Swim-up poker tables, martinis and Rat Pack glam are all the rage in Sin City. Christine McCabe reports from Las Vegas
IAM perched on a snow-white leather chair on the crowded terrace of a fashionable bar, smoking (even though I don’t), drinking neat vodka (white wine would be too sissy) and chatting to my staff, a minder as broad as he is tall and an impressively augmented and tattooed cocktail waitress wearing a dress the size of a hanky.
Where am I? Where else but Las Vegas, Sin City, a place founded with the best of intentions. Mormons are said to have built Las Vegas’s first, and entirely admirable, structure, a small mission and fort in the 1850s and, much later, in the 1930s, held political sway in stifling the development of gambling houses. A lost cause as the mob, mammon and later mass tourism won the day.
It’s my first visit to this fabled city and, I must say, having tossed political correctness out the window of my stretch Hummer soon after arriving, I am thoroughly smitten. The bars, the restaurants, the bigger-than-Texas steaks, the shopping, the Mad Hatter hotel high jinks — think live lions in the lobby, kilometres of synchronised fountains and a regularly erupting volcano — leave little time for gambling.
I’ve been in Las Vegas three days and haven’t dropped a dime. Perhaps most beguiling is the city’s high-voltage energy as it enjoys a 21st-century renaissance. Building projects topping $US30 billion ($35 billion) are under construction, including MGM Mirage’s $US7 billion-plus CityCentre, set on the Strip between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo resorts, and the largest privately funded project in US history.
CityCentre will feature a casino, retail and entertainment precincts, 2700 private apartments and a cluster of boutique hotels designed by the world’s leading architects (including Norman Foster, Rafael Vinoly and Helmut Jahn), reflecting urban resort living, the latest housing trend in the US.
Condos are springing up along the Strip and folk are moving back into Las Vegas. But the best news? CityCentre will host a new permanent Cirque du Soleil Elvis show when it opens in late 2009. It’s an initiative indicative of the newly fashionable Vegas, where everything old (poker, smoking, marti- nis and Rat Pack cool) is back on the agenda.
For despite erupting volcanos and an avalanche of kitsch, it’s impossible to escape this town’s legacy of noir cool. At lunch I meet a genuine daughter of Las Vegas, born and bred (most residents, of whom one-third work in hospitality, are blow-ins). Her father was a casino dealer when Elvis headlined and staff, Marina says, were instructed never to look at, let alone speak with, the King. (Despite this her father managed to strike up a friendship with Presley when he discovered they shared a passion for Cadillacs.)
David, who runs the adventure spa at the Red Rock Casino, Resort and Spa, worked for three decades in hospitality in Vegas and Los Angeles. The nicest guy he served? Frank Sinatra. ‘‘ Incredibly generous with adoring fans,’’ says David.
This brush with Vegas history, albeit second-hand, is almost as beguiling as the monumental bone-in rib eye steak (aged for 48 days and cooked over a searing mesquite charcoal broiler) I’m grappling with at T-Bones Chophouse and Lounge at the Red Rock, which for my money is Las Vegas’s coolest casino. Set 15 minutes off the Strip in the shadow of the rugged Red Rock mountains, it opened last year; the retro-inspired resort encapsulates the sort of Vegas glamour we associate with Frank and co, and made fashionable again by the Ocean’s Eleven movie franchise.
So it’s no surprise George Clooney is a Aces high: Pokies rule in Las Vegas, main picture; welcome to Sin City, top; the Rat Pack in 1959, above, from left, with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop regular. His great mate Rande Gerber, also known as Mr Cindy Crawford, owns the resort’s nightclub, where interiors recall that Rat Pack glam, with onyx bars and oversized chandeliers fashioned from more than three million Swarovski crystals.
The decadent 1.2ha swimming pool complex shimmers like a 1950s movie set, fringed with palm trees, calico-draped cabanas
From Page 1 equipped with plasma televisions and swimup gaming tables. As the first billion-dollar resort built off the Strip, Red Rock claims the plushest and some of the largest standard rooms in town, but it’s the penthouse suites that shriek Vegas so immoderately they would make Austin Powers blush.
Clooney’s favourite suite, the Cherry, features enormous circular baths and beds, more big-screen televisions than you’ve seen Frasier reruns, a DJ station and fully automatic loos (even the lid is on auto-pilot).
Red Rock’s city-fringe location also proves an asset. For the first time I’m reminded this is a city in a desert. Just minutes from the resort and I’m out among the Joshua trees, riding high in the saddle, watching shadows play across the craggy mountain face. My chap-clad, joke-a-minute cowboy companions, part of the resort’s adventure spa outfit (which also offers rock climbing, boxing and whitewater rafting), lead the way as we set out on an early-evening desert ramble spying long-eared jack rabbits and a wily roadrunner.
The landscape is ravishing, with the jagged red mountains, more tangerine than ochre, dominating this small corner of the Mojave Desert. But with the spectre of Vegas’s mobster history and repeat viewings of CSI: CrimeSceneInvestigation dogging my imagination, I can’t help checking behind those eerie Joshua trees for the odd corpse or two.
