The good guide to Las Ve­gas

How to make the most of Ne­vada’s fa­mous sin city

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - BREN­DAN SHANA­HAN

THE Heart At­tack Grill in Las Ve­gas — a restau­rant at which wait­resses wear nurse’s out­fits and din­ers weigh­ing more than 158kg eat free from a menu that features a Quadru­ple By­pass Burger and a But­ter­Fat Shake — made head­lines last month when one of its most reg­u­lar cus­tomers col­lapsed just out­side the premises af­ter he suf­fered a heart at­tack and later died in hospi­tal.

It was a shock­ing il­lus­tra­tion of the sense of ex­cess in this mecca of gam­ing and late-night fun, which bills it­self as the world’s en­ter­tain­ment cap­i­tal. Some­times, though, it is all too much. The chimes of a mil­lion slot machines, the drunken rev­ellers, blink­ing neon, co-or­di­nated foun­tains, div­ing pi­rates and dwarf Elvis im­per­son­ators leave one long­ing for a quiet ho­tel room and a good book.

But there is a calmer, more so­phis­ti­cated side to Ve­gas. Look be­yond the fa­bled strip and you’ll find bou­tique ho­tels, cool bars, ex­cel­lent vin­tage shop­ping and, a short drive away, spec­tac­u­lar val­leys and desert scenery.

STAY

Although in Ve­gas there is no short­age of ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions that re­sem­ble 10,000-room an­cient Rome- themed mega-re­sorts, there are also some no­table ex­cep­tions. El Cortez Ca­bana Suites of­fers some of the hippest rooms in the city at rates as low as $US60mid­week. Across the road is its sis­ter prop­erty, El Cortez Ho­tel and Casino, one of Ve­gas’s old­est and best-loved gam­ing houses. The suites are a slick trib­ute to the golden era of Ve­gas, with rooms re­call­ing the hey­day of the Rat Pack and Howard Hughes with­out suc­cumb­ing to kitsch re­vival­ism. Bright greens and sil­vers con­trast with black-and-white bath­rooms while state­ment pieces such as pea­cock chairs and me­tal­lic beaded cur­tains let you imag­ine you’re Frankie and Ava for the night, even if you’re ac­tu­ally on a Ge­orge and Mil­dred bud­get.

Fur­ther south is the Ar­ti­san Ho­tel Bou­tique. Dif­fi­cult to find and stuck be­tween an over­pass and an elec­tri­cal sub­sta­tion, its un­promis­ing lo­ca­tion is out­weighed by its glam­our. Gue­strooms and com­mu­nal ar­eas are decked out in over­sized Vic­to­rian fur­ni­ture and gilt-framed paint­ings with a pop-art twist dec­o­rate the walls. Com­bined with a mod­estly sized but quite beau­ti­ful pool area, a re­fresh­ing lack of gam­ing and a 21-years-and-over guest pol­icy, it’s easy to see why the ho­tel’s down­stairs bar and club are the han­gout of choice for a dis­cern­ing older crowd. An­other bou­tique of­fer­ing, owned by the same ho­tel group on the op­po­site side of town, is Ru­mor. Dec­o­rated in shades of pur­ple, hot pink, black and sil­ver, this is Hol­ly­wood glam by way of Philippe Starck. More: ec­ca­bana.com; ar­ti­san­ho­tel.com; ru­morve­gas.com.

PLAY

In re­cent years the club scene in Ve­gas has taken off, mak­ing it the dance mu­sic cap­i­tal of the US — great if you’re un­der 30 and want to party with the cast of Jersey

not so good if you’re af­ter a quiet drink and con­ver­sa­tion. For­tu­nately, in­ti­mate, at­mo­spheric bars and clubs are pop­ping up, many in the old Down­town area, where Las Ve­gas Boule­vard meets Fre­mont Street.

The orig­i­nal cen­tre of Ve­gas, Down­town suf­fered in re­cent decades as the en­ter­tain­ment dol­lar moved south to the mega-casi­nos on the Strip, but a re­vival is afoot, led in part by the de­ci­sion of on­line re­tailer Zap­pos to move its head­quar­ters into the area. A good place for a drink is Down­town Cock­tail Room, one of the first slick new bars to set up in the neigh­bour­hood. Low-lit booths, an un­ob­tru­sive sound­track and an ex­ten­sive list of jus­ti­fi­ably pop­u­lar cock­tails make for an in­ti­mate and so­phis­ti­cated at­mos­phere. Around the cor­ner on Fre­mont Street is hip­ster den The Grif­fin, a hid­den cav­ern of vaulted brick ceil­ing, fire­places and leather booths; and across the road, in­side El Cortez, is Par­lour Bar, per­haps the best casino bar in town. Heavy vel­vet cur­tains shield guests from the pok­ies while vin­tage swag lamps, live pi­ano tunes and the best whiskey sours in Ve­gas add to the old-school vibe. Ar­ti­fice, in the Arts District, is an art-themed club with ro­tat­ing ex­hi­bi­tions, an eclec­tic playlist and bou­tique wines. Down­town’s In­sert Coins, a night­club fea­tur­ing 1980s ar­cade games from Pac-Man to Moon Buggy, of­fers a wel­come dis­trac­tion for peo­ple more nim­ble with their hands than feet. More: the­do­wn­townlv.com; el­cortezhotel­casino.com; ar­ti­fice­bar.com; in­sert­coinslv.com.

