Jewel Nightclub at Aria is pulsing in the wee morning hours. So are my feet, which more than nine hours earlier felt good in these leather boots.
I'm being jostled back and forth like a pinball among packs of 20-somethings with no sense of personal space, trying not to step on cocktail glasses (yes, GLASSES) on the dance floor. I take a stiletto heel to one of my boots. That's going to leave a mark.
It's bright, loud and lively in here, with guest DJ Lil Jon wearing dark shades and headphones and bobbing his head to mixes that run the gamut, from the Backstreet Boys to 2 Chainz. Colorful graphics morph on the big screen behind him. He sends out trays of shots. Intermittent blasts of cold air, which look like smoke funnels, radiate from the ceiling.
I'm getting a little tired but am determined to see Lil Jon perform Turn Down for What. The club goes wild when he does. Standing on stage, he passes a bottle of Champagne to someone in the crowd and keeps one for himself. They shake the bottles in tandem and after an emphatic "Turn down for what!," bubbly sprays all over. He moves to the other side and repeats the sequence.
After Lil Jon wraps up around 3, I linger on the dance floor. After being head-butted — from behind, no less — I decide I'm done.
Outside, Las Vegas is quiet. Gamblers are still betting inside the casinos, but the famous Strip is, to my surprise, virtually desolate.
What am I doing out? Experiencing Vegas after dark — way after dark.
• • •
I've visited this city more times than I can recall, but I've never stayed up all night. There's a first time for everything, and I'm all in.
I am fueled by frugality and curiosity, eager to see what happens in Vegas after hours and whether it should stay in Vegas.
This is one of those cities that never sleeps, right?
That was my thought when I opted to forgo a hotel room, since I'd be landing on a Saturday just before midnight. (Heck, Elvis Presley even sang that he wouldn't sleep a minute away in Vegas.) My other thought: I'm not paying more for a hotel room than I paid for round-trip airfare ($69). My plan wasn't completely crazy. I did have a (free) hotel room at New York-New York lined up for Sunday night.
• • •
"Bright light city," as Elvis described it in Viva Las Vegas, isn't exactly setting my soul on fire when the cabdriver takes me to the iconic "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign just before 12:30 a.m.
Aside from the two guys standing nearly spread eagle and relieving themselves behind their stretch SUV limo, there's hardly anyone here. Visions of a Las Vegas Strip teeming with frolicking people who have overindulged are quickly fading. I take pictures (of the sign!) and chat briefly with the only other person there, a woman fiddling with her cellphone.
I encounter very few people on the sidewalks and trams as I travel north to Mandalay Bay and eventually to NY-NY, depositing $20 bills in machines at several hotel-casinos along the way. Unfettered after dropping off my small, though heavy, bag at the bell desk, I head to Jewel Nightclub to see Lil Jon before making my way to Bellagio.
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Want to know when the Bellagio Conservatory, a photogenic "14,000-square-foot floral playground" with showstopping displays, isn't crowded with scores and scores of people from around the world?
I have the winter wonderland to myself. It's spectacular, with polar bears made of carnations; an 18-foot "Ice Princess" made of burnt sun palm fans, roses, palm leaves, hydrangeas and phalaenopsis; a Christmas tree that stands several stories high with a miniature train that circles it; and much more. I look at everything several times, taking photos and marveling at what a treat it is to be here alone.
On my way to the Bellagio casino, I enter the lobby, which is also empty. I could literally recline on the sofa under the lovely Chihuly glass flowers and take photos to my heart's content — until security shows up.
At 4:46, even the Bellagio poker room is pretty barren. Just a few tables are active. I ask a man nearby if he has seen any big names. He points out Gus Hansen, who's playing in a high-stakes room. (It certainly looks like Hansen, though the usually clean-shaven Dane has a lot of facial hair.)
I sit down at a slot machine to rest my achy feet. I must look rough, or suspect, or both. An employee asks: "Are you okay, ma'am?"
I assume Bellagio frowns on loitering, so I move along. Outside, I take a few photos and notice that other than a security guy and me, there's nobody around. The lake, often lined with hundreds of people during the fountain shows, is still. Two ducks paddle by as I ask the security guy when the sun will come up, then learn that his uncle lives in Clearwater.
I cross the street and tuck in to Bally's to warm up (it's in the 40s), noting as I enter at 5:15 to Kelly Clarkson "leaving footprints all over town" and "keeping faith karma comes around" that the big casinos all seem to play music outside around the clock, and sometimes what's playing outside is different from what's playing inside.
I slide $20 into a slot machine and Google "When does the sun rise in Las Vegas?" 6:41. Once it's daylight, I reason, a bit slaphappy, I'll be re-energized.
• • •
Wandering in and out of hotel-casinos and perusing the impressive souvenir selection at the very large and very well lit 24-hour CVS help pass the time. Around 7, the sun is low but bright. Traffic is slowly picking up on Las Vegas Boulevard, and runners, dressed in layers, are starting their workouts.
I begin the final stretch and walk to NY-NY. On a lark, I drop by the reservations desk to ask if I can check in to my room early, as in seven hours before the standard 3 p.m. check-in time. The woman tells me that there is a room with a king bed, which I had listed as my preference, but it's on the fourth floor, and there's no view. Tired, but not too tired to still be picky, I ask when a room with a view might be available. She suggests I come back at 11. I ask if there are any other options. She does have one room on a high floor available now, she says, but it doesn't have a king bed, just two queens.
By 8:15, I'm in my 28th-floor room admiring the beautiful Nevada mountains from one of my two queen beds, ready for some sleep.
• • •
Awakening midafternoon to bright sunlight streaming into my room, I reflect on the past I-don't-even-know-how-many hours. Would I forgo a hotel room again, even though Vegas after dark wasn't nearly as exciting as I had imagined?
Contact Dawn Cate at email@example.com or (727) 892-2921.