I went to Las Vegas and nearly forgot to gamble. Over four days we found so much to do and see that it didn't even occur to us that we hadn't fed a one-armed bandit, bluffed a Stetson-wearing cowboy, doubled down at black jack or tried to understand craps. On our final night we decided we better give it a go so we sat at a roulette wheel – they're not too hard to find – and promptly won enough for a round of drinks. Of course we had to spend our winnings on something else because drinks are free for gamblers, even if you are just sitting at a one-cent slot machine and chatting. Just remember to tip your waitress or she won't come back.
As the famous saying goes, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas". We're told this phrase is actually a registered trade mark and judging by the number of lawyers spruiking their ambulance-chasing credentials on billboards here, they take their litigation seriously. Nevertheless, Vegas is so fantastical I feel I have to break the code of silence (and possibly the law) and share.
Locals kept telling us Vegas is just a "normal" city. And they are right in the same way that Venice is "normal". People do live, work and sleep here. It's just that their "normal" home town is known as Sin City and is visited by more than 40 million tourists a year.
The reality is that Las Vegas is a miraculous continuum, always on the lookout for the next big thing. The casinos are constantly raising the stakes – gondola rides on canals and Madame Tussauds at the Venetian, the ingeniously choreographed dancing fountains outside Bellagio, the Sphinx, Cleopatra's needle, King Tutankhamun's tomb and the light-beam-emitting pyramid at Luxor, the sand-and-surf beach at Mandalay Bay, the thrill rides atop the 350-metre Stratosphere Tower and a half-size Eiffel Tower replica at Paris Las Vegas.
And that's just for starters. How about museums commemorating erotic heritage, Liberace, the Mafia, pinball machines, neon signs and atomic bomb testing. Or machine-gun firing ranges, drive-through wedding chapels and a cathedral where casino chips are dropped into the collection plate to be gathered up by the "chip monk".
Las Vegas has been known as the entertainment capital of the world for years. Golf resorts, spa resorts and top-end restaurants are standard. The shows are big business and huge stars appear regularly. There are seven permanent Cirque du Soleil shows and Aussie group Human Nature has been in residence for five years.
There's also a push to bring more professional sport to the city that already hosts a round of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens, a highlight of our visit. The 16-nation sevens tournament was a huge success this year and the three-day rugger bugger-fest drew a record-breaking 75,000 spectators – mostly tourists – to Sam Boyd Stadium, about half an hour out of town. Adding kicking to punting seems a logical fit for Las Vegas.
Sevens is a growing sport in the US, as it is everywhere, and this will accelerate next year as teams vie for medals at the Rio Olympics. The formula of seven-minute halves, expansive passes, regular line breaks and turnovers makes sevens a dazzling spectacle of speed, attack and tries. Combined with the Las Vegan flair for putting on a show – think fighter jet flyover, daytime fireworks, booming announcements, cheerleaders, loud licks of music and scrum-sized plates of nachos – and the partying crowd from all over the world are lapping it up.
We watch as Kenya scores twice in the last 90 seconds to beat Canada by a point. We see fancy dress costumes including English knights, Japanese sumo and springbok and kangaroo onesies. And best of all, we see New Zealand beaten in the final by Fiji, to the transcendent delight of the Bula brigade, whose "Viti Vegas" T-shirts, flags, singing and drumming dominate the bleachers, clearly outnumbering all other visiting nationalities.
Glitz is still the dominant currency in Las Vegas and the Strip. On and around Las Vegas Boulevard it is the headline act. It's a feast of pizazz, fame, fortune and more than 60,000 hotel rooms. You can walk the resort corridor from dusk til late and be entertained by world-class people watching. You can duck in and out of bars, shows and casinos as you please, carrying your drink as long as it is in a plastic container. It's a friendly, safe, enjoyable environment deep into the wee small hours. Lock–out laws are not required.
Downtown, the original town site and gambling district, is the other hive of activity. Traditionally a grittier area, Downtown has benefitted from a renaissance championed by successive husband and wife mayors, Oscar and Carolyn Goodman.
Fremont Street is downtown ground zero, occupied by legendary casinos Binions Gambling Hall, Golden Nugget and Four Queens. A 400-metre overhead canopy provides a "ceiling" for what they call the Fremont Street Experience, "highlighted" by the 12 million LED light, 550,000-watt sound system Viva Vision show. There's also live music, DJs, the fortnightly Vegas StrEATS Festival, photo ops with the impossibly buff and shirtless Chippendales male models, flavoured oxygen hits at Air Bars and the chance to snack at the Heart Attack Grill, where you eat free if you weigh more than 159 kilograms. All in this simple, nice, "normal" town.
The Rubgy Sevens bandwagon is coming to Sydney from next year after the Harbour City pinched the event from Gold Coast. If you're looking to attend an "away game", Las Vegas , where boredom and or "normal" are not options, is a safe bet.
The writer was a guest of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Qantas (codeshare with American Airlines) flies A380 services daily from Sydney and Melbourne to the US, see qantas.com.au.
The Delano, 3940 Las Vegas Blvd South, is an all-suite hotel in the 43 floor Mandalay Bay Resort Complex that opened in September, 2014. Huge rooms, well-located and classy. Suites from $150 a night, see delanolasvegas.com.
It's hard to get a bad meal here. Try YUSHO for excellent Japanese, Carson's Kitchen for American-style tapas including bacon jam (yes, really) and Off The Strip at the Linq for a damn good burger. Fine-dining aficionados will love Scarpetta and its inventive short rib and bone marrow ravioli.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN VEGAS
1. Machine Gun Practice at the Gun Store. Blow away a few cobwebs from the night before. Individual instructor and no license required. www.thegunstorelasvegas.com
2. High Roller, the world's tallest ferris wheel (at 167 metres), offers twinkling vibrant views of The Strip, Downtown and beyond. $US19 by day; $US24 by night. Bar pods available. Like pretty much everything in Vegas, it's better at night.
3. Hiking. On your own or in a group, the surrounding desert and local peaks offer a stunning alternative for Aussie bush walkers. Check out Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston and Lake Mead. See www.hikinglasvegas.com
4. Night Clubs. Hedonism the way God intended. Expensive, crowded and full of beautiful people, skimpy dancers and talented DJs. Natural breasts seem to be in the minority. Try Light at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino and Marquee at The Cosmopolitan.
5. Get married. Or renew your vows. Walk-in, drive-through, mafia-themed, Elvis as the minister – whatever you want. Have a wedding night in Vegas from around $US100.