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Vegas on two feet

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It's hard to miss the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, especially if you're staying at The LINQ Hotel and Casino.

It’s hard to miss the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, especially if you’re staying at The LINQ Hotel.

When I was 19 and backpacking the U.S., Las Vegas was not on the itinerary. It was 1986 and I was still two years’ shy of Nevada’s legal gambling and drinking age. I ended up on The Strip though, staying at the Imperial Palace because at $20 a night, it was cheaper than camping on the beach in San Diego. I ate like a king for under $10 a day, and I walked The Strip from end to end. Midweek during the heat of August, there were few cheaper places to stay.

Almost 30 years later, The Strip is unrecognizable. No one walks The Strip from end to end. Fifteen of the world’s 25 largest hotels by room count are here, linked – barely – by a narrow ribbon of sidewalk that morphs into escalators and overpasses that seem to be designed to deter pedestrians at all costs. If you’re walking, you’re not spending.

Two parts of Las Vegas though, buck this trend: one on The Strip, and the other in downtown Las Vegas, sometimes known as old Las Vegas.

550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter, the High Roller is the world's biggest observation wheel. What else would you expect in Las Vegas!

550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter, the High Roller is the world’s biggest observation wheel. What else would you expect in Las Vegas!

On The Strip, The LINQ Promenade is a pedestrian-only marketplace, fronted by stores, bars, restaurants and casinos. Yes, even on the hottest midweek night in August, it’s busy, but unlike The Strip proper, The LINQ offers visitors the chance to stroll without worrying about falling off the curb into traffic, or being accosted by hawkers and celebrity impersonators.

Better yet, the area once home to the Imperial Palace is now anchored by two memorable attractions, plus a hotel that places you in the middle of it all. First, the High Roller – what people my age would call a Ferris wheel – is the world’s biggest observation wheel at 550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter. Unlike a Ferris wheel, you’re not left dangling in a chair with a bar across your shoulders. The High Roller’s passenger cabins or capsules will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the London Eye in the UK.

To ride a full rotation takes about 30 minutes and, day or night, the view is unsurpassed in Las Vegas. We boarded after dark and were treated to an ever-changing perspective of the city, from the dazzling neon of Caesar’s Palace and The Bellagio to a sight much grander as we ascended to the High Roller’s apex – the outline of distant peaks in the west beyond Red Rock Canyon with Vegas itself looking all the smaller for it.

Walking through the cooling mists on the LINQ promenade.

Walking through the cooling mists on the LINQ promenade.

There’s room for 40 people in a cabin, but avoid sunset hours like we did, and you’ll probably be sharing with half a dozen others. Alternatively, private cabins are available, complete with bar service, for that special occasion!

A few doors down from the entrance to the High Roller is the Brooklyn Bowl, which mixes 10-pin bowling, live music, and comfort-food dining. Travelling with teens meant we had to exit by 8 p.m. when the venue becomes adult only, but until then we relaxed on the leather chesterfields, bowled for an hour and listened to musicians warming up. I drank a Rogue Dead Guy Ale but swore I’d return some day for a Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

The Roots and Elvis Costello opened the Vegas edition of Brooklyn Bowl (other versions are in London and Brooklyn – surprise!) last year. Its 2,400-capacity showroom makes it one of Las Vegas’s more intimate concert settings.

The LINQ Hotel and Casino anchors the pedestrian-only complex, which is about half way down The Strip opposite Caesar’s Palace. Not only is the location great, but the hotel offers welcome convenience, including the option of an automated check-in process that reduces lineups to a fraction of what’s normal in some Vegas hotels. Like many hotels here, there’s a decidedly adult vibe about The LINQ, including its swimming pool, which is off-limits to under-21s. Guests with children can use the pools at neighbouring Harrah’s and Flamingo.

The Brooklyn Bowl. Go for the 10-pin, the food, live music and the Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

The Brooklyn Bowl. Go for the 10-pin, the food, live music and the Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

No such restrictions exist at the Downtown Grand, which features a rooftop pool and is on the doorstep of Fremont Street – Las Vegas’s other pedestrian-only area. Known for years as Glitter Gulch, the Fremont Street Experience occupies five city blocks and is covered by an LED display canopy that blasts music and light extravaganzas every night, while zipliners zoom across the ceiling for $40 a turn. Roaming celebrity impersonators, near-naked showgirls, Chippendales, and several live music stages combine to make Fremont Street feel like a high-octane circus. Every cheesy T-shirt you’ve ever seen is on display here, from Kiss Me, I’m Irish, to One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor.

