Harley Young joins Virgin Atlantic in celebrating 40 years of air travel with a whistle stop tour of the bright light city

In 10 hours you can be transported from Manchester to the entertainment capital of the world, thanks to Virgin Atlantic who launched their new direct flights to Las Vegas, Nevada earlier this month. 

Last week, Virgin and MMGY Hills Balfour very kindly invited me out to the bright light city to experience it with my very own eyes and, to quote The King himself, it certainly set my soul on fire.

If that wasn’t exciting enough, Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur who loves diving into a pool fully clothed (spoiler!), joined in celebrations at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas where we toasted to 40 years of the airline. 

Strap in. This is going to be one hell of a trip. 

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The Las Vegas strip at night

Your flight is now boarding 

A troupe of us journos met at Manchester Airport at 7am sharp where drinks were already flowing and celebrations were in full swing. 

I sat down with a bacon butty, a strong cuppa and got to work nattering with my peers. Spirits were high as we mingled and speculated what might be in store for us over the next few days. 

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Terminal 2 at Manchester Airport Image: Confidentials

Time flies when you’re deep in conversation with like-minded folks and before we knew it the final call for boarding was being made. 

At the gate, I got chatting to a couple of influencers joining us on the trip. They’d gone all out and worn Elvis Presley costumes for the flight - nope, they weren’t devils in disguise, but instead were donning his signature 1973 American Eagle jumpsuit, complete with wig, sunglasses and all.   

Up, up and away

I can quite honestly say that I’ve never been on a plane with so many gadgets and gizmos. I felt like a kid in a toy shop as I fiddled about with the buttons beside my seat, flicking up the footrest and watching my little legs dangle in the air. There’s a lot of legroom in Premium, especially on the front row.  

In the very capable hands of Virgin’s fabulous cabin crew, we were welcomed with a glass of champagne or orange juice - along with a bottle of Prosecco to take home, marking the airline’s Ruby Anniversary - before being supplied with a near-constant flow of drinks, snacks, meals, ice lollies, you name it, during the 10-hour flight.

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Our plane Image: Confidentials
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A gift from Virgin Atlantic Image: Confidentials
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The birthday menu Image: Confidentials
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Dinner Image: Confidentials
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Afternoon tea Image: Confidentials
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Ample leg room Image: Confidentials
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Living the high life Image: Confidentials

Too excited to get any shut-eye, I passed the time by watching a few movies (Priscilla, of course, to get me in the mood) and tracking the flight on the digital screen. 

I turned around to see that one of our very own Elvis’ on the trip had ditched his wig and sunglasses around the halfway mark. Probably a smart move as we were expecting 38-degree heat on arrival.   

Prepare for landing 

Out of the window we had a fantastic view of Las Vegas’ iconic skyline. The big yellow emoji face on the Sphere winked at us as we made our way onto the runway at Harry Reid International Airport - I could’ve sworn Luxor’s 110 ft-tall sphinx gave us a wave, too.

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Hello Vegas Image: Confidentials

My first impression of Vegas was hotels, bars and casinos as far as the eye could see, all competing for the wildest, wackiest-looking architectural theme.

As a girl who’s six months into her sobriety and doesn’t really gamble - not through lack of interest, more through poker/blackjack incompetence and an awful habit of spending everything I earn on Klarna - I wondered what else there would be to do in Sin City. 

Plenty, actually, as I found out over the next 72 hours. 

A room fit for a king

A short transfer down the road and we arrived at our impressive looking accommodation for the next three nights. Virgin Hotels Las Vegas is a well equipped resort with 14 restaurants, bars and theatres with live music and entertainment, a beach club, spa, multiple pools, a gym and wellness centre, on-site shops, and, being Vegas, its very own casino on the ground floor. 

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The chambers Image: Virgin Hotels Las Vegas
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One of the pools Image: Virgin Hotels Las Vegas
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The spa Image: Virgin Hotels Las Vegas

The ‘brag-worthy’ suites and chambers are certainly that, with everything you could need for your travels and then some, all curated into a stylish and spacious pad. 

On the strip

After freshening up and heading downstairs to the Kassi Beach Club for lunch, we were given some free time to explore/recover from our flight. 

