My first stop was the Eiffel Tower, where I ooohed and aaahed over views from the observation deck 50 stories above ground. Next I wandered among splashing fountains and graceful statues reminiscent of ancient Rome.
Then came a gentle canal ride as a gondolier serenaded his passengers in Italian. Finally, I decided, it was time for lunch.
This truncated around-the-world tour wasn’t the result of magical time travel. Instead, I was in Las Vegas, where touches of other cities and countries, present and past, are among the wealth of wonders that awaits visitors.
While Vegas is known primarily as a gambling Mecca, I was there for everything else it has to offer, and what a full menu there is.
To begin, one could spend days experiencing “The Strip” — the four-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard lined with most of the largest hotels. Many properties offer a list of things to see and do, some free and others reasonably priced, that can fill hour after hour of nonstop activity.
The Eiffel Tower that soars above the scene is a half-size replica of the Paris original. My Roman sojourn took place at Caesars Palace resort, where Julius himself might feel at home. The gondola ride winds through the lobby of the sprawling Venetian Hotel.
Each hotel competes to outdo its neighbors in terms of sheer drama. In front of Treasure Island, I watched a band of lovely temptresses aboard a sailing ship engage in heated battle with a pirate vessel, which sank to the cheers of the fascinated audience. Music, sword fights, firing cannons and a human-size talking parrot are among features of this free extravaganza, which plays out four times each evening.
Other megahotels offer their own inducements to attract people to stop by, come in and, they hope, spend a few – or not so few — dollars at their casino. A corner of the Bellagio’s lobby is transformed into a botanical garden, complete with an oversize waterwheel, talking tree and extensive floral displays that change with the seasons. Nearby is a Gallery of Fine Art where works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are displayed.
Do you enjoy visiting zoos? The Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand provides as close-up encounters with the King of the Jungle as you’re likely to experience anywhere.
I spent an hour and could have stayed longer at the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. While sharks are the major attractions at the only predator-based aquarium in North America, gold crocodile, endangered Komodo Dragons and schools of colorful Caribbean reef fish are among other inhabitants.
Both land and sea life await visitors to Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Retreat at The Mirage. Outside, pools are home to several dolphin, and an underwater viewing area offers opportunities to admire those endearing creatures up close and personal.
In the land section of the Garden, leopards, white and snow tigers, and white and tawny lions prowl in habitats that are enhanced with trees, climbing rocks and waterfalls.
After dark, La Vegas earns its reputation as “Entertainment Capital of the World.” On any night, performers such as Tom Jones, Elton John, Jerry Seinfeld and David Copperfield might be appearing on stage.
A nod to nostalgia directed me to “The Rack Pack is Back,” which recaptures the time when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr., worked the stages, and night clubs, of the city. Realistic impersonators sing, dance and banter, and “Marilyn Monroe” adds to the fun with a show-stopping appearance.
By day, a choice of nearby attractions beckons visitors to leave The Strip. The Springs Preserve is but a short drive away, but very far in terms of setting and experience. One exhibit depicts the geological and biological formation and history of the Mojave Desert. Another illustrates how animal and plant life adapt to the harsh, barren environment. A video and other displays describe construction of Hoover Dam, which may be visited during day-trips from Las Vegas. Outside, an eight-acre botanical garden and over two miles of gentle walking trails provide opportunities to explore various desert environments and to view native plant, animal and bird life.
For a very different aspect of the area’s history I signed up for a half-day Pink Jeep tour to Eldorado Canyon and the oldest, most famous abandoned gold mine in southern Nevada. The trip includes exploration of roads and ravines inaccessible to most vehicles, but it was the Techatticup Mine that has the most fascinating story to tell.
After being located in 1861, it produced millions of dollars in gold ore as miners used picks and shovels to dig three miles of tunnels, working by candlelight. Our guide pointed out traces of candle wax still stuck to rock walls, and remnants of precious metal glistening in the flickering light. She also related exciting stories of times when gun fights over gold and women transformed the canyon into a rowdy place that even lawmakers refused to enter.
Nature preserves and mining lore may not be the main temptations that have transformed Las Vegas into a city that never sleeps. However, they’re among numerous attractions that offer alternatives for those seeking respite from the ringing of slot machines and the focus of gaming tables, or for whom those pursuits hold no appeal at all.
If you go
Winter is a good time to visit Las Vegas, with high temperatures usually in the 50s and 60s. In addition, the economic downturn has spurred a rush of inviting discounts on hotel rooms, meals and other amenities. For more information, call (877) 847-4858 or log onto visitlasvegas.com.