I’d always wanted to see a dam, and as dams go, they don’t come much bigger than the Hoover Dam. Named after Herbert, rather than the more infamous J. Edgar, it’s possibly the most impressive piece of structural engineering of the 20th Century. Hoover gets the credit because as well as being a politician, he was a former engineer, and arranged the contracts between 7 different US states which would allow the project to go ahead.

We arrange a dam tour for under $20 apiece. The bus picks us up from the hotel, and transports us through sprawl and desert to the dam site. Once there we are given a couple of hours to do the official tour and wander around.

The dam itself is one of those objects that’s so big that you can’t perceive how big it is. It’s “won’t fit in a photograph” big, for starters—if you’re close enough to see detail, you’ll never find a wide angle lens wide enough; if you’re far enough away to get it all in the shot, it’ll just look like a small brick wall. Nevertheless, I tried to take a few photos of the outside which I could stitch together into a bigger image. On the left you can see the dam wall, with people and vehicles just about visible along the top. On the right you’re looking down at the turbine rooms 221 meters below; you can just about see a maintenance van parked down there.

Water enters the dam via the inlet towers, two in Nevada and two in Arizona. The dam itself is on the border between the two states, which follows the Colorado river.

The turbine rooms are pretty impressive, and much quieter than I expected. The foreground object is one of the turbine wheels. In spite of the dam’s massive scale, the power output is a modest 1430 MW, less than a quarter of that output by the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State.

The generated electricity ends up inconveniently at the bottom of a gorge, and has to be transported back up the hillsides. Unfortunately, the local rock is rich in iron ore, so cables can’t be run through or across it. Hence the walls of the canyon are clustered with strange angular pylons which lean over and carry the cables through the air to the generators.

The dam took three years to construct, and was built under budget. To achieve that, men worked in horrendously unsafe conditions, braving 60 degree temperatures in summer, working in tunnels filled with clouds of carbon monoxide, and rappelling the canyon walls to spend entire days working dangling from the end of a single rope tether. Though the official death toll was somewhere between 96 and 112, they only counted people who died on site; anyone whose death was slow enough that they could be moved to a hospital first got excluded from the statistics. Memorials on site commemorate the deceased.

The dam as a whole is beautifully decorated in art deco style. The marble floors inside the buildings have iconic circular murals based on Native American symbols meaning “power” or “energy”. Even the public lavatories (men in Nevada, women in Arizona) have polished brass doors and inscriptions. Finally, two winged figures sit above Oskar Hansen’s star map, which provides astronomical measurements that should enable any future civilization or extraterrestrial archaeological dig to date when the dam was constructed.

One final detail is off to the sides of the dam: the spillway tunnels, two emergency flood control channels. In the event that Lake Mead begins to rise to a dangerous level, the excess water can be drained through these massive pipes. The spillway doesn’t look like much in the photograph, but it’s vaguely menacing in person—after all, it’s big enough that you could shove a Boeing 747 down it if you snapped the wings off, and there’s a delightful 200m drop once you get inside. In water flow terms, each spillway could easily carry the entire flow of Niagara Falls, or 5.6 million liters of water per second, traveling at 190 km/h at the bottom!

Of course, dams are controversial things. Some view them as ecologically damaging. Yet in the case of the Hoover Dam, it’s not so clear. Initial attempts to irrigate southern California had led to widespread flooding, and the accidental creation of a vast inland lake now known as the Salton Sea. The Colorado River began cutting through the California desert at over a kilometer a day, and threatened to form a new giant canyon. The system of dams now in place make the river controllable, and have stopped the massive erosion—yet at the same time, the dams mean that the Salton Sea has turned into an ecological disaster area.

Returning from the dam to Las Vegas, we get a chance to see the city in all its glory. It’s really quite amazing, mile after mile of urban sprawl in the middle of a desert, with mountains or tall hills on all sides. Construction seems to be pretty much continuous; if legalized gambling in other states has hurt Nevada’s economy, it doesn’t seem to show.