Me and two other journalists I’d met on the plane, Kate from NewsQuest and Tom from Manchester Evening News, decided to take a 30-minute walk from the hotel in 42-degree weather (the things we do for content eh?) down to the infamous Las Vegas strip.

Everywhere you look there’s something shiny and dazzling trying to catch your attention, whether it’s ladies dressed as showgirls ready to snap a pic with, ginormous replicas of famous monuments from around the world or 50 ft-high billboards promoting everything from burgers and magicians to weed, escorts and Jesus. 

It’s a magpie’s haven. And I must be a magpie because I couldn’t stop gawking. 

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The strip Image: Confidentials
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The strip Image: Confidentials
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The strip Image: Confidentials

We spent a few hours exploring The Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace before it was time to regroup with our peers at Play Playground in Luxor for food, drinks and fun games. 

This place was essentially an adult playground, with life-size versions of classic games like operation and skee ball along with some unique originals. Great for breaking the ice, it was just what was needed for bringing us all back to life after a long day of travelling. 

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Play Playground at Luxor Image: Confidentials

An update from Virgin’s head honcho

After breakfast at The Hideaway restaurant, we put on our journalist trousers and headed over to 24 Oxford for a press conference with Virgin’s CEOs and the main man himself, Sir Richard Branson. 

Joined by Shai Weiss, Juha Jarvinen and James Bermingham, Sir Richard shared important updates for the business, including the launch of Virgin Hotels first London site which will open on 1 August in the heart of Shoreditch, taking the brand right back to its roots. A lovely full circle moment to celebrate.

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After the updates, Richard answered a few questions from the audience. Tom from the MEN asked him why it was so important for Manchester to be the first UK city outside of London to have a direct link with Las Vegas and what that says about Manchester’s status as an international city.

“Manchester has always been important to Virgin,” said Richard, talking about how Virgin Trains helped connect millions of people to the West Coast, adding “Maybe there’s been a hint of something in the press…we’d love to come back soon.”

Branson also described Manchester as a “major player in the UK”, noting that it has become a wealthier city over the years.

Vegas beyond the strip

After taking notes and raising a toast, we piled into the minibus and headed over to Vegas’ Punk Rock Museum - an incredibly cool archive of punk music memorabilia throughout the ages, spanning every subgenre of punk imaginable. 

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Here, they house some of the most iconic pieces of musical history, like The Clash’s original handwritten lyrics for London Calling, Motorhead’s Lemmy’s ashes inside a bullet, and Kurt Cobain from Nirvana’s sofa (which you’re welcome to sit on if you like). There’s also a bar on site that’s open until 2am most days, playing all your favourite punk tracks. 

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By now, we’d worked up an appetite so hopped back into the van to head over to Esther’s Kitchen, a restaurant and bar in the Arts District owned by Chef James Trees.

Esther’s serves up seasonal Italian soul food, designed to make the most of local produce whilst defying the odds by mastering a way to make their own sourdough despite the Nevada desert’s incessant summer heat. 

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Lunch at Esther's Image: Confidentials
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Lunch at Esther's Image: Confidentials
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Lunch at Esther's Image: Confidentials
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The Arts District Image: Confidentials

Cheers to 40 years

That evening, we dressed to impress and met at the resort’s Dish Pool to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s new route and Ruby Anniversary in style, complete with live entertainment from Sway All Stars and a short speech from Sir Richard. 

He reminisced over the last four decades of Virgin Atlantic, including a rescue mission in October 1990 which saw Richard and a group of volunteer crew fly one of only four 747s owned by the airline at the time to Baghdad to save the lives of innocent people who had been taken hostage by former president of Iraq Saddam Hussein. 

His recollection of arriving into a blacked out Baghdad airport, gathering the hostages onto the plane in exchange for 40,000 blankets, several tons of rice and medical supplies, and the cheers as the captain radioed through to the cabin to alert the passengers that they were out of Iraq airspace was incredibly touching. 

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Sir Richard Branson giving a speech Image: Confidentials
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Our group posing for a picture Image: Confidentials

A member of the cabin crew on board that day, who still remains with the business 34 years on, took to the stage and shared an embrace with Richard and shared how he felt at the time to which he received a thunderous applause from guests. 

