Vegas, Baby! New flights from Gatwick

When I travel I love to experience another culture. I prefer boutique hotels and if there’s great local food as well then I’m one happy bunny. So Vegas with its crass fakery, giant accommodation and all-you-can-eat buffets should be my idea of holiday hell… yet somehow it isn’t.

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I’ve been there a couple of times and found it’s so over-the-top in its vulgarity (a bright blue Grand Canal with motorised gondalas through a shopping mall – classy! <cough> ) it’s actually huge fun. What surprised me even more is it has some good authentic experiences. And the clincher? Its location makes it the prefect gateway to some of the US’s greatest natural landmarks.

So with a new flight from no-frills Norwegian Air Shuttle  just launched from Gatwick to add to the existing Virgin Atlantic service (and some juicy price competition as a result, we hope) I thought I’d tell you why you should consider Vegas for a holiday even if you’ve no intention of actually staying there.

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Yes, it’s a shopping mall and that ‘aint real sky.

Sin City, as it’s nicknamed, is all about gambling grannies, drive-thru weddings and prancing showgirls, right? Well yes, and no. I’ve seen all these things there (there are more brides than you can shake a stick at wafting round on Saturdays) but it’s a lot more besides. So here are a few misconceptions challenged:

‘You have to stay in a casino hotel’

True, many hotels will have you enter between rows of slot machines in the hope you’ll part with some cash before you even find your way to the lobby. However, plenty of the smaller hotels and motels are gaming-free and even some of the big names like Signature at MGM Grand and Delano Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay and, if your cash will stretch to it, The Four Seasons, Nobu Hotel at Caesar’s Palace and Mandarin Oriental.

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‘There’s nothing to do except gamble’

I’ve only put money in a slot machine once in Vegas and that was some spare quarters at the airport gate (I came away £8 up!). Not only are there some truly world-class shows from the likes of Cirque du Soliel (admittedly at a high price) but, more surprisingly, there are a lot of interesting museums in Vegas. More unusual ones include The Mob Museum (aka the national museum of organised crime and law enforcement) with interactive true stories from a shady past; The National Atomic Bomb Testing Museum, covering Nevada’s role as nuclear guinea pig; and The Neon Museum which celebrates Vegas’s glitzy signs (book a tour ahead). You can even try to catch a killer with the help of real-life forensic scientists at CSI: The Experience.

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After dark you can hang out at fancy pants cocktail bars and pool parties (The Cosmopolitan’s Chandelier Bar is one of the latest fashionable haunts). The Vegas music scene is also good, with big names playing residences here and a new 20,000 seat arena just opened at the MGM Grand. The city’s best-known attractions include Fremont Street where you can abseil (or just gawp) under a shape-shifting digital canopy show, and helicopter flights over the Strip which really are as good as the hype. Then there’s the Grand Canyon almost on the doorstep…

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‘It’s not family friendly’

Just a walk down The Strip with its themed hotels, exploding volcanoes, dancing fountains, street entertainers and so on will be fun for older children and you’ll get some serious brownie points for taking teens here. Some of the museums and shows, like the famous Blue Man Group with their blend of silent comedy, drumming and stunts, are family-friendly and there are thrill rides like the roller coaster atop the New York, New York hotel or, for teens, the hideously high drops at Stratosphere. Better still, combine city fun and nature with a family fly-drive, with Vegas as your start and/or end point. Oh, and because there’s so much accommodation in Vegas you can get some good hotel deals.

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Paris hotel

‘It’s in the middle of nowhere’

Yes, it is a city in a desert but it’s also near enough an edge of the Grand Canyon that you can take a scenic flight for a picnic lunch on the canyon floor (also a favourite option for weddings). A longer fly-drive holiday will give you a chance to explore the canyon on hikes, get your kicks on a section of Route 66 and also take in the staggering sandstone formations of Monument Valley which look like so like a Roadrunner cartoon brought to life you’ll be scanning the heights for dangling ACME anvils.

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Monument Valley

I notched up several states in a week when I joined a small group tour from Vegas a few years back. I even had to learn how to survive a bear attack just in case. (We also, to my equal horror, received a lecture on the importance of personal hygiene on the minibus… let’s just say the group included a few on their first time away from the parental laundry service!)

If you’re a little more ambitious, some people combine Vegas with a California national park like Yosemite or Death Valley and fly home out of San Francisco or Oakland. You can even do part of the distance in a campervan.

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Some tips

Vegas air con is INSANE. You’ll get 30 seconds of relief from the heat as you enter a building then you’ll want to put a jumper on (if not a scarf and mittens too) so take one with you.

It’s in a desert so it can get dusty. If you wear contact lenses take glasses as back up.

In some of the larger hotels it can take 15 minutes between room and lobby, so make sure you leave plenty of time to get to a tour meet up, dinner reservation etc and that you’ve remembered to take everything you need with you. I had to make an epic detour back for my sunglasses once – not funny.

If you, or someone you know, is planning a Vegas wedding you’ll find it much cheaper on a weekday as Americans naturally want weekend ceremonies. Some ‘chapels’ will even live video link your nuptials to your loved-ones back home.

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