The bus drops us off at the Hilton, which was Elvis’s home-from-home up until his death. We head for the hotel diner and have an Elvis-style meal, as we hadn’t had time for lunch. I decide on a tuna melt, which turns up in fried white bread with fried onion rings. We eat at the counter. It’s possible to play KENO at the counter too; illuminated boards behind us animate the results of each game. KENO is basically like the lottery, except it has more options for what you can bet on, and you can lose every couple of minutes instead of only once a week.

Next we head for “Star Trek: The Experience”, our real reason for visiting the Hilton. It’s really expensive, but if you’re a Star Trek fan (or the spouse of a Star Trek fan) it’s just one of those things you have to do.

The first section is a kind of Star Trek museum, a complete Trek timeline from the present day onwards. Every few meters there are glass cases with artifacts from the appropriate shows or movies—a model of the Phoenix, a type II phaser, the Nomad space probe, and so on. As sara puts it, “This is the geekiest thing I have ever seen.”

After that you find yourself herded into the “experience”. I won’t say anything about it, because I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but I will say that if I have any complaint to make it’s that it all happened so rapidly… still, the admission fee lets you go around as often as you want, or until you give yourself a neck injury.

The gift shop is a big disappointment. I’ve always wanted a TNG-era science tricorder, but there’s nothing that cool or tasteful. The best toys are the burbling tribbles, and I resist the temptation—after all, it wouldn’t make sense to just have one. You can also stop at Quark’s Bar to have something to eat or drink. We’re still full of grease, so we take look around and leave.

It’s dark outside as we walk to the Stratosphere Casino and Hotel. It’s the tallest building in Las Vegas, and at 350m it’s close to the height of the Empire State Building.

As sara waits, I queue and get tickets so we can go up to the observation deck. From there we are treated to a marvelous view of the entire strip. If you follow the trail of bright lights, you can make out all the big casino hotels. The green one that looks as if it’s at the end is the MGM Grand; Mandalay Bay is just to the right of it in this photo.

For those who enjoy gut-wrenching terror, there’s a rollercoaster on the top of the Stratosphere which lets you get thrown around above a 300m drop, and a new ride called the “X-Scream” which dangles the rollercoaster car over the edge of the track as if there’s been some kind of horrible engineering failure. Personally, I have no real fear of heights, but I also have no real desire to develop one, so we give the rides a miss.

Back down at ground level in the casino, I had noticed a set of SPAM slot machines! We decide I have to sneak a photo of sara playing the SPAM machine, so we can send it back to her relatives near Austin, Minnesota, home of the SPAM factory. Hopefully hilarity will ensue.

We wake up early, partly because of the 3 hour time zone shift, and partly because our room faces south and gets a spectacular view of the sun rising over the desert hills. We find the café on the casino level: Starbucks coffee, and the biggest bearclaws I’ve ever seen. Once we’re awake we return to the hotel room to get ready for the day. Sara turns on the TV to find the Weather Channel, and the first thing it blares out is that erotic movies are available on demand. We collapse into laughter. The weather turns out to be moderately warm, and the hotel gleams golden in the sunlight.

The big casino hotels are nearly all located along Las Vegas Boulevard, colloquially known as The Strip. The old Las Vegas downtown district is at the north end of the strip. Mandalay Bay is one of three hotels on The Strip which are owned by the same company, and linked by a monorail. We travel to The Luxor, which is a large Egyptian-themed casino hotel shaped like a huge black pyramid with a sphinx on the front.

The main pyramid is filled with hotel rooms; all have windows on the outside of the pyramid, and doors which open onto balconies which overlook the enormous open space inside the building. The casino is on the ground floor, and on top are some assorted buildings and an obelisk “carved” with glowing heiroglyphics which shift and pulsate.

Also on the upper level inside the pyramid is the museum of King Tutenkhamen’s tomb. It contains painstakingly crafted replicas of items found in the real tomb; to add to the appearance of authenticity, they’re presented in glass cases as if in a museum.

