Prior to coming here, I’d started following a few of the vintage Las Vegas Instagram accounts. Nostalgic images of the glitz and the glamour of Dean Martin and Sinatra, old model Buicks parked up outside huge neon signs shimmering against the dark Vegas skies, and the showgirls. The glorious showgirls with their pearly white smiles, impossibly perfect physiques, and magnificent headdresses.
Little of that exists anymore, only in memories and these old photos. Even the showgirls have gone. Can you believe it – not a single showgirl show exists on The Strip? The last, the famous Jubilee!, closed a year or so ago and now the city that was built on showgirls continues on without them.
Sure, I know this image is all romanticised to an extent – the mobsters who run the town back then were not heroes and, these days, female objectification is problematic at best – but there is still a sadness that this town has lost that part of its soul. For all my back and forth on The Strip, I’d found some energy, but not glamour or fabulousness.
So I decided to go looking for it.
Downtown is some way North of The Strip and is pretty much written off by most tourists who are only in town for a few days as being both too far away and not as slick. But I was not so easily deterred.
I hopped on the bus heading north. It took a while, the early dusk making it hard to make anything out in the darkness outside. The bright lights of The Strip had long since gone behind us – but then we turned a corner and, WOW! A vast wall of flashing neon signs and illuminations the length of an entire street stopped us in our tracks. We were Downtown. Fremont Street.
And the place was alive!!
The streets were filled with locals and American tourists. Thick cigars were being smoked, huge daiquiri glasses were in every other hand, street performers filled the sidewalks. The place was humming. Finally, vibrancy!
Around me, huge signs in bright red and fluorescent yellows flashed. Streams and streams of lightbulbs framed the exteriors of famous old hotels such as Golden Nugget and Queens, once legends in their heyday, they are riding out these years on their faded glory. And, boy, are they making it count!
The Golden Nugget’s casino floor was rammed. Air con broken, the air was thick with the smell of tobacco. The 25cent slot machines were ring-ting-tinging, the seats in front of them filled. A group of young women high-fived each other as one of them banked twenty seven bucks, and, nearby, a granny was bouncing in her seat as Marilyn’s Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend blared out of her machine each time she fed in a dollar bill.
The baccarat and poker tables were crowded. Waitresses with trays packed with drinks scurried past me as a man organised chants and shouts as he prepared to roll the dice cupped in his hands down on to the craps table
A drunken bride pushed past, her floor-length white dress paired with a stonewashed denim jacket as she dragged her groom behind her, his eyes rolling in his head. I mean, I’m assuming he was her groom. But this was the Vegas I was looking for. This was what I had been dreaming of!
Downtown has unashamedly pitched itself to the American working class with cheap prices and no frills, and it has been repaid with the most vibrant place in the city – and the most diverse. Every race, ethnicity, gender… It was a salad bowl of all that’s great. Young Black girl dancing troupes performed just outside whilst, further down, Jef Leppard (yes, really) entertained the crowds who were eating pizza slices and dancing along.
A huge LED screen has been wrapped above the whole of Fremont Street, like a ceiling. A brilliant light display run on loop – the Stars and Stripes making regular appearances. I walked around mesmerised – the neon lights were dazzling and fantastic.
Fremont and Downtown may not have the commercial muscle or the money of the corporations that now dominate The Strip, but, my god, it has the spirit. The highlight of my trip BY FAR. If it’s possible for authenticity and Vegas to coexist, then you’ll find that Downtown.
There is almost nothing left of vintage Las Vegas back on The Strip – and seeing it afresh after being North, it seems so disappointingly sanitised and clinical. And cynical. Its skyline of pyramids and Eiffel towers, its fittings of fake Michelangelos and gondolas…. They seem suddenly so shallow and charmless.
But earlier in the day I had ventured to one of the few remaining relics to Vegas’s glory days by visiting The Mirage, the former territory of those wonderfully camp and legendary illusionists, Siegfried and Roy. Their famous show may have ended some fifteen years before, but their love for their famous white tigers and lions continues with The Mirage’s Secret Garden, where some of these extremely rare animals remain, supported by an admirable conservation project.
