Craps lessons are free at the Golden Nugget.
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In 1946, mobster Bugsy Siegel bought a stake in the Flamingo Las Vegas. He paid for it six months later with his life. These days, a visit to Vegas doesn't have to come at such a heavy cost. Sin City is also a bonanza for bargain hunters. For every high roller dropping C-notes at the tables, there are a dozen penny-pinchers sipping free drinks at the nickel slots. Values abound. Where else can you get married (entertainment by Elvis) for $175 and divorced a few weeks later for even less?
Or take in a $52 million dance production for free? Every day, audiences ooh and aah over the giant dancing fountains that spray and sway in the man-made lake fronting the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. They have reason to gush. Powered by 1,200 nozzles, illuminated by 4,800 lights, the elaborately choreographed geysers shoot up hundreds of feet, twirling like ballerinas or high-stepping like Rockettes, depending on the musical score. Try soaking up the spectacle from the balcony of the Fontana Bar, an elegant oasis inside the Bellagio, or from the top of the Eiffel Tower just across the street.
Tickets to the city's other water show—Cirque du Soleil's O—cost up to $110, a sweet deal if you're splurging. But if you're counting cash, hit Tickets2Nite, a booth in the Showcase Mall offering half-price ducats to some of the Strip's top entertainment. Not that you need a discount to afford Mac King, a sleight-of-hand master who reigns at Harrah's in the afternoon. His show is $16.95, a small price to watch a man who makes goldfish hover in midair.
At the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, a shrimp cocktail hovers just under $1. But the flavor is much fresher at La Barca, a Mexican restaurant not far from the Strip that specializes in seafood cocktails and fish tacos as good as any you'll find this side of the border. If your taste leans toward Thai, there's Lotus of Siam, where the green papaya salad, among other sparkling dishes, has earned kudos from national magazines and The New York Times. After dinner, ask any local for the scoop on ice cream. Chances are they'll direct you to Luv-it Frozen Custard. This family-run business serves a delightful dessert that's denser than ice cream and worth every cool calorie.
You can burn off what you've eaten with an early morning hike in Red Rock Canyon, a stunning National Conservation Area 15 miles from the Strip that showcases the Mojave's true colors ($5 per car at the entrance). But bring an empty stomach to the Manhattan Express, the whirling, swirling roller coaster that wraps around the skyline of New York- New York. Twelve dollars will get you a ticket to ride.
Other attractions in Vegas bring you high culture at low cost. At the Venetian, the canals are imitation but the Warhols and Lichtensteins are real. They're housed in the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum. Admission is $15, about what you pay for a few bites of the prix fixe meal at Picasso restaurant in the Bellagio, where some of the artist's work is on display.
If gambling's in your cards, you'll get more bang for your buck by taking the free gaming classes at the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino. Learn to play blackjack and three-card poker and shoot craps in a safe, unseedy setting. But remember: In the long run, the house always wins. You can wager safely, of course, on discounted lodging if you come to Vegas midweek. At the Flamingo, as at many local hotels, a room Monday through Thursday can drop to nearly half the price you'd pay on a weekend. Bugsy would have loved to get off so cheap.
Photography by Anne Hamersky
This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
All area codes (unless noted) are 702.
La Barca, 953 E. Sahara Ave., No. E1A, 792-9700. Lotus of Siam, 953 E. Sahara Ave., No. A5, 735-3033. Luv-it Frozen Custard, 505 E. Oakey Blvd., 384-6452. Golden Nugget, 129 E. Fremont St., 385-7111, www.goldennugget.com. For Mac King tickets, call (800) 392-9002 ext. 5111 or visit www.harrahs.com. Guggenheim Hermitage, 414-2440, www.guggenheimlasvegas.org.