This is why Umberto Eco loves Vegas—we’re touring a fake museum in a fake Egyptian pyramid, looking at fake artifacts. Still, the presentation is nice, and the objects look very ornate. In fact, they look rather more impressive than the real things, which as I recall are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The gift shop is quite tasteful too. As well as the obligatory Luxor T-shirts and ankh baseball caps, there are genuinely scholarly offerings such as a serious book on Egyptian heiroglyphics. There is also the “Girls of RA” calendar, “RA” being the Luxor’s nightclub, which apparently attracts women who like to take their clothes off. Still, I daresay Tut wouldn’t have tut-tutted over a few tats and titties…

Which brings me on to the subject of breasts. They seem to be a major source of fascination in Las Vegas. You take an otherwise tired concept like a bunch of women dancing on stage, add a sprinkling of tits, and magically you have compelling entertainment.

I notice that one of the shows has two versions. During the day you can see the clothed edition, which is billed as suitable for children of 5 and up. In the evening, there’s the topless version of the exact same show, which you need to be 16 to see. From this I deduce that young American children will be traumatized if exposed to the sight of human breasts; presumably they are all bottle-fed, which would also explain their later fascination with watching Vegas showgirls.

The other strange entertainment in Las Vegas is inserting money into metal boxes. The boxes have various lights which flash, and sometimes reels which rotate. Every now and again they eject a small portion of the money you’ve inserted, slowing the process somewhat. People find these machines endlessly fascinating.

I guess gambling is one of those things that you either get or you don’t. I don’t. I’m too much of a mathematician; I understand the statistics involved. It strikes me that there’s probably a link between gambling and smoking—in both cases, the people doing it are convinced that they can beat the odds.

We walk through to the third casino in the family, Excalibur, featured in a recent episode of “South Park”. It has a vaguely medieval theme, and is obviously aimed much more at families with children than the other two. My donut radar goes off, and I walk around a couple of blind corners and find myself outside a Krispy Kreme. I file away the location for later.

We emerge blinking into the sunlight. It’s now a beautiful warm sunny day, and I realize the fleece jacket was totally unnecessary. We continue up the strip to New York New York, the next casino complex on this side of the street.

I’m still not sure how much of the skyline is actual buildings (presumably hotel rooms), and how much is fake. The replica Brooklyn Bridge is a nice touch. Nobody attempts to sell it to us, but a friendly woman does try to interest us in a timeshare. They’ll give us free tickets for a show if we attend a presentation. It sounds quite tempting until they reveal that it’s a 2 hour presentation! Ridiculous. I do my best to skip any presentation over an hour at work, so I’m damned if I’m going to spend a couple of hours of valuable vacation time plus transit listening to something I think it’s very unlikely I’ll have any interest in.

Further still, we find a Moroccan bazaar, or at least something which would be a reasonable facsimile if Moroccan bazaars had Gucci stores. For lunch, I have a strange salad of field greens, walnuts, strawberries, goat cheese, salmon, and raspberry vinaigrette. Somehow it works.

As we head further north, we start to see older, cheesier establishments amidst the glitz. I suppose you might call this the “real Vegas”, if that’s not an oxymoron.

I get a look at the kind of cheap motel we’ve stayed at in other cities. Not this time, thankfully; once again I think good thoughts about the luxurious bath waiting to ease my tired muscles when we get back.

The older casinos look just like you’d expect: darkened rooms, deep red carpeting, faded gold decor, stained and frosted glass, and old people sitting around faded green baize tables, chain-smoking as they play card games.

The Fashion Show Mall has an Apple Store; I buy a replacement for my stolen iPod cable. The mall has Christmas decorations with a Vegas showgirl theme.

We attempt to get a bus back down the strip to our hotel. The traffic is completely insane; it seems obvious to me that what the city really needs to do is build a big monorail that goes all the way up and down Las Vegas Boulevard in a big loop. However, Nevada is one of those states that believes in the magic of the free market, to the extent of having minimal property taxes and no income tax. So the bus is expensive when it eventually arrives ($2), and we sit in traffic for 45 minutes.

