Vegas baby!

A CACOPHONY of chinking coins, whirring reels and electronic beeps lingers constantly in the background of any Vegas casino, a 24-7 reminder that Sin City is solely dedicated to one thing, and one thing only, encouraging punters to gamble.

Pumped oxygen keeps you awake into the small hours, complimentary drinks are provided as long as you continue gambling, and a bevy of bars and eateries, designer shops and leisure facilities ensure every casino is like a miniature town which you never have to leave.

An oasis of capitalism and consumerism in the middle of the Nevada desert, Las Vegas is a constantly evolving testimony to the American drive for the next big thing. Casinos rise and fall like ancient empires, disappearing into the dust only to be replaced by something even more audacious, and the celebrated Strip is constantly changing in a bid to provide fresh new attractions to lure customers in.

Move away from the bright lights and the glitz and you’ll see the real Vegas, home to the thousands of casino employees and service industry workers, just like anywhere else in America with its fair share of crime and deprivation, but more of a dichotomy here when contrasted with the wanton excesses of the Strip.

Checking in to the sprawling emerald city that is the MGM Grand, where real lions are kept on view in a public enclosure, provided my partner with a shock introduction to casino culture. I had been before in the early noughties, but not only was this her first visit to Vegas, it was also the first time she’d actually been to the States.

Vegas boasts a staggering 17 of the world’s biggest hotels, with the majority offering a themed experience ranging from the faux ancient Egypt of the Luxor to the Roman decadence of Caesar’s Palace.

The lights and the noise are all-consuming, and even when you leave the confines of the casino to explore along the Strip there are numerous assaults on your senses, from the ludicrous sights of scale versions of the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, to the patter of the pimps handing out cards for local call girls.

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Although prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas, it is permitted elsewhere in the state, meaning tourists are just a phone call away from arranging a meet with their chosen girl, just another transaction in a city which thrives on providing whatever its punters desire.

We were in town to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday, which basically meant champagne, clubbing and casinos, the croupiers happy to fill us in on the rules of the game and the etiquette which surrounds the gaming pits.

A lucky win on the roulette wheel with a ‘0’ reaped in the dollars, but with small stakes it was never going to change our lives. It did, however, pay for the evening’s entertainment, as we moved between bars, hotels and nightclubs, eventually returning to our room at 11 in the morning. In Vegas though, time really doesn’t matter, with a freedom to enjoy your waking hours whenever it suits, rather than be beholden to the restrictions of the normal day.

Away from the temptations of the tables there is still plenty to entertain, and you don’t always have to spend a lot of cash to enjoy yourself. Most of the hotels offer some sort of free entertainment, ranging from the spectacular pirate battle at Treasure Island through to the musical fountains of The Bellagio.

But if you’ve got the money then the world is truly your oyster. Vegas features hundreds of attractions to tempt those bills out of your wallet, including ranchy burlesque shows, dance troupes, a rollercoaster, circus rides, performances from the likes of Tom Jones and Bette Midler, illusionists, designer boutiques and the biggest choice of restaurants you’ve ever seen, offering a breadth of cuisine which ensures you’ll be able to find whatever you want to eat, whenever you want to eat it.

A glitzy playground for adults, Vegas is best sampled in a short, intense burst of activity, with the constant excess taking its toll on your sanity after too many days. Burnout is common, and it’s best to get away from the Strip for a while if you can, perhaps by enjoying a helicopter ride to the Hoover Dam or the Grand Canyon.

Having visited twice, I doubt if I’d return again unless I had the finances to really go to town. You can do Vegas on a budget, but it’s obviously best experienced with the cash to back you up, just don’t go blowing your life savings on a spin of the wheel.