LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas, Nevada, is a blessing and a bet. Once a simple railroad stop with its underground springs and “meadows,” as its name means, the city sits at the intersection of America’s great deserts and west of one of this nation’s greatest natural wonders: the Grand Canyon. During the Great Depression and the construction of the Hoover Dam, Las Vegas decided to allow and profit from gambling and other sins. And it has not looked back much since . . . until now.
Amid today’s economic downturn (Nevada has the highest state unemployment rate), I arrived a few weeks ago at Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino for the Society of Professional Journalists’ convention. Somehow, that seemed apropos for a profession facing its own awkward challenges.
It was my first business trip to Las Vegas, but I was no stranger. I first visited at the age of six during a family trip—we drove from New York City to Los Angeles in our new station wagon. My aunt and uncle, who last worked at Caesar’s Palace, had moved there in the early days. My brother would later work at the Las Vegas Hilton.
This time around I walked along Las Vegas Boulevard—the strip—for an evening with the lights, sights and crowds. I crossed the street to the Bellagio, as its elegantly choreographed water show held everyone’s attention. Next door was Caesar’s Palace, which boasts its own Serendipity3 restaurant at the sidewalk front. With the Georgetown location opening soon, it seemed time to sample a pricey, great hamburger at the bar. Vegas, mind you, is full of fancy burgers: from KGB, Kerry’s Gourmet Burgers, to the $777 burger at Paris Hotel’s Brasserie.
Early the next morning, before our business sessions, I wandered through the new City Center with its top-end stores, which looks like a Beverly Hills transplant. One local musician, walking home from his night’s gig, told me it did not belong in Las Vegas, which made me wonder what really does.
During the convention, we met with clients for steaks at Mon Ami Gabi at Paris. During breaks, I visited the Miracle Mile Shops, part of the Planet Hollywood complex. There were lots of shops, but Bettie Page, with its retro clothes and lingerie, is unique. The Sugar Factory, offering $25 lollypops, is also pretty sweet. I got to play a little roulette at the casino’s Pleasure Pit (yes, dancing girls!) and relax at the Pleasure Pool for two hours. Alas, I did not see Holly Madison’s Peep Show at PH, nor have I yet experienced Cirque du Soleil’s “The Beatles’ Love” at the Mirage.
My extra time in Vegas was saved for one, singular sensation: a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon. I had saved the best for last. There are several aviation companies operating out of McCarran Airport. I chose Maverick Helicopters with its slick, new Eco-Star copters. Admittedly, I was reminded of John McCain. We arrived at the airport for our morning flight, as each pilot lined up the mostly European tourists. It is an expensive roundtrip—$400 plus—with the landing just above the Colorado River in the Western Rim of the Grand Canyon. From the hotel and back, the entire journey takes four hours. An important tour tip: reserve a mid-day flight for the best illumination of the canyon, as the canyon is overtaken by shadows if the sun is not high enough.
Our pilot went over safety requirements with his seven passengers. We strapped ourselves in, put on headsets and felt the copter gently hover in line with its team of four others above the airport tarmac. “Ready?” asked the pilot.
We popped into the sky above Las Vegas, seeing the four-mile strip with its glimmering hotels, and veered east toward the Grand Canyon. We looked down at Lake Las Vegas—hard to believe that it’s man-made—and then Lake Mead and the mighty Hoover Dam came in sight. Just downstream stands the new bypass bridge, officially The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, named for a Las Vegas Sun editor and Nevada governor, as well as Arizona’s football player turned soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. Completed 75 years after the Hoover Dam, the bridge takes traffic off the dam’s packed two-lane road and is seen as an economic and psychological advantage for the region.
The etches of Lake Mead’s waters and curves of smaller canyons still caught our gaze as the pilot flew over the extinct volcano Fortification Hill and announced where the military had an airfield for practicing aircraft carrier take-offs and landings during World War II. With desert light whizzing by, we flew near an edge and spied the new skywalk ahead.
“Here we go,” said the pilot, as he took us into Grand Canyon, turning, softly tilting and descending 3,500 feet.
We landed at a spot 300 feet above the Colorado River, part of the Hualapai Indian Nation, with picnic tables for our champagne toasts. We were by—and beside—ourselves in the stately rock of the Western Rim. The cool morning air and absolute quiet were stunning. Parts of the canyon have rocks more than one billion years old. I put a few pebbles in my pocket. You had to look up far and wide to take it all in.
All too soon, it was time to climb back into the helicopters and ascend the Grand Canyon, weaving along the light and shadows of the rock faces and up and over the wide desert, where our aircrafts stopped for re-fueling. We got out again in what felt like the actual middle of nowhere. Aloft, we approached the other end of Las Vegas, as the pilot pointed out Nellis Air Force Base and reminded us that legendary Area 51 was up north several miles. We eased above downtown and flew over the strip, landing back at McCarran. All too quick, but a trip of a lifetime.
Las Vegas also provides air and ground trips to the Southern Rim of the Grand Canyon—the more famous and more breath-taking section, if you can believe it. Farther away to the east lies Grand Canyon National Park lies (I once flew over it in a helicopter, but it didn’t land).
America’s adult playground continues to struggle with lower gambling revenues, while it has so much else to offer. The cirques keep running, the singers still perform, the hotels get shinier and the restaurants more upscale. One new hotel, the Cosmopolitan, sitting between City Center and the Bellagio, opens Dec. 15.
Yet, down the road, beyond the wastelands, reclines an old friend, the mother of ancient attractions: the Grand Canyon. Its playground has been open for millions of years and still can give Vegas visitors a real rush.