the Las Vegas portion of the Kefauver Hearings in the 1950s. These hearings were held to investigate mob involvement in the gambling industry.
Much of Fremont Street is preserved in all of its historic neon glory but it seems that these facades hide an even deeper history. Neon made its gaudy debut in Las Vegas during the ‘30s. The city provided incentives to the casinos and businesses along Fremont Street to “improve” their facades and by doing so, hid much of the original old west architecture from Las Vegas’ early days as a rail center. One man’s view of a history worth preserving is another man’s roadblock to the future. In a town where yesterday’s strip icon becomes today’s demolition dust plume, the battle of preservation versus progress is continuously being waged.
We now venture back, west on Fremont. Brian shows us many of the restored neon signs from Las Vegas’ bygone era that have been installed as street art pieces. We also see several wall murals that were originally part of the 100 Mural art project. Though it seems that the project was so successful, groups and local artists throughout Las Vegas completed approximately 200 murals.
As we return to the area of Fremont Street covered by the canopy, Brian gives us a bit of the history of Vegas Vic and Vegas Vicki and their Fremont Street relationship. Even by Vegas standards, they’ve had quite a colorful courtship. Though they reside on opposite sides of the street, it seems that they were married in a mock ceremony here in Vegas some years ago. While the Viva Vision canopy has put yet another hurdle between their being together, they are still highly visible symbols of Vegas’ days of glowing glory.
We are fortunate to get a behind the scenes tour of the complex tangle of computers and controllers that operate Viva Vision. Billed as the world’s biggest big screen televisions, Viva Vision stretches for four blocks along the canopy that arches from the buildings on each side of Fremont Street. It attracts 18 million visitors each year with the light shows, promotional themes, and music video-style productions that show on the hour each night after the sun sets until midnight. We watch the demo of a show on a series of ceiling-mounted monitors that emulate the Fremont Street canopy. Once the productions are programmed, one person can manage the entire show. Later, we experience the real thing out on Fremont Street.
THE RANCH STEAKHOUSE
We didn’t have to travel far from our hotel for dinner that night, just across Fremont Street to Binion’s Casino (formerly the Horseshoe Casino) and up the elevator to the Ranch Steakhouse on the top floor. The view is impressive. We see the sun go down behind the Spring Mountains and the lights come up across Las Vegas Valley. My lobster is well prepared and enjoyable. The service is another story. We are admittedly a large party but it was a slow boiling fiasco with forgotten salads, tardy service, and a coffee delivery that was straight out of a Laurel and Hardy comedy routine. It was good that we had such a great view and fine friends because we had plenty of time to enjoy both.
THE FREMONT STREET EXPERIENCE Walking out onto Fremont Street at night is the neon Vegas I remember but with a bit more panache.The Fremont Street Experience is like the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder Colorado, but on steroids. It is a feast for the senses. Quasi-showgirls and would-be Chippendales pose for photos with passersby. Music echoes from a stage around the corner and neon flashes everywhere. A sax player belts out songs for the assembled crowd, a young woman dressed in a showgirl costume invites me to gamble or have a deep-fried Twinkie; neither appeal to me. We walk, watch and wait. Then it happened. All the casino lights go out in a blink. The streets are dark for a moment. The lights burst on overhead. Music and sound effects surround us. Everyone cranes their necks to watch the phantasmagoria overhead as the lights flee the length of the canopy.
Fremont East neighborhood, bounded on the west by Las Vegas Boulevard and by 8th Street on the east, is being developed as a non-gaming entertainment district. The welcoming arches are not in place yet and the streets and sidewalks are still being rebuilt. But you can already see that Fremont East will be the next local hot spot. The Beauty Bar, with a frat/flop house decor, and The Griffin, with its medieval movie set interior, are up and running. The Downtown Cocktail Room is just around the corner and the three-story tall glass of Bass Ale at Hennessey’s, Brass and Mickey Finz is just across LV Boulevard. The critical mass is not far from being achieved. Triple George and Hogs and Heifers, a high-energy bar styled on the Coyote Ugly movie theme, are nearby and other bars and restaurants are sure to follow. It is a great location for a pub-crawl. You can already do a 10-bar tour on foot without traveling more than a few blocks. I’ll be around the corner at the DCR thanks, listening to thoughtful Royksopp lyrics. Or maybe at Hennessey’s, sucking down a surprisingly hoppy Wit Beer served with an orange sliver. Or perhaps, getting a pedicure at the Beauty Bar. One thing you can bet on: here in Vegas, the list of options continue to expand.