What magnificent creatures these are. And huge. HUGE. Their paws were as big as my head, their own heads bigger than my torso. They looked healthy and powerful – and they eyed up each and every one of the few visitors that had dragged themselves away from the slot machines to visit the Garden. These animals are killers alright; kind of emphasising how inevitable it was that one attacked Roy on stage back in 2003. (Clearly, that isn’t included in the videos of the show that play on loop nearby – that would be a little traumatising for the kids but it would be real! A reminder of the folly and vanity in thinking you can ‘pet’ big cats.)
Of course I felt sorry for the animals. They’re stuck in cages after all, though of far better quality than most zoos. But, surely worse, the poor bastards have constant pipe music coming through the speakers every minute of the day. The endless sound of elevator music, of Enya to a beat never lets up in the Secret Garden. I mean, isn’t that classified as torture at Guantanamo?? Poor bastards. They could at least turn the music off!
But, my god, these animals are beautiful. I stayed in the small Garden for an hour, maybe more, utterly mesmerised by the seven animals around me. I watched them pace the perimeters of their cages, I watched them sleep in the warm Vegas heat. My heart leapt as the white tiger nuzzled up to his Sumatran mate up on the log platform, my heart melted as the legendary Snow White tiger, Apollo, played with his big red ball in the small pool, and I watched in admirable awe as the snow leopard licked his own balls without a break for ten whole minutes.
An absolute highlight – and the best twenty bucks I’ve spent so far in this town.
That’s not to say that I’m 100% crazy for this ‘Secret Habitat’ in the middle of the desert. Alongside the big cats is a collection of beautiful bottlenose dolphins in, what amounts to, a large swimming pool. It’s gut-wrenching. There are signs all over the place basically screaming, ‘WE AINT SEAWORLD! But, yes, you basically are.
Yes, the little calf who never leaves its mum’s side is mega-cute, but the adult ones lying on their sides in the shallow end, motionless, bereft of freedom and and anything better to do, is a sign of what lies ahead in this dolphin’s future unless The Mirage gets its shit together and closes the dolphin park.
It looks like the hotel has been smart enough to wind down its schedule of shows; it’s a good feeling to see the seated auditorium area empty, its chairs and tables damaged and decaying. Their paintwork chipped and left unkempt. Though it’s a sobering reminder of all the shows that the dolphins were forced to do for all those years before.
It’d be nuts for any place these days to compel its jailed animals to perform – but it can’t hide behind alleged conservation efforts for dolphins. That’s ludicrous. These poor little things are here as playthings They need to go back into the sea. Let at least this relic of the past end with dignity.
Food & Drink
OK, so there’s only a few places in Vegas that have a reputation for making an effort with breakfast – and I’m already going through them quite fast. Today I was at Pantry at The Mirage. Yes, there was a queue, and yes, breakfast was in the $25-30 range again. But it was a great eggs benedict and, praise god, endless tea.
Lunch was basically frozen yoghurt. This being the States, tubs come mega-sized and, rather treacherously, help yourself. There are these stations all over town where you pump out whichever frozen yoghurt you want from the array of flavours in the shop into a 20oz pot. Then you add all the toppings you want from the bar at the side, before putting it on the scales for the server to charge you. Basically it’s ‘weigh and pay.’
Now, I did my damnedest to take up only a sixth of the tub (a chocolate and vanilla bean mix – so not even two streams, just one single blend) and had no toppings and it still came to five bucks. *sigh* Oh well, the casinos have to make up for the free drinks and cheap hotel rooms somehow…
For dinner, I was downtown so that meant The Buffet at the Golden Nugget hotel and casino. This was PURE nostalgia. The room was still in its Seventies beige décor and the cuisine hadn’t moved on much since that time either. Nothing fancy here at all – much in keeping with the whole Downtown vibe – hearty American food (and pizza, obvs). Steaks were so well done you had to chew on each mouthful for twenty minutes, and everything was covered in sweet, sticky sauce – even the “fresh vegetables.” I loved it! Though, admittedly, about twenty minutes later I did feel really sick!