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updated 7/14/2006 3:25:33 PM ET 2006-07-14T19:25:33

I can't understand people who don't like Las Vegas.

What's not to like? You can smoke indoors, drink for free, party like it's spring break most any night, and buy a little hope with every spin of the roulette wheel.

Las Vegas is phony. Yes it is. But it is more real in its phoniness than most people's reality.

These insights are new to me, until recently a Vegas Virgin.

Well, not exactly a virgin. I visited Sin City 20 years ago - in its medieval period - and spent a weekend at the long-demolished Sands. I reveled in 99-cent breakfast buffets and lost quickly at blackjack. I had not been back since.

Being a sort-of Vegas Virgin is so very Las Vegas. This is a place where you can sort of visit the Eiffel Tower, or sort of take a gondola ride on a Venetian canal.

Leaving our four kids at home to fend for themselves (no doubt confirming the suspicions of many other parents we know), my wife and I jetted to Las Vegas from Spokane.

We took a shuttle bus to Harrah's on the Strip, where I embarrassed my wife by asking fellow passengers if they had ever been to "Star Trek: The Experience" at the Hilton.

Waiting for our vacation partners Peg and Brad (their last names will not be disclosed to protect the innocent) to arrive, we went to the casino and lost a bunch of money.

Initial reactions: Slot machines don't pay out very much. I barely won any of my pulls, despite constantly feeding bills into the one-armed bandits. Also, I don't like the trend toward slots that spit out tickets rather than serenading me with clinking coins.

Our friends arrived near midnight, their flight delayed by weather, and we repaired to the piano bar where blond twin sisters entertained the crowd with a raunchy set of parody songs, playing their pianos with their shoes, breasts and other body parts. Try finding that in Spokane.

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The next morning we were up well before noon and explored the Strip, walking through The Venetian (gondolas on faux canals). We went to Bellagio for lunch ($80 for some noodles) and tried to catch the wildly popular fountain show, but never timed it right.

We took a cab to Mandalay Bay, where Brad was to meet a friend attending a convention of hay growers. The growers turned out to be great guys who gave us beer in their hospitality room, then went down to the casino and showed my wife how to play craps.

A big difference between this trip and 20 years ago was that table stakes in the big casinos have gone up. It was hard to find a blackjack table that cost less than $10 a hand; most cost more than $20, and at a reporter's salary that didn't allow for much play. Quarter slots didn't pay out much, but at least one could be entertained for hours, the hostesses brought drinks and I kept a cigar lit the whole time.

We returned to Harrah's for dinner, and discovered that without reservations we had no chance at eating in any of the many restaurants. We finally had to settle for modest bar food in the off-track betting parlor.

Then it was off to the Improv at Harrah's for a comedy show.

The evening concluded with more gambling, and a lengthy stay at the outdoor bar at Harrah's. This place had a spring break vibe, with a loud rock band, and bartenders who flip bottles, glasses and flaming torches. The bartenders also periodically walked across the top of the bar, pouring shots into the mouths of patrons who strained skyward like hatchlings seeking masticated worms.

This bar sold giant margaritas in plastic bong-like containers that were a yard long and required a shoulder strap to carry.

As we strolled the Strip, people kept handing us cards with photos of nude women, a price and a phone number. This is a custom unknown in Spokane.

Late Sunday morning, I got up and walked to Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, a restaurant and gift shop themed to the singer's ballad. I bought a pair of boxer shorts with parrots on them, my only Vegas souvenir.

Learning from experience, we went to Treasure Island early and made dinner reservations for that night.

After a day of gambling, losing and consuming tropical drinks, we went to see Cirque de Soleil's "Mystere" ($95 a ticket). Then we went to the Buccaneer Bay restaurant, where our waiter recommended the lobster and filet mignon special, with a special bottle of wine.

We all decided that sounded good, without bothering to ask the price. We watched the famous pirate ship battle from the window near our table, and ordered creme brulee for dessert.

The tab came to $280 per couple, which is considerably more than I have ever spent for food before.

The next morning we flew home.

The best advice for a trip here is as old as tourism: Bring double the money and half the luggage.

I figure we spent $2,000 during our three nights in Vegas, and that's with free air fare. We had to pass on Elton John ($250 a ticket), and Celine Dion (I preferred death), and most shopping. But it was sure fun.

If you go:

LAS VEGAS:
Tourism information from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, http://www.lvcva.com or (877) 847-4858.

GETTING THERE: Shuttles from McCarran International Airport to the Las Vegas Strip run $4.25 and up; go to http://www.mccarran.com/03_shuttles_01.asp for a complete list. Taxi fare from the airport to hotels on the Strip runs $15-$20 depending on traffic.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Room rates vary tremendously depending on the hotel, room size, day of the week, season and how far in advance you book. Compare rates and rebook if your room rate goes down after you reserve.

DINING: Get a reservation early in the day if you want to eat at a good restaurant. On weekends, even the buffets have long waiting lines.

ATTRACTIONS:http://www.vegas.com can help you find shows, restaurants and other attractions. For dance clubs, check out http://www.vegasclubscout.com.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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