LAS VEGAS — I never have liked to gamble. I'd rather squander money on something tangible. So when I go to Las Vegas, I spend as little time as possible in the casinos. But I like the hotels, and I like the glitter of the Strip. And I like the roller coasters. There's also a fine dam view nearby.
With a double upgrade coupon from an Avis ad, I was able to rent a premium car for the trip for the price of an intermediate. Toss in the weekend rate and it cost $134.05 for three days and 662 miles in a Buick LeSabre, including gas. Parking was free, even valet parking at Treasure Island at the Mirage, where my companion, Julia, and I had spent an extra $20 for a corner room. Reserving less than three weeks in advance, I asked for an upper-floor room with a good view--not of the parking structure out back nor I-15 beyond.
We arrived about 5:30 p.m. on a Friday to find our $129 room on the 23rd floor, right above Buccaneer Bay, the pirate lagoon. Yes! Soon we were watching pirates best the British in the hotel's trademark ship battle show. For dinner, we drove to one of two Ruth's Chris Steakhouses in Las Vegas, although for a walk along the Strip we could have eaten in any price range. A la carte entrees at Ruth's are mostly in the $23 to $29 range, so dinner for two easily can top $100.
Saturday was a day to walk, ride roller coasters and see what was new (plenty) since we'd last been to town about a year and a half ago. Along the Strip, our first stop was the new Bellagio Hotel, where that evening we would be dazzled by Cirque du Soleil's "O" show, combining aerial acrobatics, diving and synchronized swimming.
A tram whisks passengers from the back of the Bellagio to the Monte Carlo, where there was little evidence of opulence or taste. Soon we were back on track for New York, New York, the morning's real destination. Manhattan Express, the Coney Island-style roller coaster around the perimeter, is nearly a mile long, climbs to 203 feet, has a maximum drop of 144 feet and gets you upside down twice at speeds of up to 67 miles an hour.
Later we took a taxi to the Stratosphere, towering 1,149 feet above the north end of the Strip. Near the 900-foot mark are two observation decks reached by a $6 elevator ride inside the slender tower. The lower deck is worse for acrophobes. Although the deck is enclosed, its plate glass walls slant outward from the floor.
A floor above, an outdoor observation deck is surrounded by a strong railing set reassuringly inboard from the edge. Great view. Less fear of falling. Fear is what you seek two levels above. One is the entrance to High Roller, a boring little ride that traces three circles around the tower. The top level is home to Big Shot, which shoots 16 riders at a time up a 160-foot-high tower and then pulls them back down so fast that everyone is literally out of their seats. Shoulder restraints are the only thing keeping you from flying out.
On Sunday morning, a 45-minute drive southeast brought us to Hoover Dam, the 1930s project that tamed the Colorado River (or hastened its ruin, in the view of some). The high-arch concrete dam is a spectacular sight--straddling a narrow canyon between Nevada and Arizona, and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, at a profit because of hydroelectric generation. Just driving on U.S. 93 across the top of the dam is beautiful. But it's even better to stop on the Nevada side at the visitors center that was opened to the public in mid-1995, after massive cost overruns and construction delays. It's undeniably handsome--rose-colored concrete with tinted glass paneling, copper roofing and brass Art Deco railings.
There are $8 tours every 10 minutes from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., with extended hours in the summer. The guided portion lasts about 35 minutes, with more to look at on your own afterward. For $25 a "hard hat" tour lasts an hour and 15 minutes, taking you places inside the dam that you can't go to on the standard tour.
Our $8 tour was led by a Reclamation Bureau employee. A wildlife biologist by training, he was able to answer every question the crowd threw at him. At the start of the tour, an elevator ride 520 feet down takes you into the generator room and from there out along the downstream outlets into the Colorado. Back inside, you walk through the place where the dam joins the canyon walls and into a rock cavern that once carried the river's water around the site as the dam was being built. Rumbling beneath your feet, a huge pipe carries water to the electric generators.