If it’s bright lights, all-night casino action and dazzling shows you’re looking for, forget flying to Sin City. According to Mike Gayle, you need look no further than our own Blackpool.
Two days before our 15th wedding anniversary I said to my wife Claire: ‘Do you remember the days before we were tired all the time? Before we had kids we used to do things, exciting things, things that would require us to stay up late and sleep until noon, things that would make us laugh and give us stories to tell our friends.’ I paused for dramatic effect.
‘I want to do those things again. I want to spend a weekend in a place full of glitz and glamour, full of energy and excitement, where I can gamble a hundred quid on a single spin of a roulette wheel, shop for something we want but don’t need, have dinner in a great restaurant, followed by a show or maybe even dancing.’
Her eyes lit up and her jaw dropped. ‘We’re going to Las Vegas?’
‘Nearly…’ I replied. ‘We’re going to Blackpool.’ At a cursory glance, it might seem that I had somewhat oversold our two-night trip away from home. After all, when most people think of Blackpool, the images that spring to mind are of the Tower, the promenade, the Illuminations… And yes, come the weekend, numerous stag and hen parties in search of a good time. A far cry from the glitz and glamour of Vegas.
But the two locations have more in common than you might imagine. For just as Vegas evolved to serve the 20,000 or so workers who had arrived to labour on the nearby Hoover Dam in the early Thirties, so Blackpool emerged to cater for 19th-century Lancashire cotton workers as the mill-owners began the practice of closing for a week each year to repair the machinery. At the heart of both locations lies the same agenda: to entertain, relax and make you forget about all your woes (in our case a bad back, an unpaid Visa bill and massive sleep deficit).
To convince my wife that she didn’t need a long flight to get some Vegas flavour, I carefully planned an evening of entertainment to commence with a ride around town in a chauffeur-driven limo. ‘This one was originally used for Britney Spears’s wedding,’ reveals Patrick Cuddihy, head driver of local limo service Jet Set Limousines, as we climb inside a Lincoln stretch model. As he pours us Champagne and switches on the disco lights, I wonder aloud which other celebrities might have been inside the car. ‘All the greats,’ he deadpans. ‘Frank Carson, Roy Walker and most of the cast of EastEnders.’ Hmm, not quite Sinatra’s Rat Pack, but it’ll do for now.
Settling back against the plush leather seating, we head along Blackpool’s answer to The Strip and take in, not the lights of the casinos and hotels of Las Vegas, but the equally beguiling glow of the Illuminations. The Illuminations season runs from late August to early November, costs a staggering £2.4 million to stage, stretches almost six miles from Starr Gate to Bispham and features more than a million lightbulbs. It really is a sight to behold, along with the flashing lights of the resort’s three piers. And once you get near the Tower, practically every shopfront is festooned with a vast array of coloured lights. But even without the Illuminations, Blackpool is no slouch on the glitter front.
As Vegas is the capital of the gambling world, our first destination is Blackpool’s Grosvenor Casino and, even though I am a gambling novice, as I walk in with Claire on my arm it’s hard not to feel a little bit ‘money’. ‘I feel lucky,’ I inform her, channelling the spirit of a Rat Pack era high-roller. ‘You’ve got ten pounds and that’s your limit,’ she replies. The Grosvenor (which essentially never closes) offers blackjack, roulette, electronic roulette and slot machines with £4,000 jackpots and 14 brand new games for customers to try. Handily for me, it also has tables set aside for beginners, which is where I meet manager Pete Wilson, who gives us introductory lessons in blackjack and roulette. While Claire turns out to be something of a natural when it comes to blackjack, I seem to be hopeless at everything. Thankfully, however, the misery of my £10 loss is all but expunged by a delicious meal at the casino’s new mezzanine-level restaurant, paid for by Claire’s modest winnings.
