EXCESS ALL AREAS; Nigel Thompson visits the crazy over-the-top neon world of Las Vegas and takes a breathtaking trip to the Grand Canyon.
Spider-Man was deep in conversation with a Minion at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. A Star Wars Stormtrooper and Elvis were having a cigarette break near the Statue of Liberty.
And, in the shadow of Venice's St Mark's Square Campanile, there was Iron Man opening a bottle of Coke. Vegas... only in Vegas.
There's no place on the planet as brilliantly bonkers as Sin City and it's a people watching paradise.
Between street performers dressed up for photo opps and tourists from all over the world, all human life is here and you could happily while away an afternoon strolling along The Strip and taking in all sorts of weird and wonderful people - and exploring hotels the size of cities (and which even look like cities).
My wife Debbie and I had decided is was high time we 'did' Vegas even if we weren't particularly interested in the supposedly smoke-filled gambling dens.
As it turned out, we walked through casinos several times each day - it's almost impossible to get about on foot without heading through hotels - and there was hardly any smoke and surprisingly few gamblers.
Maybe, like us, visitors had taken a punt that Vegas has so much more to offer than roulette wheels and slot machines. It certainly does, including some excellent dining (see panel on right).
We'd arrived on a Virgin Atlantic flight which gets you in right on time to swank it up in a Presidential Limousine transfer from the airport and check in at your Strip hotel at the standard 3pm.
Our base was the Vdara, part of the multi-squillion dollar complex housing the Aria resort, and even though it's a non-gaming property, by the time we left we reckoned it was a very good bet.
It began well - at checkin we upgraded to a room with a view of the Bellagio Fountains for a very reasonable $50. Then after a livener in the lobby bar, we headed out for dinner... at the equivalent of 4am. Welcome to Vegas - who needs to sleep?
Next morning, feeling surprisingly jetlag-free, we hit the Strip in glorious spring sunshine. First up, a considerable surprise. Heading out past the Aria we struck art, namely a gallery of fabulous contemporary bronzes. Seems Vegas isn't a cultural desert in the desert after all.
But enough art. We needed action, namely the huge Big Apple roller coaster at the New York New York hotel. It's a rattling good ride for $14 in every sense - has anyone seen my fillings?
And from New York (via Camelot!) to Egypt and the pyramid-shaped Luxor hotel, which has a replica Sphinx outside and at night features the Sky Beam, the world's most powerful shaft of light, which can be seen from aircraft more than 250 miles away.
It's certainly eye-catching and while the interior of the hotel pyramid has all the usual trappings of a Vegas resort, I hadn't twigged that the lifts go up sideways and the views from the corridor balconies are not for anyone with even a hint of vertigo. Remember you're inside a pyramid, so each higher floor overhangs the one below with every balcony having a sheer drop.
You should also check out the lovely conservatory at the Bellagio - and the fountains, of course - and visit the Venetian resort for a look at the indoor canal, St Mark's Square and the kind of shops that don't have prices on show because if you have to ask, you can't afford it.
Before we left for Vegas we'd booked tickets ($69) for Rod Stewart's concert at the Colosseum venue in Caesars Palace. The seats were great and Rod did what Rod does - 90 minutes of hit after hit, plenty of laughs, a walkabout in the audience, and souvenir signed footballs booted into the arena by the world's most famous Celtic fan.
Still on a Rod roll, we decided Tonight was still The Night and braved the Strip's crazy traffic for a nightcap at Margaritaville in the Flamingo resort. It turned into nightcaps as we watched, mesmerised, as the resident Flair Bartenders juggled bottles and shakers as they mixed drinks. Amazing. If you're ever in Vegas, go there.
And if you are ever in Vegas go to the Grand Canyon too, if you can.
You are so close to one of the greatest natural wonders on the planet it seems almost negligent to miss it.
We joined an epic, bucket list-ticking trip there with 5 Star Helicopter Tours based in Boulder City, about half an hour by shuttle bus from The Strip.
The firm is run by a British couple and we were on one of their newer excursions - the Grand Canyon & Valley of Fire experience.
Admittedly aerial tours of the canyon are not cheap, but this 85-minute flight is once-in-alifetime stuff.
Our pilot-guide John swooped over the mighty 726ft high Hoover Dam and then Lake Mead, the vast reservoir formed by the dam and which is suffering low water following a lengthy drought.
Then we entered the canyon itself, passing the scary looking Skywalk glass path over the ravine. Once in the canyon proper you are overwhelmed by its scale, with the Colorado River almost a mile beneath you and a general feeling of being about the size of a gnat as you fly through a mindblowing spectacle of red and golden-hued rock that is all simply the result of water erosion over 17 million years.