By the time we get back to the hotel I’m exhausted. The huge bath is worth every penny, and I sleep like the dead.

We can’t remember whose idea it was. At one point I had suggested to sara that we could get married in Vegas, but for some strange reason she didn’t go for it. Nevertheless, the idea of visiting Vegas had appealed, and we had talked about it on and off for a couple of years. Then in the fall of 2003, my mother started pestering me as to what we were planning for Christmas. While we were talking about vacations, I asked sara if she had any ideas for Christmas, and she jokingly said that maybe we should go to Vegas for Christmas and solve two problems at once.

The idea stayed a joke for a week or two, until I was nagged further by my mother and told that I was leaving everything too late. At that point I told her that we were hoping to go to Las Vegas for Christmas, just to shut her up. Having said it, I decided out of curiosity to see if it was a sensible idea. It turned out that it was; and better still, it was a cheap idea.

Las Vegas hotel rates are higher at weekends, and suddenly double or quadruple on the 26th as everyone flies in to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year there. By traveling down on the 21st and back on the 26th, we managed to get a good deal. That, in turn, meant that we could afford to stay in a luxurious hotel, rather than the usual Holiday Inn grade motel…

After an evening of reading up on hotels, we picked Mandalay Bay. It’s the newest of the big casino hotels, located at the far south end of The Strip. The theme is “tropical beach”, and as well as an artificial beach with wave machine the hotel also has an aquarium and shark tank. Best of all, every room has a large, deep bath for soaking in. It’s not quite an in-room hot tub, but add some bath foam and it’s a very close simulation at less than half the price. Just the thing after a long day exploring.

We left our Christmas presents under the tree at home, so we come up with a special gift for ourselves in Las Vegas: we book a day at the hotel spa on the 25th.

Mandalay Bay spa is focused on a relaxing experience, rather than exercise per se; it’s all about reflexology, aromatherapy, massage, yoga, and so on. I’ve booked a back, shoulder and neck massage, but first I need to take a shower and soak in the hot pool to loosen up my muscles.

sara heads for the female side, I head for the male side. The locker room gives me a few moments of angst. A simple robe is provided, along with some rubber sandals and as many towels as might prove necessary. Everyone seems to wander around in the robe, and spend their time in the pools naked. I have no problem with nudity, but I do have residual nervousness about straight guys wandering around locker rooms.

I get over it, and spend a quarter hour soaking in hot, bubbling water. Next I try the steam room. It’s very dark and very hot; the steam is laced with eucalyptus, which clears out my breathing beautifully. At noon it’s time for my massage, which is provided by an old German guy called Wolfgang. After that I’m so relaxed I have trouble concentrating on tasks like standing up and walking, and he asks if I’m all right. Oh, yes, I’m more than that.

Spring water, fruit juice and fresh fruit are supplied in the spa, along with healthy high-fiber muffins. My body may be a temple, but unfortunately it’s a temple to the sacred bean, so I decide I’ll need to leave the spa to find lunch and coffee. Not a problem, as I can return later in the day.

I get dressed and emerge—at the exact moment sara emerges from the women’s locker room. We look at each other in amazement. We’re so in sync, sometimes it amazes even us.

The casino is the busiest we’ve seen it. It seems that everyone arrives on the 25th or 26th, and stays for the week between Christmas and New Year; that’s why the room rates jump on the 26th. There’s a huge queue of Asian people waiting to get in to the Noodle Bar. We go to an Italian café in Mandalay Place, the up-market mall area which stretches between Mandalay Bay and the Luxor.

After a relaxed lunch, we head back to our room for a while. I have never felt so completely relaxed in my life. I listen to the iPod for a while, and sara takes a nap. I head back to the spa in the late afternoon for a little more steam and soaking.

Channel surfing leads us to another Mormon documentary. This one is about Mormon missionaries in Europe. I imagine they must have a pretty hard time of it, selling the idea that the USA is the chosen land of the true people of Israel.

Anyway… not a conventional Christmas, but probably the most relaxing and enjoyable Christmas Day I’ve ever experienced.