Getting to Las Vegas easier than you think
(See photos at end of story)
People around the Pacific often say "Space A" is just too risky when it comes to flying back to the United States. Well, it’s a gamble that’s paid off in half a dozen unforgettable vacations to Las Vegas for me and my wife since 2004.
What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but getting there is much easier than you think.
Air Mobility Command terminals in mainland Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam routinely offer free flights to the West Coast. You might have to transit Alaska or Hawaii on the way – but all it takes is a little planning, patience and flexibility.
Twice a year, most U.S. military personnel can get Environmental and Morale Leave orders, which bump passengers up to "Category 2" level and significantly enhance your chances of landing a seat.
The weekly Patriot Express takes you to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, while military cargo aircraft fly into nearby McChord Air Force Base, Wash. Travis Air Force Base in California is another frequent AMC connection and close to airports in San Francisco and Sacramento.
From there, Vegas is a relatively inexpensive commercial flight away. If you’re feeling really lucky, roll the dice again and try for a "hop" to Nellis Air Force Base, which is only 20 minutes north of the Strip.
Depending on layovers, we typically reach the hotel 24 to 36 hours after walking out of our apartment at Yokota Air Base in Japan. Jet lag or not, it’s not hard to get a second wind after hitting the casino floor.
But Vegas isn’t just a gamblers’ destination. The city has a little something for everyone — from world-class restaurants, accommodations and amenities to the hottest shows, clubs and entertainment — all available 24 hours a day.
In six visits to this glittering, neon Mecca in the desert, it’s never been the same trip twice.
We prefer staying downtown at the Golden Nugget, drawn by the charms of "old Vegas" and easy access to several historic casinos in the vicinity. Each night at the top of the hour, one can catch the famous Fremont Street Experience, an amazing light and sound show that roars overhead on a massive 1,500-foot tunnel vault canopy.
Free concerts are often held in the lively Fremont venue on two outdoor sound stages.
Golden Nugget boasts what might be the town’s most unique pool. It features a 200,000-gallon shark tank and three-story waterslide that cuts right through the middle. Take a swim and get glimpses of the predators and other marine life from mere inches away.
Of course, no trip to Vegas would be complete without the standard set of vices, er, recreation. I get my fill of complimentary beverages, a free buffet or two, and plenty of time on the blackjack and Three Card Poker tables in between jaunts to the sports book.
But there’s always a new or different place to check out. Some of the city’s coolest "houses" are actually off the Strip.
A few miles west of Las Vegas sits the gorgeous Red Rock Resort & Casino, a local hangout that opened in 2006. It’s home to one of our favorite dining spots, Cabo Mexican Restaurant.
Breathtaking views and serenity await just a little further up the road at Red Rock Canyon, a national conservation area and geological paradise encompassing 197,000 acres within the Mojave Desert. Hoover Dam is another nice daytime escape, but over on the opposite side of town, about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas.
This fall, we hit Henderson for the first time, meeting an old Yokota buddy for a Texas hold ’em tournament at Sunset Station. We got together again for more poker the next night at Sam’s Town Casino. It houses Mystic Falls Park, where we caught a great music, laser and water show called "Sunset Stampede," an animated look at the Western pioneer experience.
When the sun goes down, the Las Vegas Strip rises like a phoenix and is truly a mesmerizing spectacle. Caesar’s Palace, The Luxor, Venetian, Wynn, Bellagio, Excalibur and Mirage are just a few of the major casinos that could be labeled majestic and outrageous in the same breath.
And right now, Vegas is booming with even more multibillion-dollar construction projects up and down the Strip. At least five new casino resorts are expected to open sometime in the next year.
To me, it was a little sad seeing the demolition in 2007 of The Stardust and New Frontier, longtime landmarks that added to the town’s mystique. They stood among the last vestiges to a bygone era — when the Mob ran things. Today, corporations call the shots, and the vacant sites where the two old casinos thrived for so long will soon be transformed into the Trump International Hotel & Tower, Echelon Place and the Plaza.
Las Vegas never stops reinventing itself. The perpetual lure of bigger, grander and more fabulous is what keeps nearly 40 million people coming back every year.
So much to do, so little time. Ahhh, Vegas.