FOR­EVER COOL

Swim-up poker ta­bles, mar­ti­nis and Rat Pack glam are all the rage in Sin City. Chris­tine McCabe re­ports from Las Ve­gas

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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

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