Rediscover Las Vegas
A note on dessert: wait until the next morning, then take a 25-minute drive to Retro Bakery. There, owner Kari Haskell – a rock’n’roll mum with short blonde hair and tattoos – bakes cupcakes with topping so smooth, it tastes almost like ice-cream. Justin Timberlake is one of several celebrity customers. The Hop Scotch proves why: it’s vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream, dipped in butterscotch ganache. Also highly recommended: the Pink Lemonade and the Maple Bacon. And if you don’t drive? ‘We deliver to the Strip all the time,’ says Kari. ‘Even just one cupcake, it’s not a problem. As long you pay the $20 delivery charge.’ (from £20 for a steak at Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads; from £1.60 for a cupcake at Retro Bakery)
Culture: What to do when there isn’t any
Now on to the question that, let’s be honest here, pretty much no-one will be asking themselves: what about the museums? Well, Las Vegas doesn’t do museums like other cities do museums. Instead of trying to hold its own with New York in the high culture department, it sticks to what it knows: crime, explosions and coin-operated entertainment.
Hence I spend a day shuttling between the Atomic Testing Museum, the Mob Museum and the Pinball Hall of Fame. At the Atomic Testing Museum, I see a real nuclear warhead, view (and feel the backblast of) a simulated test explosion, and read stories about the 5am detonations that used to send fireballs above the Strip. It might seem like an odd thing to glamorise, of course – indeed the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce was recently criticised for recreating an infamous 1957 photograph of ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ wearing a mushroom-cloud swimsuit. But the curation here is unflinching and intelligent, and it’s a fact that, without the Manhattan Project scientists who arrived in Nevada to continue their work after WWII, Las Vegas would not have grown in the way it did. (admission £9)
The Mob Museum takes a similarly difficult subject matter, but treats it very differently: it’s pure entertainment, as you’d expect from one of former Mayor Goodman’s creations. Located inside the old federal courthouse building, restored for the purpose at spectacular and controversial expense, the museum features the original St Valentine’s Day Massacre wall (complete with bullet holes and blood stains), gruesome crime scene photographs, and interactive exhibits. Most impressive is the original courtroom from the 1950 anti-Mob Kefauver Hearings (the judge’s bench was built with a steel plate inside, so he could duck behind it if gunfire broke out) and the spectacular multi-screen video presentation that accompanies it. (admission £11)
And then to the Pinball Hall of Fame, in an unmarked industrial building not far from the Strip, crammed with vintage machines, all of them meticulously restored and ready to play. I choose Pinball Circus, developed at a cost of $1.5 million according to the handwritten note attached, but scrapped after only two machines were built because they weren’t generating enough income in test installations to justify the price. The owner of the place, Tim Arnold, is tinkering with an exhibit nearby, nearly half his body inside the cabinet. At 56 years old, with a head-mounted flash light, fishbowl glasses and ponytail, he couldn’t look more the part if he tried. He used to install pinball machines in casinos for a living but could never bring himself to scrap them when they were replaced. So he kept them instead, and now, more than 30 years later, here they all are, several hundred in total, all bleeping and gurgling like the day they arrived from the factory. ‘There isn’t a lot you can do in Las Vegas for less than ten bucks,’ Tim says, with pride. ‘Here, you can play all night.’ (admission free)