SHOP

If it’s a uniquely Ve­gas sou­venir you’re af­ter, visit the Gam­bler’s Gen­eral Store, packed with casino para­pher­na­lia, from cus­tom-de­signed poker chips to full-sized roulette wheels and bingo cages. Spinet­tis Gam­ing Sup­plies, mean­while, features a huge range of vin­tage poker chips, some from de­funct gam­ing houses. At Jew­elry and Min­er­als of Las Ve­gas, you could eas­ily get lost in a pharaoh’s tomb of gem­stones and fos­sils. With so many ho­tels do­ing makeovers and throw­ing out old fit­tings, the city is a hot spot for vin­tage shop­ping. Head to Main Street to find the best stores for mid-20th-cen­tury fur­ni­ture, light fit­tings and house­hold col­lecta­bles. The largest is Retro Ve­gas, but also try Patina Decor and The Funk House. And if the con­cept of fork­ing out for a din­ing set by Fin­nish- Amer­i­can de­signer Eero Saari­nen seems ridicu­lous, con­sider that with com­par­a­tively low prices and the favourable ex­change rate, you can prob­a­bly af­ford to have it shipped home for less than the cost of the same piece in Aus­tralia. Also worth seek­ing out are the an­tique malls in which dozens of stalls dis­play ev­ery­thing from, say, a daz­zling rhine­stone-stud­ded Marc Ja­cobs hand­bag for $US60 or a gold Elvis stat­uette for $US120 to a set of vin­tage 1960s high­ball glasses for $US70. Or, to add a touch of Sammy, Dean and Frank to your home, why not con­sider splash­ing out $US2500 on an an­tique Lu­cille Ballthemed slot ma­chine?

Vin­tage fash­ion, too, is abun­dant. RetroSpecs stocks eye­glasses from the 1870s to the 1970s — its most ex­pen­sive pieces, at up to $US5000, are housed in an an­tique vault. West of the Strip is Ritzy Rags, an Aladdin’s cave of preloved luxe run by an adorable staff of glam­orous se­niors. Here you could find a Thierry Mu­gler neo­prene twin-set for $US300 or a pair of D&Gsil­ver croc­o­dile stilet­tos for $US500. A leather cat­suit stud­ded in rhine­stones could be yours for a snip at $US250. More: gam­blers­gen­er­al­store.com; spinet­tis­gam­ing.com; jew­el­ryand­min­er­aloflv.com; retro-ve­gas.com; pati­nadecorlv.com; the­funkhouse­lasve­gas.com; retrospecs. com; ritzyrags­bou­tique.com.

QUIRKY

An­other must-visit on the bou­tique Ve­gas list is the newish Na­tional Mu­seum of Or­gan­ised Crime & Law En­force­ment. Also called the Mob Mu­seum, it’s in the former Down­town court­house and of­fers su­perb ex­hi­bi­tions on the rise and fall of the mafia, in­clud­ing the bar­ber’s chair in which crime lord Al­bert Anas­ta­sia was fa­tally shot in 1957. Nearby is the Neon Bone­yard, a col­lec­tion of rescued neon signs, made all the more poignant by their peel­ing paint and rust spots, like a cap­i­tal­ist an­swer to the parks of de­com­mis­sioned Stal­in­ist sculp­ture in east­ern Europe. More: the­mob­mu­seum.org; neon­mu­seum.org.

AWAY

Few vis­i­tors to Ve­gas re­alise there are ski fields within 45 min­utes of the city. The drive to Mount Charleston is worth the ef­fort just for the re­mark­able scenery along the way. Gnarled Joshua trees give way to alpine scrub and then, sud­denly, tow­er­ing pine trees frame dra­matic gran­ite cliffs. Mount Charleston has spec­tac­u­lar hik­ing trails and is con­sid­er­ably cooler than the val­ley floor, where sum­mer tem­per­a­tures of 50C are not un­com­mon.

Other than camp­ing, there are only two ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions in the alpine area — the cosy cab­ins of Mount Charleston Lodge or the slicker The Re­sort on Mount Charleston. The lat­ter of­fers all the ex­pected mod cons, but avoid the restau­rant and dine in­stead at one of the dozens of up­mar­ket culi­nary tem­ples in town. And if you want to re­mind your­self that, in de­fi­ance of its air­con­di­tioned canyons and danc­ing foun­tains, Las Ve­gas is in the mid­dle of one of the harsh­est deserts on earth, take a trip to the Val­ley of Fire. An hour’s drive from the city, the re­gion features spec­tac­u­lar rock for­ma­tions in daz­zling colours, many daubed in an­cient rock art. Stand­ing in this land­scape, un­der the sear­ing blue of the desert sky, just a gam­bling chip’s throw from fake Vene­tian ho­tels and Miche­lin-starred restau­rants, can be an over­whelm­ing and sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence. More: mtcharleston­lodge.com; mtcharleston­re­sort.com.

vis­it­lasve­gas.com.au

PIC­TURES: COURTESY OF LAS VE­GAS NEWS BUREAU

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Clockwise from fac­ing page, Fre­mont Street East in Down­town; El Cortez Ca­bana Suites; The Re­sort on Mount Charleston; the Anas­ta­sia chair in the Mob Mu­seum; bar in Ru­mor Ho­tel; a neon wel­come sign

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