 Not one to shy away from getting a party started, Branson ran over to the pool and dived in fully clothed before being swiftly followed by the cabin crew and close colleagues. 

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Sir Richard Branson taking a dip Image: Confidentials

The party continued well into the night, with celebrations moving over to The Shag Room until the early hours. 

Nevada’s natural wonders

A bright and early start, we piled into another vehicle at 8am the next morning. This time, a bright pink jeep courtesy of Pink Jeep Tours took us to marvel at Red Rock Canyon - a national conservation area in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, known for its striking red sandstone peaks.

Our knowledgeable guide told us about the history and wildlife in the area, including vultures, eagles, mountain lions and rattlesnakes, to which he said “Don’t kick any rocks. They’ll probably bite back.” Noted. 

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Red Rock Canyon Image: Confidentials
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Red Rock Canyon Image: Confidentials
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Red Rock Canyon Image: Confidentials
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Red Rock Canyon Image: Confidentials

A thing of beauty, Red Rock Canyon is home to a vast amount of vegetation which you probably wouldn’t expect given its dry conditions. 

With plenty of scenery to take in, including Native American petroglyphs and handprints stained into rock faces, dating back hundreds of years, this was probably one of the biggest highlights of the trip for me. It felt like being in a real life cowboy film. My grandad would’ve loved it. 

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Red Rock Canyon Image: Confidentials

Tattoo chicken, anyone?

No rest for the wicked, after our tour we headed straight back to the city of Las Vegas to visit the otherworldly Area15. Built inside a number of humongous warehouses, this immersive entertainment playground is jam packed with interactive experiences including probably its most ‘out there’ concept, Omega Mart by Meow Wolf

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Omega Mart Image: Confidentials
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Omega Mart Image: Confidentials
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Omega Mart Image: Confidentials

Created with the help of over 300 American artists, this interactive installation looks like an inconspicuous grocery store on the surface, but delve a little deeper and you’ll see that things aren’t what they seem. 

Fridge doors act like portals leading to other realms and the flowers on the walls see everything. Everything

After spending a month's wages on the many random things that make up the supermarket shelves, we returned to the hotel to get dressed all fancy for one last night out on the town. 

Absinthe: You’ve tried the spirit, now watch the show

Following drinks and light bites at Pier 17 Yacht Club at Caesar’s Palace, we walked into Absinthe’s big top for a raunchy and raucous performance featuring some of the world’s greatest circus acts. 

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Absinthe Image: Confidentials
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Absinthe Image: Confidentials
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Absinthe Image: Confidentials

Blending carnival and spectacle, this wild and outlandish show is presented on an intimate circular stage allowing audiences to get up close and personal with the performers. Top tip: If you’re shy and don’t like getting picked on, sit in the middle of the back row and keep your head down. A pair of couples were picked to perform a sultry lap dance on each other in exchange for two drinks from the bar - the things people do for pints eh?

We gasped, cringed and laughed until our sides hurt before ending the evening, and ultimately the trip, with a walk past the social media famous Bellagio fountains to The Barbershop Cut and Cocktails - a super trendy speakeasy and karaoke joint inside The Cosmopolitan Hotel

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The Bellagio fountains Image: Confidentials

Despair in the departure lounge

As we waited at the airport for our flight back home to blighty, it seemed we’d all come down with a serious case of the Vegas blues. Sad to be leaving the US city that had taken us in and shown us some of the best hospitality available, we raised our spirits by reminiscing on highlights from the trip. 

The wheels left the runway and I waved goodbye to Vegas with a heavy heart, already thinking about what I’d get up to next time I visit. 

72 hours in Vegas isn’t a long time (I’d recommend at least a week here), but I’d packed in plenty of experiences over the three days and made memories that will last forever. 

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Did you really go to Vegas if you didn't take this pic? Image: Confidentials

Virgin’s new Manchester to Las Vegas service operates three times per week and makes Manchester Airport the first in the UK outside of London to fly to America’s West coast since the pandemic.

With economy flights starting from £770 and the option to upgrade to Premium or Upper Class, elevating your journey with additional leg room, a glass of fizz on arrival and more amenities, you can be sure your trip to Vegas will start on a high. Visit flights.virginatlantic.com to find out more.

Follow Harley Young on X @Harley__Young

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