Las Vegas: Sin City Reconsidered

Las Vegas is cheap, close and greater than its casinos and nightclubs.

Las Vegas Sin City | BCBusiness

Las Vegas is cheap, close and greater than its casinos and nightclubs.

At 6:30 a.m., the casino floor of the Aria Hotel is hardly a postcard for Vegas bliss. The hardy few gambling at this hour have been at it all night: poker fiends with morning-after stubble, glassy-eyed geezers plugging away at slots, chain smokers nursing warm scotch who look like they’ve just bet the farm and lost.

Full disclosure: as someone who can do math, I don’t gamble. And Vegas – a town mathematically rigged to empty wallets – isn’t my idea of a dream vacation. But the flights are cheap, the sun shines and hotels practically give rooms away. So here I am, determined to prove there’s more to Vegas than casinos, Céline Dion and buffets.

I tiptoe past the blackjack table and hustle to the exit to do something that only the most intrepid Vegas visitors ever do: leave the Strip. First stop this morning is Red Rock Canyon, a vision of the Wild West a half-hour drive outside the city. “There’s people who lived here all their lives and never been to Red Rock. Unbelievable!” says Tommy DiPasquale, a former New York City construction worker turned driver and tour guide.


Summer is brutally hot, with 40-degree days commonplace. Spring and fall is the time to get plenty of sun and milder temperatures – perfect for Canadians seeking vitamin D.

Best Bed The 1,500-room Vdara (a boutique hotel, by Strip standards) is the perfect place for non-gamblers to rest their heads: it has a pool and a spa, but no casino and is non-smoking and centrally located.

Best Meal Michelin-starred chef Julian Serrano offers authentic tapas from his native Spain starting around $10 per small plate in his eponymous restaurant in the Aria Resort.

Can’t miss Indulge your inner high roller (or 18-year-old self) by driving half-million-dollar Lamborghinis and Ferraris around a racetrack in the desert (

Literally minutes from downtown, we’re swallowed by the Mojave Desert, an endless expanse of scrub brush and Joshua trees under a cloudless blue sky. DiPasquale drops his jeep into four-wheel drive and we leave the asphalt, bound for sandstone bluffs coloured fiery red. The bumpy road climbs to 1,500 metres, passing ancient pictograms left by the Paiute Indians and gnarled desert junipers.

“Last week we saw a bighorn sheep, but I can’t promise anything,” he says. On cue, four rams clamber out onto a rocky ledge, staring down with a proprietorial air. Sure beats craps.

On the way back to town, we stumble upon another unsung Vegas landmark. Marooned on a desolate stretch of East Tropicana Avenue is the Pinball Hall of Fame. “No slots here. These are games of skill,” explains owner Tim Arnold.

Over the years, Arnold has collected and restored hundreds of vintage games. I pop a quarter into Lady Robinhood, a 1947 classic and one of the first machines to use flippers, which seems a rather crucial innovation. I could play all afternoon to the sweet music of bells and buzzers, but the Strip is exerting its magnetic pull.

Out of curiosity – or maybe just morbid fascination – I head for the belly of the beast. Las Vegas Boulevard is kitsch unchained. Paris, New York, Egypt, Rome and Venice – at least, casino-sized knock-offs of them – collide in the span of a few blocks. Man-made volcanoes erupt. Fountains dance. Midget Elvises vie for photo ops with Imperial Stormtroopers while billboards promise strippers delivered to your room, like pizza, day or night. I beat a hasty retreat through the margarita-chugging masses and head into the spa at the swanky Bellagio Casino to splurge on an old-fashioned, straight-razor shave.

“You were expecting a short Italian man?” asks Christina Rogers, a petite 41-year-old who has been grooming the men of Vegas for 20 years. She lathers me up and gets down to business with a razor straight out of Sweeney Todd.

Between the hot towel and the cooling mask, Rogers explains that her grand-father moved here in the ’50s to help test atom bombs in the desert. “I’ve got home movies where the whole neighbourhood drags out lawn chairs to watch the mushroom clouds,” she says, shaping up my sideburns and applying a moisturizer.

I picture Vegas hit with all that radiation, fallout seeping into the brains of the men who founded this town. Suddenly, the Strip makes a bit more sense.