WHEN JUSTINE MAKES SERIOUS EYE CONTACT WITH SIEGFRIED (OR IS IT ROY?), she's blissed out and laughing. These self-styled masters of illusion, with their magic tricks and fabulous animals, put on the kind of show that makes Las Vegas paradise for teenagers, especially those who understand the connection between the ridiculous and the sublime. "My icons, my idols," Justine sighs. Sitting in the front row, she gets not only a high five from Siegfried as he runs onstage but a mischievous wink from Roy as he ascends to the heavens atop a disco ball, a white tiger by his side.
Justine is 16, my best friend's daughter—I call her my surrogate child; sometimes she calls me Auntie Mame—and we've done a fair amount of traveling together. She's an intrepid New Yorker, a budding journalist, a big music fan, and a connoisseur of kitsch. In Vegas, of course, kitsch is everywhere, and so is the spectacle—in the hotels, the casinos, the restaurants, and along the Strip. It's a jaw-hanging, full-frontal visual smorgasbord: Paris here, Venice there, an erupting volcano across the street, and, at the Mandalay Bay, a real sand beach and a wave machine.
In Vegas, fantasy and reality boogie together along a narrow strip of Nevada desert. Day and night, the crowds are out—tourists, locals, high rollers, ordinary gamblers clutching waxy buckets of quarters, the occasional Elvis, kids and parents, brides and grooms. From hidden loudspeakers come the come-ons of a hundred electronic barkers, luring you to girlie shows, free slots, cheap food. Our first day, Sinatra is singing "Luck Be a Lady" while the fountains at the Bellagio hotel dance to the music. This is the kind of aural assault that's meat and drink to anyone who's 16 and lives plugged into headphones. Disney for Adults, it's been called, but it's really Disney for Everyone, and a lot more fun with a teenager.
I wouldn't dream of going to Las Vegas without Justine. Who else would share my appreciation for dice clocks, or ride with me on a 905-foot-high roller coaster?And who else is so hip to the nuances of style that she sees the problem with the Hard Rock Hotel?"It's full of former frat boys in oxford shirts and nineteen-year-old girls trying to be punk-rock cool," Justine scoffs.
It's our second trip, so we consider ourselves experts as we disembark at the vast airport that's all spangled slots and steel palm trees. An even better way to arrive is by road, just after dusk (though you really don't need a car once you're there). It's a four-hour drive from Los Angeles through an immense, empty moonscape. Then suddenly, around the bend, everything lights up. The fastest-growing metropolitan area in America, Vegas is a sci-fi vision powered by enough wattage to fuel a small developing nation.
Our room at the Venetian is a disappointment: overpriced, scruffy, and with a view of the parking lot. Last year we stayed at Caesars Palace, where we had palatial digs with two (two!) bathrooms and a terrific view of the Bellagio fountains. Eventually we coerce someone into giving us a better room. But we know that unless you're a high roller, you don't come to Las Vegas for hotel luxury. I've stayed at a couple of other places (Bellagio, Mirage), and the rooms had middle-of-the-road high-rise décor with a thin veneer of glitz, not to mention achingly slow service.
Never mind, we say to each other: we've got two huge televisions and we're not here to lounge around anyhow. We fall, starving, into the Grand Lux Café, the Venetian's coffee shop. The salads are bottomless and good, the soda refills unlimited. Soon we're ready for action. Near the Rialto Bridge, Giacomo offers us a ride in a real gondola on the fake canals. Instead, we opt for a stroll on the Strip. Shall we go up the Eiffel Tower at Paris (that's Paris, the hotel)?How about a walk through "Central Park" in the casino at the hotel New York—New York?Or maybe the Forum at Caesars ("the best shopping in Las Vegas," Justine decrees), where you can wander from FAO Schwarz to Diesel or the Virgin Megastore?
On and off the Strip, there is no lack of shopping. We take a taxi downtown, to the souvenir stands along Fremont Street. Once known as Glitter Gulch, this was Las Vegas's original main drag; now it's full of cheap eats, low-end hotels, and gewgaws for sale, but nevertheless fun to see for the nostalgia. Next, we hit Big B's, in an obscure strip mall, and agree it's the best record store either of us has seen in ages, with hard-to-find rock and jazz vinyl. Over at the Bellagio, where the flowers in the atrium are so big they look fake, Justine gets her face made up for free at Chanel, though there's so much caked on, she has to run back to our room to wash it off. Vegas salespeople are always friendly, even if you're only browsing; after all, you might have just won the jackpot. Not if you're a teenager, though. This is a town where rules are ferociously observed; no casino owner wants to risk his license. "It's strange," Justine says. "They bombard you every second—free slots, big cocktails—but unless you're twenty-one, you can't play."
