I have to admit — I’ve been somewhat dreading writing this post since October 1st, the day the deadliest mass shooting in American history left the world mourning for and with Las Vegas.
That one hit me hard. I’ve always had a major crush on Las Vegas, gone wild for festivals, and had a super soft spot in my heart for country music, which left it all feeling very close to home. From across the world in Thailand I was glued to the news for days, often finding myself unexpectedly in tears and spending a lot of time staring into space. I found myself digging through every story I could find searching for closure in two simple, unanswerable questions — why and how.
Of course I’m keenly aware that this wasn’t even in the slightest about me. While the fog started lifting for me after a week, the people directly affected by such a tragedy have a lifetime of heartache ahead of them.
How could I write about my most recent Las Vegas adventure, an indulgent long weekend over Memorial Day, with such raw pain and suffering lingering? It didn’t seem right. What finally turned the tides for me were the regular reminders from current or past residents of Las Vegas that the people who depend on tourism to put dinner on the table need support now more than ever. My writer friends in particular have made every effort to use their craft to direct tourism back to the city; here, I’m hoping to follow in their footsteps by sharing my own adventures.
As you may have read about earlier this week, my sixth trip to the city of all things neon was inspired by the colorful Seven Magic Mountains installation in the desert. That might have been what brought me back, but heck, I wasn’t going to turn around and leave right after that sunrise! I couldn’t help but stretch a three-day, four-night trip out of a stop in one of my favorite cities in America.
Some of you may recall that I last left Las Vegas totally smitten with Downtown, and vowed to forgo The Strip in favor of this hipster neighborhood on my next trip.
I arrived after dark and never took a room photo — so these are courtesy of Oasis!
I scored an insane deal on Oasis at Gold Spike — paying just $93 per night for a spacious suite over Memorial Day Weekend. The usual big casinos I stay in on The Strip were at least three times that for a standard room!
I’ve seen basic rooms at Oasis go for as little as $20 a night at random times throughout the year — it’s crazy how affordable accommodation can be in in Las Vegas if you know the right places to look. While we definitely got a great deal, there were pros and cons to our stay here, which I’ll elaborate more on throughout this post.
After my sunrise pilgrimage to Seven Magic Mountains, I spent the rest of my first day entirely in Downtown, all on foot as I’d returned my rental car to the airport on the way back to my hotel. I really, really love this area and it’s where I’d move to in a heartbeat if I were ever to become a Las Vegan.
I got my nails done at the insanely fun, pinup-inspired Bombshell Spa, had a healthy lunch at the laptop-filled PublicUs, and enjoyed some of the area’s notorious street art and classic neon along the way. The night before, I’d met Diana for a late night dinner at VegeNation, one of her favorite vegan restaurants in the area (and one I’m gutted I was too wiped from a day of travel to take photos of ’cause it was so dang cute!) Downtown is spoiled for trendy, creative, and fun restaurants with none of the fussiness of the fine dining you’ll find on The Strip.
My partner-in-crime for the weekend landed just after sunset. Remember my girl Michelle, one of my high school hometown besties and current resident of San Francisco, where I visited her last summer? We couldn’t let a whole year go by without getting into a little trouble together, and so we decided to meet in Sin City for a weekend of silly debauchery.
We kicked things off with a relatively low-key dinner at Le Thai, where we caught up over curry and lychee martinis. Next, we went on an East Fremont bar crawl starting at Atomic Liquors, Vegas’s oldest freestanding bar. While I loved the history, the prices, and the neon sign outside, I didn’t love remembering that Nevada allows smoking indoors — and these patrons were definitely taking advantage! While the shiny new casinos on The Strip have such advanced air filtration systems that you can barely tell if someone is smoking at the slot machine next to you, that’s not the case in the historical bars of Downtown.
Next, we were craving something a little more high energy, so I told Michelle she just had to experience The Fremont Experience. While East Fremont is the epitome of hipster, cross Las Vegas Boulevard and suddenly you’re in a giant disco ball of kitsch.
Giggling “when in Vegas!” we purchased a life-sized Barbie portion of alcohol slushie and wandered around the hilarious pedestrian mall filled with neon, street performers, and tourists wearing unironic fanny packs. Eventually I dragged Michelle into The D, asking the nearest employee, “Hi, I want to show my friend that gold nugget, where is it?” To which he very politely replied, “I believe it is inside the Golden Nugget hotel.” Oh. Right. Well then.
After finally tracking down the Gold Nugget and taking an excessive number of Instagram Stories in front of it, we headed back to the relative sanity of Fremont East.