After the previous night’s pub-crawl, it was a welcome relief to have a late start in the morning and time to relax with a coffee in the hot tub. Eventually, I decide to have a swim and a closer look at the 200,000-gallon fish tank that is at the center of the Golden Nugget pool. Schools of fish swirl by. Watching the sharks circle the center of the pool while you are in the water, gives you the feeling of being in the ocean. Another interesting feature of the pool area is the waterslide. During your ride down the slide you shoot through the clear plastic tube that courses diagonally through the shark tank. I was thoroughly relaxed and enjoying myself.
My day of poolside reverie is interrupted just before noon when Celebrity Coach picks us up for a day of shopping. I have to admit: I was not rolling with excitement at this prospect. First up: Holsum Design Center. Many of the tenants keep irregular hours or are open by appointment only. The exception is the Paperdoll with an eclectic mix of cards, books, and gifts.
Now the real shopping spree begins. Main Street Antiques is great fun even if you’re not a shopper. It is like a museum for nostalgia buffs. I had a Moxi Cola and got lost in my memories.
Gambler’s General Store has everything the basement casino operator could ever need. Decks of cards, bins of dice, rows of roulette wheels, and slot machines all ready for your own private gambling club.
Rainbow Feathers is where the showgirls shop. Here, you can buy a headdress for next year’s Carnival in Rio or a feather boa to liven up your wardrobe. I saw a demonstration of how the ostrich feathers are split, then sewn into boas. The process for adding the incredibly rich colors to the showgirls’ plumage is top secret.
Epic Shoos is a store for the man or woman who has 100 pairs of sneakers but needs something stylishly different; a short run (limited edition of 1200) skater style slip-on for only $150 or the latest special edition shoe from Nike or Adidas.
Next stop: Premium Outlet Mall. Pick me up at the bar, please. I am shopped out. I could not find a bar but I did find the food court. I must admit that I also found several “man-centric” shops including the Bose Store, Brooks Brothers, Jockey, and Armani. True shoppers can easily spend the day here, perhaps even longer once the expansion is complete, though I’d avoid visiting on exceptionally hot days.
It seems the best has been saved for last: Hugo’s Cellar (800-634-6045) in the Four Queens Casino. Reservations are recommended. The food was great, the atmosphere matched and the service was both professional and entertaining. The wait staff has more years of experience between them than Nevada has been in the union and it showed. The sizzling Hot Rocks appetizers (mini medallions of filet, marinated swordfish, breast of chicken and shrimp, $14 per person, minimum order two) are a savory beginning. For my entrée, I had the Queen Lobster (market price), a sharply spiced preparation. The lobster was startlingly good. Entrees start at $32. The Manhattans ($12) are served exceedingly chilled in small wine carafes on crushed ice and are enough to share. They also have a nice selection of wines. Prepared tableside, Bananas Foster or Cherries Jubilee ($8 per person, minimum order two) or Hugo’s chocolate-dipped fruits (complimentary) are a great finish.
Hugo’s Cellar has the perfect combination: a staid atmosphere and terrific food. Of the restaurants I visited this was far and away the best. After dinner, we went upstairs at Four Queens for a tour of the newly opened Canyon Club. The Canyon Club will be bringing musical acts to Vegas and expects to attract a following similar to the House of Blues.
LOOKING FOR ADVENTURE
It is my last night in Vegas. I have to make one more trek along Fremont Street. Time for a last Wit Beer at Hennessey’s and some flirty conversation in my personal favorite nightspot, the Downtown Cocktail Room. Tomorrow, I have an early flight out but tonight my new friends and I are going to check out the late night Fremont Street experience. Life is an adventure and adventure is wherever you find it.
Jerome Shaw is a travel writer and photographer presently splitting his time between Colorado and Wisconsin. He has been traveling since his first taste of adventure while working on ski films in Aspen. Some of his travel credits include: Russia, New Zealand, Greece, Fiji, Alaska, Ukraine, BVI, Peru, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Finland, Canada, Bahamas, Australia, Mexico, and England. You can see more of his travel photography at http://www.jeromeshaw.com or at http://www.myspace.com/jeromeo617.
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Note: This trip was sponsored by Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
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