We lasted an hour before fleeing around the corner to the Triple George Grill on Third Street. Ranked one of the city’s best steakhouses, Triple George didn’t disappoint. Private booths, sumptuous dark wood, and brass fittings all conjure up a bygone era of triple-Martini lunches and deals sealed over a dinner of 16-oz ribeye done just right. It might as well have been a million miles away from Fremont Street, or the Hogs and Heifers’ biker saloon next door, for that matter.

Three of the Judds spent their last day in Vegas on the roof of The Grand, flaked out in a cabana by the infinity pool. It may have been the combined effects of the Triple George, plus an all-American breakfast at the Grand’s S&O Restaurant that eventually got me off my lounger and walking again.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

I strolled across the street to Stewart Avenue and the Mob Museum. Once inside the former Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse, I realized that I would need a day to fully explore this museum. The mob and its relationship with Las Vegas, the United States, and law enforcement are put into historical context via three floors of photos, movies, and compelling exhibits. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is macabrely brought to life with the actual blood-stained wall on display, alongside an electric chair, a tommy gun, plus a numerous artefacts relating to the mob’s involvement with gambling, drugs and prostitution. The world’s first slot machines look a lot easier to figure out compared to today’s versions.

Craving caffeine with little time before our departure, I found The Beat Coffeehouse and Records three blocks down Fremont Street. Vinyl for sale in one corner, free magazines and newspapers, and great coffee, The Beat is the perfect antidote for anyone craving life after the party. Like the Mob Museum, I wish I’d found it earlier.

I told the lady behind the counter I was worn out.

“It’s only the tourists who insist on partying 24 hours a day,” she said.

For a moment, I felt like a local.

Fremont Street Experience: 5 city blocks of neon chaos.

Fremont Street Experience: 5 city blocks of neon chaos.

 

If you go:

Between now and Dec. 31, The Downtown Grand will accept Canadian money at par when Canadian visitors stay and play the hotel’s slots. The offer is up to Cdn$500 a day, which is worth about US$375 – equal to $125 in free play. Visit downtowngrand.com or call 1855 DT GRAND for details, plus information about The Triple George and the S&O.

Rooms start from US$46 at The Linq Hotel and Casino. Visit caesars.com/linq for information about the hotel, the High Roller ($27-day/$37-night) and the Brooklyn Bowl ($100 per lane for up to 8 people).

For everything else Las Vegas, visit lasvegas.com

Las Vegas: The beaten track and the single track

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red rock

For a city synonymous with late nights, Late Night Trailhead just outside of Las Vegas is decidedly different. There are no buildings besides an outhouse, no meandering pedestrians or neon, and certainly no noise. Instead you’ll find about 200,000 acres of desert known as Red Rock Canyon, home to tarantulas, rattlesnakes, burros, bunnies and wild vegetation that can either harm or cure you.

More than 80 miles of trails lure another desert creature, namely the mountain biker – about 2,000 of them locally, according to Brandon Brizzolara. Brizzolara is a guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery. He grew up in Vegas and fondly remembers when even The Strip had its own biking scene.

“From Tropicana to Fremont we’d have BMX sessions on The Strip like it was a skate park in the 90s,” he says. “Vegas is a pretty active community, it’s just The Strip that’s a little out of shape.”

In his element, Brandon Brizzolara, guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery.

Brandon Brizzolara, guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery.

We’re here for The Strip and the desert – the beaten track and the single track: Neville and Leah and their teenagers, Ryan and Emma, all of us with contrasting wishes and expectations for our three-night stay in Las Vegas.

Shopping had been my kids’ idea. For hours we’d lost ourselves in high-octane consumerism at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, a consumers’ paradise with 170 stores, 15 restaurants and several entertainment venues. Britney Spears has her own store here where Britney merchandise exhorts shoppers to “Work it, Bitch”.

It’s a legitimate vice in Sin City, but shopping – and Britney Spears – make me uncomfortable so I stood with a crowd and watched a guy get his belly tattooed at Club Tattoo. Leah got a manicure at Original Diva and had nails “to die for” long after returning home. Ryan and Emma blew their entire budget.

On all of our wish-lists was a Vegas show. Britney had taken March off so we chose Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana, a celebration of circus traditions set in an abandoned theatre (but in reality at the Aria Resort and Casino). The show blends anarchic humour with the precision and grace of aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, high-wire and trapeze artists. The clowns made Ryan uncomfortable but he’s only 16; otherwise we left well entertained.