There, we danced on the rooftop of Commonwealth, which was the hottest thing in town on a Thursday night, (and where I’m crushed we got distracted from seeking out The Laundry Room speakeasy-within-a-bar) and then got lured in by a free drink at Corduroy, which literally has a room built for selfies. Nailed it!
Now you might be thinking, wow, these girls had a really lovely evening of sensible indulgence within the logical confines of walking distance from their hotel. Brava! And up until that point, you’d be right.
That is, until we made the 1:15am decision that our night would not be complete without heading to The Strip. We set out sights on Tao, which I had never been to and was at least at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard and therefore somewhat closer to us in Downtown. Tao is definitely on the smaller side of the Vegas nightclubs and doesn’t pack the visual punch of others I’ve been to, however Tao restaurant, which we walked through to get to the club, looked gorgeous — I’ll definitely be adding that to my Vegas wish list in the future. We had a blast!
However, this whole side-trip kind of summed up our issue with staying Downtown: we ended up on The Strip every night regardless. I think had I been with another Vegas veteran, I would have really enjoyed just going down to The Strip one night and otherwise enjoyed exploring a new, quirky area. But Michelle was essentially a first-timer and really, had it not been Memorial Day weekend pricing, we would have stayed on The Strip where I believe every Vegas virgin should stay! We spent a lot of time and money on cabs, so I’d think long and hard about how much back and forth you’re going to be doing before booking a Downtown hotel. Personally, I’ll come back and stay in Downtown again, but only if I plan to spend the majority of my trip there.
On the way back to Downtown, in our excitement to reach our late night pizza place Evel Pie, we hopped out of our car the minute it pulled up to the curb. “Um, excuse me, you ladies need to pay,” called the driver patiently. “Is this not an Uber?!” I called back, as it dawned on us that we both had just began to unintentionally ditch out on our cab fare, which we promptly paid and overtipped for upon discovery. Ha! Well, I’m pretty sure it happens all the time. Right? Right.
The next morning, we woke up in stitches over our antics from the previous nights, and nursing mild hangovers. Luckily, we had a whole day to tame them. We started with a cure as old as time at the 18b Art District’s Makers and Finders: carbs and caffeine.
Makers and Finders was the cuteness I needed to revive me. Nursing green tea, bagels, and okay FINE, hibiscus and lavendar mimosas, I knew we were going to be all good — not to mention, this was just the first stop on our well-planned day of restoration and relaxation.
When Michelle and I were planning our trip, I scoured Travelzoo, Groupon, and other sites for Las Vegas deals — it’s one of the best cities to snag them in! We ended up finding a great voucher for Drift Spa in The Palms, which included a massage and unlimited time in the spa’s plunge pools, saunas, steam rooms, and luxurious hammam for $85.
Much to our amusement, Michelle and I discovered at the pool that we were reading the same trashy summer novel! That seriously cracked me up — what are the chances?!
We also planned to use what we believed was the spa’s exclusive pool for more unwinding. It turned out it wasn’t quite the serene spa pool we were expecting — it was open to anyone in the condo section of the building — but it was still great to get some sun and also, more importantly, to plunge in for a cool off from the 102-105 degree weather we had all weekend!
While the spa wasn’t the most luxurious I’ve ever visited, the massage was fantastic, the hammam was beautiful, and it was a good value for what we paid. I definitely won’t rave about it or jump to return, but it made for a lovely poolside day.
Post-spa, we’d made the tactical decision to get ready right in the spa dressing room, and pause and gather energy for the evening ahead over dinner. My friends Diana and Ron were also on the strip for another show, and they met up with us for drinks and bites.
We chose HEXX at Paris Las Vegas for dinner for two simple reasons: its proximity to the Axis Theater where we were headed later that evening, and the fact that they have a cocktail on the menu served out of a flamingo. No shame.
But it turned out HEXX was worth its weight in metallic aviary-inspired drinkware. Our server was one of the most hilarious humans I’ve encountered in Vegas — and that says a lot — and one of those career waiters who can seriously make your meal. That and the fact that every single thing we ordered blew us away added up to expectations seriously exceeded.
Heading next door to Planet Hollywood, Michelle and I got sidetracked by the futuristic fun going on at The Tipsy Robot, Vegas’s hot new robo-bar. Every bar stool has an iPad where customers can scroll through popular cocktails or even create their own, ordering with the touch of a button.
Michelle and I both got creative and whipped up our own custom cocktails, cheering on the mechanical arms as they mixed our drinks into oblivion.
And then we were off to the highlight of our weekend, the event that all other plans orbited around like little planets: IT’S BRITNEY, BITCH.
