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?"