At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly retail, dining and entertainment neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31. Denise Truscello photo

At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31. Denise Truscello photo

The spa treatment was Leah’s idea, but I was happy to tag along. For the Vegas rookie it can be tricky finding places on foot and ESPA at the Vdara Hotel was no exception. We could see it set back off The Strip, but The Strip has a way of keeping pedestrians on The Strip. We eventually got there by walking through another hotel, The Cosmopolitan. Any stress I might have felt at being late for a spa treatment soon melted away under the sensuous heat of volcanic stones, body brushing, exfoliation and a scalp massage. Beats shopping any day of the week!

Great food was on everyone’s list and the following three restaurants more than delivered. The Yard House enjoys an enviable location just a few feet from the High Roller, the world’s biggest observation wheel. At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly (hallelujah!) retail, dining and entertainment neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31, two weeks after our visit, but we were content to admire it illuminated in green for St. Patrick’s Day from the deck of the Yard House. The beer list alone would entice me back to the Yard House, but the St. Louis-style ribs and truffle fries had me at hello.

Chayo chef, Ernesto Zendejas.

Chayo chef, Ernesto Zendejas.

Just a short stroll through the LINQ brings you to Chayo Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, a two-storey fiesta in the making, anchored by a mechanical bull. Mexico City-born chef, Ernesto Zendejas, draws upon classical training in France to present an exquisite mix of flavours: Lobster tacos, bass ceviche, cilantro cream soup, shrimp fajitas – it’s tough to pick a favourite, but none of us were lining up to ride the bull afterwards. (Portions are decidedly North American – not French!)

Plates are meant to be shared at Crush, one of many dining options at the MGM Grand, but our family came close to making a scene over the sea scallop benny, comprising sunny-side quail egg, chorizo and chipotle hollandaise. Some meals are too good to be shared. The shrimp risotto and lamb sirloin with bacon brussels sprouts also didn’t last long.

Between the shopping, the show, the spa and the dining, we savoured afternoon pool time. In downtown Las Vegas, we mingled with celebrity lookalikes and body-painted models at the Fremont Street Experience, five city blocks of high-tech wizardry featuring a 550,000-watt sound system and a music and light show broadcast from an LED canopy 90 feet above the ground.

Sea scallop benny at Crush, MGM Grand. Don't even think about sharing.

Sea scallop benny at Crush, MGM Grand. Don’t even think about sharing.

And we ventured a little off downtown’s beaten track. Further down Fremont Street, past El Cortez, the city’s first casino, we found The Beat Coffeehouse and Records, the hippest little joint for breakfast and heaven to a 16-year-old who’s just discovered vinyl.

Nowhere though seems quite so off the beaten track as the Mojave Desert and the single track of Red Rock Canyon. The mountain biking had been my idea. Only 17 miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard, Red Rock’s Mustang Trails might have been on another planet, such is the contrast with The Strip.

For two hours we mostly coast on easy trails, stopping occasionally for impromptu descriptions of the vegetation. Brizzolara says he hasn’t taken a pill in more than 10 years, and why would he with nature’s pharmacy on his doorstep? There are seemingly cures for all ailments in the numerous sage bushes and plants like Mormon’s Tea, a species of Ephedra, which is traditionally used to treat asthma, hay fever and the common cold.

Ryan Judd in his element at Red Rock Canyon.

Ryan Judd in his element at Red Rock Canyon.

If inducement to remain on the bike were needed, there are no shortage of plants that could make for a painful landing: cacti, whose barbs expand after piercing skin, and the Joshua Tree, whose bayonet-shaped leaves feature serrated edges – handy for cutting barbecue wieners, according to Brizzolara. We stay on our bikes. My daughter, Emma, who’s never mountain biked, struggles gamely and mostly ignores her dad telling her to relax.

It’s the same advice she gave me at the Britney Spears store.

If you go:

  • Las Vegas Cyclery (lasvegascyclery.com) and Escape Adventures (escapeadventures.com) offer year-round tours (half day and full day) for mountain bikers and road cyclists, as well as hiking tours. If mountain biking, you’ll ride full suspension Santa Cruz 29ers and tours start at $129. Call 1 800-596-29531 800-596-2953.
  • We divided our accommodation between the Downtown Grand Las Vegas (downtowngrand.com) and the MGM Grand (mgmgrand.com). Formerly the Lady Luck, the Grand recently reopened after a $100-million renovation. It’s steps away from the Fremont Street Experience and features PICNIC, a wonderful rooftop pool. The MGM Grand more than holds its own on the pool front with four to choose from and a lazy river. It also offers Stay Well rooms, which comprise more than a dozen health and wellness features, including aromatherapy, wake-up light therapy and Vitamin C-infused shower water.
  • For more on ESPA at Vdara, visit Vdara Hotel and Spa.
  • For more on Las Vegas, visit vegas.com