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It’s 7pm in Downtown Las Vegas and I’m having one of those Festival Moments; the type Festival Bores (especially Glastonbury Bores) always go on about, the third such Moment of my life. (Festivals attended? A lot more than three.) The sky is turning pink above the Nevada desert, the air is practically golden, and as hundreds of happy people bounce around to hip hop legends De La Soul, this tiny corner of earth feels like the only place to be.
For this isn’t just a Festival Moment: it’s also a rarefied Press Trip Moment, when This Is An Amazing Trip is elevated to This Is Such An Amazing Trip That I Must Come Back Here Even When Somebody Else Isn’t Paying For It. I’ve experienced more press trips than festivals (hotel beats tent), yet this is only my second-ever PTM, and yes, to the relevant PR reading this, the other one obviously came on yours.
Apologies for the smugness, but it’s great, isn’t it: to discover something – a city, an artist, a band – that you’d never previously registered but come to fall irrevocably in love with. In this case, Life Is Beautiful, a festival which takes place in a cordoned-off district of downtown Las Vegas. The streets are flooded with food stalls and neon sculptures and pop-up bars, the stages are a conveyor belt of musical quality: Gorillaz, Lorde, Chance the Rapper, Wiz Khalifa, The XX, MGMT. The list goes on.
The whole area is an absolute trip, from the abandoned motel filled with art installations to the giant model praying mantis that intermittently shoots fire from its antennae. It’s worth buying a beer within sight of the mantis and waiting for the fire to go whoosh. The surprise of the unexpectant is highly entertaining – and the higher they are, the funnier the reaction. (Marijuana is legal in Nevada. Do with this knowledge what you will.)
Vegas offers many pleasures – pleasures far more sophisticated than throwing money at croupiers or finding yourself best man at a shotgun wedding
Perhaps the best part of LiB is its location: not in some muddy field but on the streets of Downtown Las Vegas (DTLV to the locals). Downtown Vegas is old Vegas, the Vegas of Elvis and Liberace, The Rat Pack and Diamonds Are Forever. Now it is Hipster Vegas, home to the Downtown Art District, Symphony Park and the Fremont Street Experience.
And casinos, of course, but unlike the sparkling strongholds of the Strip, the casinos of Fremont Street literally open onto the pavement: at any point, you are metres away from a table where you can win a life-changing sum of money within minutes of sitting down. (Or, you know… not.) Dare I say it, but DTLV has a certain style, a bit of class; it’s a long way removed – at least spiritually – from the carnival of vulgarity a couple of miles up the highway.
But then carnivals, and vulgarity, can be quite good fun. On the Strip you can book yourself into a hotel that resembles a fairytale castle (Excalibur); an Egyptian pyramid (the Luxor); or St Mark’s Square, complete with basilica, canal and gondolas (the Venetian, unsurprisingly). Surround yourself with models in one of the world’s flashiest nightclubs, and order a methuselah of champagne for your party. (While trying to ignore the party opposite, packed with supermodels and drinking from a balthazar.)
There’s a reason why former Square Mile cover star Dan Bilzerian decided to set up home here. Vegas is the ultimate adult playground, a Disneyland for (nominal) grownups that caters for every hedonistic whim, including the ones you haven’t thought of. The world would be a poorer place without it – at least, in a manner of speaking.
Perhaps the above paragraph sent you scurrying to the Virgin Atlantic website; perhaps you’ve studiously torn your passport to shreds. Relax, my friend! Fetch the superglue. For Vegas offers many pleasures – pleasures far more sophisticated than throwing money at croupiers or finding yourself best man at a shotgun wedding where the bride gives her name as Cinnamon.
You can’t do Vegas the way you can do Courchevel or Ibiza; this town has too many experiences for any to be definitive
Fine dining, for instance. Take Libertine Social, a recently opened gastropub concealed within the bowels of Mandalay Bay at the southernmost point of the Strip. I say ‘gastropub’ – you won’t find many similar joints round Clapham Junction. The interior is part-bachelor pad, part-members’ club, with a garish array of pictures and ornaments covering cavernous black walls. James Beard Award-winning chef Shawn McClain has created a remarkable menu, highlights including black truffle pizza (as deliciously decadent as it sounds), roasted Petaluma chicken, or anything off the grill.
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Speaking of grills – we can’t remain pals if you don’t pay a visit to Triple George Grill. Situated back in DTLV, it’s a perfect dinner venue before hitting up Life Is Beautiful. Both menu and decor are less elaborate than the Libertine, but the cuisine more than holds its own. Special shout-out to the seafood: if it lived in salt water, order it.
Breakfast, you say? Well you should certainly experience the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace, a legendary blowout with more than 100 dishes to choose from. For a more traditional affair, head to the Artist Brunch at Bouchon by Thomas Keller at The Venetian. The food is delightful – Keller was named ‘America’s Best Chef’ by Time magazine – and service matches the cuisine: a fresh mimosa seems to materialise the moment your glass is emptied. Try and secure a courtyard seat on a sunny lunchtime; you’ll want to stay there the rest of your trip.
But resist the temptation, if only to book a seat at Cirque du Soleil’s The Beatles Love or a musical performance at the newly opened Park Theater, opposite the T Mobile Arena. (It’s hard to imagine Bob Dylan is a fan, but “he who isn’t busy being born is busy dying” is Vegas encapsulated.)
All this is guidelines, nothing more. You can’t do Vegas the way you can do Courchevel or Ibiza; this town has too many experiences for any to be definitive. But you can book a ticket for Life Is Beautiful, dance around to some of the biggest names in music, feast on food as good as anywhere in America, see a few sights, catch a few shows, and generally have the time of your life – then wait a year and do it all over again. I’ll see you out there.