By way of compensation, we indulge in the food. Vegas now has a branch of pretty much every great restaurant in America, and the waiters don't care if you share a dish or start dinner at midnight. Over our four days, we eat goat-cheese pizza (at Spago), lemony enchiladas (Pink Taco), popcorn sushi and black cod with miso (Nobu), and Lebanese mezes followed by baklava cheesecake and a puff or two on the hookah (Neyla). Justine informs me that hookahs are big with New York teens. She waits patiently while I explain that the banana frozen custard at Luv-It is exactly the way frozen custard used to be, and I indulge her in the belief that when she orders the black chocolate cake at Chicago Joe's, she'll eat "only one bite."
The moment you're overwhelmed by the food, the lights, the noise, you can find a little culture: peruse the Alexander Calders on view through February 3 at the Bellagio's gallery (even put a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture on your tab); check out the two new branches of the Guggenheim Museum (which opened in September, one jointly run with the Hermitage); perhaps catch a performance by the Three Tenors at the Mandalay Bay Resort.
High on our to-do list are the Liberace Museum and the Chapel of Love, from which we barely escape before bursting out laughing. "That woman asked if I was here for my wedding," Justine says incredulously. By evening we're in our room, getting ready for a night on the town (we always dress up). Vegas is jammed with magicians, comics, Broadway shows, and concerts. Last year I dragged Justine to see Tom Jones, who belted out "The Green, Green Grass of Home" while ladies of a certain age tossed him their underpants. This year I splurge on $300 tickets to see Elton John and Billy Joel. Justine discovers she digs Elton and that Joel is a brilliant musician, though he's not for her.
These days the girlie shows with feather-clad dancers are on the wane. More popular are offbeat spectacles like De La Guarda (performers pluck up audience members to fly through the air) and Blue Man Group (a look-ma-no-hands mime ensemble that splashes blue paint on the crowd). We choose the surreal Cirque du Soleil's O at the Bellagio. The stage turns to water and the performers float, dance, dive, and sing. Afterward, Justine and I have shrimp cocktails at Postrio in the Venetian while discussing the subtext of sex and death in O. I ask whether she thinks it would be disturbing for younger kids. She considers the question and quips, "I think they wouldn't notice."
Neither of us feels a need to escape, but since Hoover Dam is just 30 miles away (with the traffic, an hour or so by car), we have to go. Clawed out of the wilderness in the early thirties, it harnessed the Colorado River, watered the desert, and made modern-day Las Vegas possible. We walk along the top of the dam, staring down at the frightening sweep of stone. The visitors' center is filled with historical photographs (the men who worked to make the dam—those who succeeded, those who died): this is an epic American story. What I like best, though, are the elevator surrounds and sculptures, a stylized, gleaming Art Deco testimony to the powers of the industrial age.
The other worthwhile side trip is an excursion—even just a courtesy visit—to Red Rock Canyon, in the Mojave Desert. With the mountains shimmering on the horizon, the boulders and cliffs are ravishing. Justine and I stroll for an hour or so—then, ever the urbanite, she's ready to head back. "I can't understand," she says, "why anyone who comes to Las Vegas would want to leave it, even for this."
Our last morning we're out on the Strip again. Justine looks around and remarks that what she'd really love is to come back with her friends when they graduate from high school next year. But with the wry realism of a 16-year-old, she adds, "I don't think our parents would actually let us. Do you?"
JUSTINE'S KITSCH HIT LIST
Chapel of Love 1431 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/922-5683. All faiths can get hitched here (it's $45 for the basic service). Wish I'd bought the logo nightie.
"Elvis" Brendan Paul 702/450-9548; from $250 an hour, two-hour minimum. At first I was weirded out by this Elvis impersonator-for-hire (who we invited to dinner at Nobu), but then he started singing to me.
Fremont Street Experience Fremont St. between Main and 4th; 800/249-3559. A pedestrian promenade full of souvenir stalls. I got an I LOVE JESUS night-light.
Liberace Museum 1775 E. Tropicana Ave.; 702/798-5595. Loved the pianos and all those fur coats.
Bonanza, The World's Largest Gift Shop 2460 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/385-7359. The racks of ornamental skulls are definitely creepy, but I adore my Elvis glasses with sideburns.
ESCAPE LAS VEGAS
Hoover Dam 702/294-3523. Thirty-five miles from Las Vegas, the dam is on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Tour the turbine room or, if you're an engineering aficionado, take the hard-hat trip down into the guts. For transportation options (including raft or helicopter), see www.hooverdam.usbr.gov.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area 601 Nevada Hwy., Boulder City; 702/293-8907. The reservoir formed by Hoover Dam, Lake Mead has 700 miles of shoreline, with boat rentals and great swimming.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Hwy. 159; 702/363-1921. Hikes, walks, and picnics in a spectacular setting 20 miles west of the Strip (rent a car or grab a cab). For mountain bikers, there are 60 miles of trails (rent bikes at Escape Adventures, 8221 W. Charleston Blvd.; 702/596-2953).