On the return flight there's a stop at the Valley of Fire state park, where you're supposed to enjoy a glass of bubbly as the sun sets, turning the eroded outcrops of 150 millionyear-old sandstone a blazing red.
Well that was the idea. Despite John's best efforts, us passengers ignored the fizz and wandered around in states of varying gobsmackedness looking at the scenery (we didn't miss out, we had the fizz after the flight!) and snapping away.
It struck me it looked exactly how I imagined Mars would be - though doubtless minus the bubbly in a cool box. John agreed that indeed it did. It was a location for Arnold Schwarzenegger's Martian epic Total Recall and the likes of Star Trek and Transformers have filmed here too. The trip returns you to a small airport to the north of Vegas, so it's just 10 minutes back to The Strip, and you get a great view of the neonsoaked skyline en route.
Nature doesn't have a monopoly on magic, though. Enter Penn & Teller.
Like the Rod Stewart concert, we'd booked for the veteran magicians' 15-year residency show at the Rio hotel before the trip ($86).
And, as with Rod, we ended up in great seats and thoroughly enjoyed the eccentric humour, the oh-so-clever tricks and even got a souvenir post-show selfie with Teller (he actually does speak!).
While our Grand Canyon helicopter trip was a stellar high point, there are more highs to be had back in town, too.
We headed up the 541ft Eiffel Tower at the Paris resort ($14) for a 'magnifique' view of the Bellagio Fountains from directly above and, to keep the lofty theme going, boarded the 550ft High Roller observation wheel - the world's biggest - just off the Strip at The LINQ entertainment promenade (lively spot, well worth a look).
Happily, the High Roller does a 'happy half-hour' ride which involves looking at The Strip from yet another angle while enjoying a grown-up beverage or two.
And before heading to the airport for the flight home, there was time for a few hours in the sunshine by the Vdara's pool and a very pleasant spot of lunch.
Contemplating our trip to fabulous Las Vegas on the flight back (the famous sign is quite correct) we concluded that even though we never got round to gambling, we'd certainly managed to hit the holiday jackpot.
From burgers to bubbly, the dining is just sensational
Don't bet on leaving Vegas with your waistline the same size as when you arrived - the dining can be absolutely sensational.
We rated Rivea at the Delano for a classy French 75 cocktail, superb marinated sea bream and, afterwards, a fabulous view down the Strip with a glass of bubbly in the Skyfall Lounge.
Carbone at the Aria ticked every Italian box there is - the was amazing - and Giada The Cromwell was excellent. They also super helpful and as our booking had awry. The Bresaola air dried and rack of lamb were a wow.
Before the Rod Stewart concert we headed to Mr Chow in Caesars Palace, which was slightly curious. Not so the tangy lamb with spring onions, but the starter of shell-on prawns in batter wasn't the easiest to deal with.
Our last evening saw us in the Bellagio at the newish Harvest, offers sustainable and dishes, and some ace The salads especially are of joy.
Also, the service at everywhere ate - and that includes a pitstop at the Fatburger on the Strip - was never less outstanding.
More info: delanolasvegas.com, aria.com, caesars.com/cromwell, mrchow.com, bellagio.com, fatburger.com
Virgin Holidays has 4nts r/o in the Vdara hotel, Las Vegas, from PS869pp inc Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick. Based on 2 sharing and travelling on Feb 2; Manchester departure on Feb 5 from PS729pp. virginholidays.co.uk 0344 557 3859.
5 Star Grand Canyon Helicopter Tours offers the Grand Canyon Helicopter & Valley of Fire champagne landing flight from $499pp. inc pickup from Vegas hotels. Duration approx 4hrs. 5starhelicoptertours.com
Tickets for the High Roller Ferris wheel at The LINQ start at $20pp, Happy Half Hour from $33pp. caesars.com/linq/high-roller
Tourist info: lasvegas.com visittheusa.co.uk
TIME ZONE UK -8hrs
CURRENCY US$ PS1 = 1.23
BEST TIME TO GO The Strip of a lifetime, any time
The Grand Canyon is a mindblowing spectacle, eroded over 17 million years There's no place as brilliantly bonkers - a people watching paradise
CITY OF LIGHTS Las Vegas is unlike anywhere
(MAGIC The Bellagio fountain and a post-show selfie with Teller
and ODD COUPLE Minion chats to Spider-Man
FAMILIAR Pyramidshaped Luxor Hotel
BLOCKAGE The immense Hoover dam
MUST SEE Nigel and Debbie at the Valley of Fire