Stuffed to the gills – perfectly cooked medium rare 28-day aged rib steak for me, light pan-fried sea bass for Claire – I’m all but ready for bed, but as a decent night in Vegas should only end as most people are getting up for breakfast, we push onwards, hopping back in the limo and heading out in search of more fun. If we were in Vegas, this would of course mean taking in one of the city’s many world-famous shows, like the tribute extravaganza Legends in Concert at Harrah’s. While Blackpool has many similar offerings at venues ranging from The Grand Theatre to The Legends Show Bar at Central Pier, we’re heading instead to Funny Girls, a Las Vegas-style showgirl extravaganza like Jubilee at Bally. There’s one very British twist: all the ‘showgirls’ are guys. ‘There’s nothing else like it,’ says Zoe, resident DJ, compère and only original ‘girl’ of the 17-year-old burlesque cabaret’s cast, teetering over me in red glittering platform heels. ‘People come once, and they have such a laugh that they come again and bring their friends.’
And it’s easy to see why, sitting in our plush velvet private booth, enjoying waitress service in between musical turns. There’s a definite party atmosphere here, which, while not exactly Vegas (I’m pretty sure there aren’t quite so
many double entendres during your typical Vegas showgirl routine), is thoroughly entertaining.
‘What next?’ I say to Claire as the compère announces that the grand finale is about to commence. ‘Shall we go clubbing, drinking, dancing?’ ‘Sleeping,’ she replies, and I don’t argue as we head back to the nearby BEST WESTERN Carlton Hotel. It may lack Vegas-style shopping malls, casinos or indeed the half-mile long gondola rides you’ll find in some hotels, but it does have the one thing I need right now: plenty of quiet and a nice warm bed.
Well-rested the following morning after a breakfast overlooking the Fylde coast, we determine to make the most of daytime Blackpool. Keen to see a bit of nature, we head out to the sand dunes towards the south of the city. Squint and you could be in the Nevada desert, although it helps considerably not to be facing the former Pontins Holiday Park as you do so.
As we’re close to Lytham St Annes we debate whether we ought to visit its world-renowned golf course. As well as being up there in its ability to compete with Vegas counterparts like Shadow Creek in terms of the quality of the course, it will also be home to The Open Championship in 2012 and the Walker Cup in 2015.
In the end, however, with the clock ticking we give the golf a miss and make our way to the Lucky Star Amusement Arcade for a touch of Vegas-style slot machine action.
Richer to the tune of £1.60 we move on to the Blackpool Tower complex. The history of the tower is an interesting one. Following a visit to the Great Paris Exhibition in 1889, Blackpool’s then Mayor, John Bickerstaffe, was so impressed by the Eiffel Tower that he immediately set up a committee of businessmen to raise the funds to build a similar design in the town, investing £2,000 of his own money. The building, which first opened on 14 May 1894, required five million bricks, 2,500 tonnes of iron and 93 tonnes of cast steel, and close to the Grand Theatre. Think Vegas does great burgers? Try the saucy burger here – a 6oz steak burger topped with chilli con carne that could give the best fodder you’ll find at the Burger Bar, in Mandalay Bay, a run for its money.
It would be easy to continue with the Vegas comparisons without risking scraping the bottom of the (beach) bucket. I could compare the thrills of the Vegas Adventuredome theme park with those of Blackpool’s famous Pleasure Beach. Or the stars of The Las Vegas Madame Tussaud’s with those of Blackpool’s (I doubt Vegas can boast a Jeremy Kyle waxwork).
Or even compare the world-famous Graceland Wedding Chapel to Blackpool’s new register office, Festival House (known by locals as The Tower of Love), right on the promenade so that photos can be taken with the tower in the background.
It’s clear Blackpool has a ridiculous amount to offer, but can it really compete with Las Vegas? Well if you’re there in the middle of winter, I suspect the kind response might be, ‘Not with this weather’, but if you’re there on a scorching day I think you may well be having too good a time to care.
As for Claire and me, having tasted only a fraction of what Blackpool has to offer,
I can safely say that while we might still feel tired all the time, it’s good to know that we’ve still (just about) got it.
Do Not Disturb Magazine