The quirky side of Las Ve­gas

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - DESTINATIONS - BY JOHN AND SAN­DRA NOWLAN John and San­dra Nowlan are travel writ­ers based in Hal­i­fax

Forty mil­lion visi­tors crowd into Las Ve­gas each year. Most of them end up stay­ing and play­ing ex­clu­sively along the lively Strip of gi­ant ho­tels, high en­ergy casi­nos, big name per­form­ers and out­stand­ing restau­rants. They’re miss­ing out.

There’s an­other side to Ve­gas, a quirky side, that makes Sin City an even more fas­ci­nat­ing place to visit.

The Neon Mu­seum

Ever won­der where the old, flashy signs from de­funct casi­nos and ho­tels end up? The best of th­ese glit­ter­ing pieces of his­tory end up at the Neon Mu­seum, a kind of “Bone­yard” for re­tired signs. Many of th­ese large, colour­ful relics — with names like Star­dust, Aladdin, Horseshoe, Dunes and Moulin Rouge — are lov­ingly re­stored and placed around the prop­erty so guests can ad­mire them up close. A knowl­edge­able guide spends an hour tak­ing visi­tors along the paths and de­scribes each sign’s re­mark­able his­tory. A night tour is es­pe­cially interesting be­cause many of the signs are lit up to their orig­i­nal bril­liance.

The Mob Mu­seum

Sev­eral of the early, glitzy casi­nos from the 1930s and 40s were built with Mafia money so it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that quirky Las Ve­gas is home to the Mob Mu­seum. Si­t­u­ated just north of Fre­mont Street, the $42 mil­lion mu­seum with over 1,000 ar­ti­facts is fit­tingly housed in a for­mer fed­eral court­house where the Ke­fau­ver Com­mit­tee held one of its 1950 meet­ings on Or­ga­nized Crime.

This unique and dy­namic mu­seum traces the his­tory of the Mafia in the USA, from its New York and Chicago be­gin­nings to its ma­jor in­flu­ence on Las Ve­gas. It uses state-ofthe-art, touch-screen tech­nol­ogy to tell the story of casino cheat­ing, mug shot iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, Tommy gun anatomy and, most fas­ci­nat­ing to us, the St. Valen­tine’s Day Mas­sacre in Chicago. The ac­tual brick garage wall (with bul­let holes) has been painstak­ingly re­stored here. The mu­seum also in­cludes a mock-up of the Elec­tric Chair that ended the lives of many mob­sters.

Na­tional Atomic Test­ing Mu­seum

Start­ing in 1951, the Ne­vada Test Site, just north of Las Ve­gas, was the key Amer­i­can lo­ca­tion for the test­ing of nu­clear weapons. It be­came a kind of sideshow in the city with view­ing par­ties held on the roofs of bars and casi­nos on Fre­mont Street as huge mush­room clouds rose into sky. Mer­chants took ad­van­tage of the era with store names like Atomic Liquor (still in busi­ness) dot­ted all over town.

Now a Smith­so­nian af­fil­i­ate, the Na­tional Atomic Test­ing Mu­seum fol­lows the his­tory of atomic weapons and in­cludes ex­hibits like the Ground Zero The­atre and a sim­u­lated blast, the Con­trol Point room where nu­clear count­downs took place, his­toric ra­di­a­tion de­tec­tors, blast shel­ters and pop cul­ture items from the area in­clud­ing bomb shaped salt & pep­per shak­ers and cheese­cake pho­tos of Miss Atomic Bomb, 1957. Weird.

Down­town Con­tainer Park

Af­ter pass­ing the Gold and Sil­ver Pawn Shop (we had to visit the quirky home of His­tory Chan­nel’s “Pawn Stars”), we stopped just east of the Fre­mont Street Down­town area and the Con­tainer Park. Con­structed en­tirely out of re­cy­cled and stacked ship­ping con­tain­ers, it’s now the funky home of gal­leries, restau­rants, used cloth­ing stores and gift shops. At the en­trance, there’s a gi­ant me­tal grasshop­per that breathes fire at night. Also in this grow­ing and ul­tra-cool area of Ve­gas are many imag­i­na­tive wall mu­rals and sculp­tures.

Spring Pre­serve

Many visi­tors won­der how Las Ve­gas, on the fringes of the Mo­jave Desert, gets its wa­ter sup­ply. Spring Pre­serve, an un­usual com­plex set on 180 acres at the site of the orig­i­nal spring that fed the city, com­bines a botan­i­cal gar­den, live an­i­mal ex­hibits, hik­ing trails and an ex­cel­lent in­ter­ac­tive mu­seum. We learned about the del­i­cate bal­ance of na­ture and saw a recre­ation of a South­ern Paiute In­dian Vil­lage. The most pop­u­lar ex­hibit is a sim­u­la­tion of a flash flood when 20,000 litres of wa­ter are re­leased to rush down a canyon. There’s also a sim­u­la­tion of what it was like to work on the nearby Hoover Dam, the con­struc­tion that tamed the Colorado River and pro­vided fresh wa­ter for Las Ve­gas. The whole park, with dis­plays about re­cy­cling, re­spon­si­ble gar­den­ing and so­lar power, is an ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion tool and in to­tal con­trast to The Strip’s hec­tic pace.

The High Roller

Las Ve­gas likes to boast that it’s big­ger, bet­ter and bad­der. We had to re­turn to The Strip to try a thrill ride that fits the cat­e­gory. Part of the huge en­ter­tain­ment com­plex called The LINQ (dozens of open air shops and restau­rants), The High Roller, opened in 2014, is a mas­sive Fer­ris Wheel that was pur­posely con­structed to be the world’s largest. At 550 feet high, it’s 100 feet taller than the iconic Lon­don Eye and has fun­da­men­tally changed the Ve­gas sky­line. Each of its 28 fully-en­closed, air conditioned pods holds up to 40 pas­sen­gers and takes 30 min­utes for a full ro­ta­tion. We were skep­ti­cal at first but were then daz­zled by the com­plex en­gi­neer­ing and the amaz­ing views of the city, the nearby moun­tains and much of south­ern Ne­vada. It’s a ride worth tak­ing.

With all the un­usual at­trac­tions Las Ve­gas has to of­fer (in ad­di­tion to end­less gam­bling, en­ter­tain­ment and fine din­ing) and its ob­vi­ous ex­cesses, we have be­come huge fans of the city. On this trip we didn’t see ev­ery­thing we wanted. Next time, it’s The Pin­ball Hall of Fame. Kach­ing!

PHOTO BY SAN­DRA NOWLAN

Quirky Truck Stop Art. East Fre­mont Street.

PHOTO BY JOHN NOWLAN

The Guide at The Neon Mu­seum. For­mer Casino Glit­ter.

PHOTO BY JOHN NOWLAN.

At The Top. The Ve­gas High Roller. World’s Largest Fer­ris Wheel.

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