Las Vegas – the desert town that exploded from a dusty backwater into a fast moving global playground back in the 30s – is awash with new openings from state of the art hotels to sleek restaurants and hip clubs. Kaye Holland soaks up the heady buzz
It’s detractors may say that a pot of yoghurt has more culture that Las Vegas, but its legions of fans beg to differ and, a recent visit – my first since 2003 – confirmed that Sin City’s checklist of essential experiences remains as strong as ever.
The glitzy casinos, Little White Wedding Chapel – the site of several ‘surprise’ celebrity weddings (pop princess Britney Spears married her childhood friend, Jason Alexander, here in 2004 only to have the union annulled 55 hours later) – iconic ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada’ sign, never ending buffets, free flowing drinks and lens friendly reproductions of the Egyptian Pyramids, Eiffel Tower et al are all still present and correct.
However a decade down the line, Las Vegas has, as I discovered, gone decidedly upmarket and thanks to a new breed of hip hotels (Aria anyone?), fine dining – here’s looking at your Hakkasan – designer cocktails and great golf, is revelling in the luxurious side of life. The anything can happen playground is also much easier to reach these days: there are direct flights to the flashy new McCarran International Airport, only a stone’s throw away from the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip.
And while it’s tough to identify an off season in the city that famously never sleeps (Las Vegas puts out the welcome mat all year round), as winter sets in at home, a few days in the Nevada desert where residents are basking in blue skies and searing temperatures is a tempting prospect. My message? Pack the t-shirt and sunnies and get going but remember: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
What to see and do
The Las Vegas skyline is punctuated by hotels and a tour of these audacious projects ranks high on any Vegas itinerary. I’d suggest making a beeline for The Bellagio whose stunning ceiling is composed of 2000 handblown flowers by celebrated artists Dale Chihuly, before watching the dancing fountains do their thing. Then check out next door neighbour, Caesars Palace. This Greco-Roman fantasyland has featured in enough movies to have its own star on Hollywood’s walk of fame. Of course no visit is complete without playing the slot machines – in sequins, natch – at 5am. Won big? It’s time to hit bars like Red Square at Mandalay Bay where you’ll be reminded of the power of plastic surgery.
Don’t miss the Mob Museum which opened on 14 Feb 2012 – the 83rd anniversary of the notorious St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Situated on Stewart Avenue, the Mob Museum boasts hands on FBI equipment and mob memorabilia. In the evening, see a show such as O – a Cirque du Soleil aquatic show performed at the Bellagio.
Too cultured? Britney will be back in town later this year. Spears has announced plans for a two-year residency, starting in December, at the Planet Hollywood resort and casino that will net the 31 year old singer US$15m. Nice work if you can get it… In the meantime, there’s Matt Goss – the ex Bros star has reinvented himself in the Nevada desert as a new Sinatra, and can be seen on stage every Friday and Saturday at Caesar’s Palace.
It has to be Hakkasan – the high end US$120 million Chinese restaurant/club hybrid that opened earlier this year to great fanfare. Spread over five floors in the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, Hakkasan has already hosted the A list likes of J Lo and Pharrell who come for the silver cod and to die for dim sum, in an interior that has been constructed from laser cut marble. And don’t worry about counting calories: you can always dance them off in the main club where Tiesto, Moby and Calvin Harris have headlined. For post dinner drinks, make for the Chinese style Pavilion where you can enjoy bespoke cocktails in an oriental garden replete with a two storey water feature. Bottom line? Be prepared to battle for a booking but, if you get one, you won’t be disappointed.
However while Hakkasan has dominated the headlines of late, Nobu Las Vegas – the largest of the 20 plus Nobus around the world – also rewards a visit. Expect to find all of Nobu Matsuhisa’s classics on the menu, as well as a long list of sakes. Go for breakfast (think blueberry and yuzu pancakes), lunch or a late night bite – the restaurant stays open until 2am – but do go.
Gambling – Nevada was the first state to legalise gambling back in 1931 – is tempered by another vice: shopping. Yes good retail therapy is also a prime reason to visit Vegas. The Shoppes at Palazzo is the place to shop if you’re feeling flush. Or just gawp at the goods from over 60 international designers including Jimmy Choo and Tory Burch. However my favourite shopping emporium is The Fashion Show Mall. Nevada’s biggest mall is thronged with enough shops, bars and restaurants to easily fill a few days.
Prince Harry was spotted getting wet and wild at Las Vegas’ riotous pool parties in August 2012 and if it’s good enough for royalty, it’s good enough for me. Typically the raucous antics start in the afternoon but continue well into the wee small hours (the desert oasis is a destination that knows how to have a good time). Fabulous sun tanned bodies flock to cool pools like the one at Mandalay Bay for round the clock fun and designer cocktails sipped to fresh DJ spun tunes.This is the soundtrack of expensive Vegas where hemorrhaging a few hundred pounds per pool party (you’re looking at US$50 on admission, plus drinks, while a day bed will set you back $200 and cabanas/table service cost four figures) is no biggie.
The Marque at the Cosmopolitan is another venue that is hip, happening and celebrity ridden. Expect to see slim blondes in see through kaftans drinking and dancing to a banging house beat, while buffed up blokes banter at twice the decibels of normal levels of conversation.
When the neon lights of the Strip get too much – as they will (four days in Vegas is definitely enough) – head out of town to the Red Rock Canyon. Less than an hour’s drive away from the casinos, the spectacular cliffs and canyons make for a refreshing change of scenery from the artificial brightness of the Strip.
In a place that is already home to more hotels than you can shake a stick at, you might questions the need for one more. However a stay at Aria should put that thought to rest. Set within the City Center (a high tech complex that’s home to a cluster of sumptuous hotels and restaurants), Aria Resort and Casino pushes the boundaries to an all new level of opulence and style: floor to ceiling windows and advanced integrated technology come as standard. Should you manage to leave your suite (it’s a challenge), you’ll love the three landscaped oasis pools.
While you might be tempted to walk the length of the Strip, keep in mind that distances are deceiving and any walk you’re planning on making will invariably take longer than anticipated. To get a feel for the Strip, I’d recommend making the most of the Monorail which stops at most of the mega resorts and runs until 2am Monday to Thursday and 3am from Friday to Sunday.