Astute Alex in Wanderland readers may recall that yes, I’d already made a dedicated trip to Vegas a few years back to dance at the altar of the princess of pop. One might think that would be enough to quench the thirst of a lifelong fan, but one would be wrong. When Britney announced her four year residency would end on December 31st, 2017, I felt an incredibly pull to go see her one last time before she hung up her sequins.
Lucky for me, Michelle was more than game. The last time I’d attended, I had received complimentary press tickets for seats towards the back of the theater and so to make this experience feel different, Michelle and I decided to just full on splurge and go for tickets to the floor, which set us back a cool $250 each.
I was a little hesitant to pay so much at first until I remembered that my travels mean I rarely if ever attend ticketed concerts or shows (outside of festivals) and so if I blew a full annual event budget on one big night, so be it.
And wow, was it like a totally different show from down there! First and foremost is the distance to the woman of the hour. We were seriously so close to Britney it was insane. I felt like I could see every muscle in her perfectly toned body — seriously, we couldn’t stop talking about how after two kids, she’s never looked better! — and there were times she came over to our side of the pit and she was so close I could barely fit her whole body in a photo. We were up close and personal.
We also enjoyed chit-chatting to our very excited fellow show-goers and feeling like we were at a straight up dance party. Who needs seats?! On the other hand, I wish I’d worn more comfortable shoes and I wish we’d arrived a little earlier. I didn’t really consider that with no assigned seats of course people would bum-rush the front row along the stage. Had we arrived a bit earlier, we would have had something to lean on and I wouldn’t have been dodging around people’s heads all night (#shortpeopleproblems).
After the show, we were literally euphoric! The feeling wore off a bit as our cab pulled up at The Wynn and we waited in line after line after line to get into clubs so crowded we could barely move side to side. Memorial Day weekend crowds are no joke, guys! Neither, perhaps, is hitting your late twenties in a city obsessed with youth. Remember that scene from Knocked Up where the sisters are trying to get into a nightclub and have a showdown with the bouncer? We re-enacted it for each other many times while staving off boredom in a queue. Here’s my favorite line, if you need a refresher:
“I can’t let you in cause you old as f*$%. Not, you know, for the earth, but for this club. What are you even doing here? Y’all need to be at a yoga class or something.” Want to stay humble? Try to skip the line in a Vegas nightclub after your twenty-second birthday. Ha!
Bouncer blues aside, we did have a pretty epic night. We hopped from Encore Beach Club to XS to, eventually, Drai’s After Hours, which we emerged from to find the sun coming up. Whoops. Well, where else but Las Vegas can you see Britney Spears, Major Lazer, and The Chainsmokers all in one night — the last two with no cover fee or concert ticket?
The next morning, I woke up with that I truly thought was the absolute worst hangover of my life. It may have indeed been a contender, though I realized that there was something else going on when I felt even worse the next day as I flew off to California and continued to deteriorate from there — I had the full blown flu, worse than I’ve had in years. Luckily, I had my dad and my dog and a visit to an actual doctor to nurse me back to health; but more on that later.
That day, not yet realizing a vicious virus was ravaging my body, I did my best to rally and not to ruin Michelle’s last night in Vegas for what I thought was a silly little hangover. We spent the day flopping around in the pool, ingesting as many liquids and electrolytes as possible, and returning to Evel Pie for a little carb therapy. By the time evening hit I was still barely able to make it through a shower standing up, but somehow my Vegas hosting guilt gave me enough strength to show Michelle to my favorite oxygen bar in The Grand Canal Shoppes, where for $35 you get a back massage, a vitamin shot, an essential oil treatment, and a head massage, all while hooked up to pure, beautiful, restorative oxygen.
After, since neither of us were feeling up to bars, clubs, or other venues created primarily to serve alcohol, we decided to check off another Vegas must-do off Michelle’s list: a fancy dinner on The Strip.
We snagged a last-minute late-night reservation at Zuma at The Cosmopolitan, and while my stomach was fussy and I ate sparingly, everything that made it into my mouth was delicious. I only regret that I was feeling too weak to paparazzi the place, because it was such a beautifully designed restaurant — no surprise there though, as everywhere in The Cosmo is!
All in all, it was another epic Vegas vacation, full of silly indulgence, tons of dancing, a lot of laughs, and stories between friends that will certainly be trotted out for decades to come. I am so grateful to this quirky city for all the lighthearted fun it has shown me over the years, and I am sending it so much healing energy as it recovers from a heavy, dark tragedy.
I do believe the best way to support the community of people who live, love, and work in Las Vegas right now is to not let their city be defined by this one act. Here’s to many more years of making memories with friends new and old in a city that we’ve always known was a good time, but now know without question is filled with good people.
I love you Las Vegas… stay strong <3