For the latest on what's happening in Las Vegas, plus travel planning sources and hotel deals, check out our Web site, www.TLfamily.com. Once you're in town, don't count on driving. Though rental cars and parking are cheap, the traffic on the Strip is often horrific. You can walk to almost everything or catch a cab (local trips cost $7 to $10).
WHERE TO STAY
Finding rooms large enough to sleep a whole family is easy, but rates fluctuate depending on the season (summer is slowest), whether there's a huge convention in town, and your success at haggling. Most hotels have a pool or three. Mandalay Bay's is one of the coolest because it has a beach and a wave pool.
Caesars Palace 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/634-6001 or 702/731-7110; doubles from $89. In 1966, when Caesars opened, many considered it the eighth wonder of the world. Despite its size (2,454 rooms), the place has a friendly feel.
Luxor 3900 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/288-1000 or 702/262-4000; doubles from $69. Sleep in a pyramid, visit King Tut's Tomb & Museum, and get lost in a 10-story sphinx.
MGM Grand 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/929-1111 or 702/891-1111; doubles from $69. It would take 13 years and eight months for you to spend a night in each of the 5,034 rooms. The world's largest hotel, says Guinness.
Hard Rock Hotel 4455 Paradise Rd.; 800/693-7625 or 702/693-5000; doubles from $59. Smaller than most area hotels (657 rooms) and the place to hear music, but a long walk to the Strip. Teenagers like the pool scene and the rock memorabilia in the lobby.
WELCOME TO CIVILIZATION
Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/632-7800 or 702/632-7777; doubles from $115. A sort of Raffles in Las Vegas, with doormen in faux Colonial uniforms, and a lot of very good restaurants, such as Aureole. Plus, there's the pool.
PRICE IS RIGHT
Suncoast 9090 Alta Dr.; 877/677-7111 or 702/636-7111; doubles from $59. A 440-room hotel and casino—no themes or gimmicks—on the edge of the desert, about 20 minutes from the action. Has a multiplex theater, the best bowling in town, and baby-sitting services.
Circus Circus 2880 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/634-3450 or 702/734-0410; doubles from $39. A hotel—cum—indoor amusement park, where anyone can gamble away his or her savings. The 3,770 rooms are nothing special; the trade-off is on-site Skee-Ball and a roller coaster.
WHERE TO EAT
You can fuel your army for less than $10 a head at buffets all over town. The following picks are for the more discriminating, and, in many cases, more flush.
Lenôtre Paris Las Vegas, 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/946-4342; breakfast for two $15. Awesome pastry.
Grand Lux Café Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/414-3888; breakfast for two $10. Fantastic omelettes and, at lunch, salads that can feed two.
In-N-Out Burger 2900 W. Sahara Ave.; 800/786-1000; burgers for two $3. A branch of the California drive-in that makes the best fast-food burgers in America, fresh to order. Tom Cruise is a fan; so is Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation.
Pink Taco Hard Rock Hotel, 4455 Paradise Rd.; 702/693-5525; lunch for two $35. Great guacamole, with hot-and-salty homemade tortilla chips.
Luv-It Frozen Custard 505 E. Oakley Blvd.; 702/384-6452.
Chicago Joe's 820 S. Fourth St.; 702/382-5637; dinner for two $45. For spaghetti and meatballs, subs, steak sandwiches, and chocolate cake.
Lotus of Siam 953 E. Sahara Ave.; 702/735-3033; dinner for two from $40. Set in a nowhere strip mall, Lotus was closed the day we went, but my most trustworthy foodie friends say it's the best Thai they've ever had.
Samba Brazilian Steakhouse Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/791-7223; dinner for two $60. Great for a big meal or just appetizers before Siegfried & Roy.
Spago Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/369-6300; dinner for two $65. Ten varieties of nouvelle pizza.
Trattoria del Lupo Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/740-5522; dinner for two $80. Big and noisy but with some of the best Italian food anywhere—Tuscan tomato soup, grilled salmon with fried yellow tomatoes.
Aureole Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-7401; dinner for two $110. Stunning branch of Charlie Palmer's New York restaurant.
Le Cirque Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7223; dinner for two $150. Tuna tartare with sevruga caviar, lobster risotto, the famous chocolate stove. Give the kids the night off.
Nobu Hard Rock Hotel, 4455 Paradise Rd.; 702/693-5090; dinner for two $100. High temple of inventive sushi.
Picasso Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7223; dinner for two $160. Exquisite nouvelle cuisine. Real Picassos on the wall.