Morbid thoughts are given short shrift back at Bellagio on the Strip, famous for its glorious dancing fountains and lobby installation of blown-glass flowers (the work of artist Dale Chihuly) self-seeding across the ceiling. The soaring conservatory hosts a changing floral exhibit that would give London’s Chelsea a run for its money, with an autumnal display featuring giant floral ducks (3000 plants apiece), gargantuan pumpkins (tipping the scales at 220kg) and an ancient banyan tree shipped from Florida.
But just as the kitsch-o-meter is about to trip into the red, I happen upon the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and an exquisite Ansel Adams exhibition. Vegas can be a contradictory town but cool, rather than kitsch, seems to be the new currency.
The coolest club in town has to be Pure at Caesar’s Palace, next door to the popular Pussycat Dolls Lounge where celebs of the Pamela Anderson and Eva Longoria ilk vie to act as MCs. Set over two floors, with a vast terrace perched above the Strip offering some of the best views in town, Pure is owned by a curious assortment of A-listers including Celine Dion, Shaquille O’Neal, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. Opening time is a cool 10pm (Friday-Sunday) and the queues can be long but, if you’re lucky, you may be ushered to one of those white leather chairs with a view of Vegas’s neon-spangled main drag.
Equally gob-smacking is the 64-storey-high view from the funky Mix Lounge at the altogether groovy THEhotel at Mandalay Bay where, in the lobby, a 9m Arturo Herrera mural looms above a series of sleek check-in stations. With an Alain Ducasse restaurant next door, Mix is a popular after-five bolthole as crowds gather on the high-rise patio drinking in the warm evening air and those magical, somewhat surreal, vistas.
The re-branding of Vegas is clearly evident at Treasure Island, instantly dubbed TI and attracting a much younger, more imageconscious crowd. Sure, the live pirate show out front, depicting a battle with a band of sultry sirens, rates as pure kitsch but the casino is home to one of the town’s most chic nightclubs, Tangerine, and an outrageously popular restaurant, Social House.
Incorporating a series of private dining spaces and highly original interiors, Social House specialises in Japanese and Southeast Asian cuisines (the mini Kobe burgers are neat) with a mind-numbing array of sake on offer. Dinner is served until 4am, but even so there’s a scrum at the door as the concierge and bevy of restaurant hostesses escort diners to their tables.
Pick of the after-dinner shows (at least until Elvis is back in the building) is another Cirque du Soleil production, Love , which has been playing at the Mirage since last year when it opened to rave reviews. Based on the Beatles hits, with George Martin and his son Giles as music directors, Love is a stunning show and the more intimate setting of a small circular theatre puts patrons close to the action.
Needless to say the day spa phenomenon has not passed Vegas by but just as much fun is an afternoon spent in a Hollywood-style hair salon where champagne rather than herbal tea is the order of the day. The upscale Christophe Salon in the MGMGrand can give you a new face and sleek coiffure (nearly as fine as those sported by the lions roaming their glass habitat downstairs) in readiness for a big night. The manicures and pedicures are excellent (and good value), but if you want the Beverly Hills-based Christophe to cut your hair it will set you back a cool $US400.
Great shopping is not something I expected in Vegas, so I am pleasantly surprised, not so much by the department stores (all the usual suspects: Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue), or the wacky designer malls (even Celine Dion has a shop) but the excellent cut-price outlets. At Las Vegas Premium Outlets (located off 1-15 Charleston Boulevard; take exit 41B), expect discounts of up to 65 per cent on designer wear (including Dolce & Gabbana, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, Coach) as well as heavily discounted homewares, Crabtree & Evelyn and L’Occitane products, luggage and shoes.
If thrill-seeking rather than bargainhunting is more your bag, try the Stratosphere Towers roller-coaster set more than 300m above the ground. Or the rather more expensive but life-altering Zero-G (weightless flights), offering regular public flights aboard specially modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft. Similar equipment is used to train NASA astronauts. The $US3500 a person price tag includes a flight suit and post-float party.
I am happy to settle for a Papillon Helicopter Neon Nights tour, the perfect introduction to the Strip and a great way to get your bearings. The piercing light beam emitted from the apex of the Luxor pyramid casino makes a useful reference point (so farreaching it can be seen by passengers taking off from Los Angeles airport).
By night and from the air this city is something to behold, a sparkling necklace laid out on the desert sand. From up here there’s no escaping the feeling of how improbable Vegas is, a Technicolor, hyper-real encapsulation of the American dream. It’s as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. Or off. Christine McCabe was a guest of United Airlines and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
United Airlines operates a daily direct service from Sydney and Melbourne via Sydney to Los Angeles and San Francisco with connections to Las Vegas. The airline has just unveiled its business class lie-flat bed, making it the only US carrier to offer fully reclining beds in business class on all international flights, including the AustraliaUS route. The first aircraft with new beds are scheduled to enter service during the last quarter of 2007. More: www.unitedairlines.com.au. Have a truckload of small notes on hand to cope with the endless tipping required in Las Vegas: valet parking, lavatory attendants, waiters, hostesses, dealers (if you win) . . . the list goes on. For full details on Las Vegas attractions: www.visitlasvegas.com.au. www.redrocklasvegas.com www.papillon.com www.premiumoutlets.com www.treasureisland.com www.purelv.com
Last word in luxury: George Clooney’s favourite Cherry Suite at Red Rock Casino Resort