If you want to see a big production, book ahead, though same-day returns can often be had at the box office. Many of the Las Vegas Web sites, such as www.lvtb.com and www.lasvegasfunbook.com, offer show discounts if you purchase tickets through them.
Blue Man Group The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South; 702/414-1000; tickets from $87.50.
Siegfried & Roy Show has closed. Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/963-9634 or 702/792-7777; tickets from $100.
O, Cirque du Soleil Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/488-7111 or 702/693-7722; tickets $90 or $110.
Blue Note Closed. The place for jazz. Lou Rawls, Chuck Mangione, and Nancy Wilson have all played here.
House of Blues Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-7600; brunch for two $78. Rock, blues, and a famous gospel Sunday brunch.
The Joint Hard Rock Hotel, 4455 Paradise Rd.; 702/693-5066. The best rock venue in town, whether it's Steely Dan or Limp Bizkit. Your teenager will love you.
Sam Boyd Stadium 7000 E. Russell Rd.; 702/895-3900. Ye olde rock stadium.
FOUR WAYS TO BREAK THE BANK (WITHOUT ENTERING A CASINO)
Big B's CD's & Records 4761 S. Maryland Pkwy.; 702/732-4433.
Forum Shops at Caesars Palace 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/893-4800. The best shopping in town, with talking Roman statues and lots of smoke.
Showcase Mall 3785 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/597-3122. M&M's World, Sephora (for makeup), Sega Enterprises' GameWorks, the World of Coca-Cola. Nothing as nature intended—so perfect for teenage tourists.
Via Bellagio 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7111. Armani, Hermès, Tiffany, Prada, Chanel. Very welcoming to browsers. Need we say more?
THRILLS AND SPILLS
Eiffel Tower Paris Las Vegas, 3645 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/739-4111. Vegas's version has an elevator ride straight to the top and the best views in town.
Madame Tussaud's Las Vegas Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/367-1847. Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, Jerry Springer, and all that beeswax.
Manhattan Express New York—New York Hotel & Casino, 3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/693-6763 or 702/740-6969. A roller coaster that takes you around a Manhattan skyline and lasts a never-ending 2 minutes, 45 seconds.
Mirage 702/791-7111. An erupting volcano out front, a rain forest in the lobby, plus the Siegfried & Roy Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat (702/792-7768)—a shady retreat for many, many rare animals from their show—near the pool. And there's S & R's Royal White Tiger Habitat, with pool and waterfalls, near the south entrance.
Stratosphere Tower 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/380-7777. The High Roller is supposedly the world's tallest coaster. The Big Shot takes you up 160 feet in 2.5 seconds, so you experience weightlessness to four G's (more than most astronauts), then drops you—fast.
A TEEN FANTASY: JUSTINE'S PERFECT LAS VEGAS DAY
After waking up in my obscenely large suite in Caesars Palace, I get my chauffeur to shuttle me over to the Paris hotel, where I have cappuccino and a chocolate croissant from Lenôtre. I haven't seen so many restaurants in one place, ever. Paris is actually quite well done—the cobblestones, streetlamps, and façades. It makes me nostalgic about my summer program in Paris last year—oh, why am I such a teenager?
Next, a little shopping must be done, so over to Bellagio I go, and I buy some indecently expensive things at Chanel and Prada. Lots at Prada, including a bag for Reggie, who's still asleep. All this superfluous spending makes me thirsty and footsore, so I prance over to the casino (any casino) and have a Coke while I play the slots for about an hour. Naturally, I win a jackpot. Remember, this is my perfect day, so I don't have to be 21 to play. (That's the one seriously irritating thing about Las Vegas, but, hey, I'll settle for people-watching.)
It's already noon and I'm in the mood for something spicy, so I have chile-crusted crab cakes at the Samba Brazilian Steakhouse in the Mirage. Then I take a stroll in the hotel's Secret Garden to gape at the white lions and tigers. Well, everyone knows what admiring endangered animals for too long makes you want to do: shop for kitsch. Yes, it's time for me to head down to Fremont Street, where I browse through all the souvenir stands and without hesitation buy one of every single thing I see: T-shirts, visors, pens, purses, clocks, can openers, wind chimes, plaques. I don't care what it is as long as it's ridiculous.
Night is coming on quickly, so I change into my new cocktail dress—Prada, of course. I wouldn't mind one of those Platanos Locos cocktails at the Pink Taco or an Amaretto Sour at Spago (this is fantasy, right?) and a little pizza. Now it's time for Siegfried & Roy. I've shopped, I've eaten, and I'm watching old Germans in sequins fight dragons with the help of disappearing tigers—who could want anything more?
Reggie Nadelson is the author of a series of mysteries, including Bloody London (St. Martin's Press).