The good guide to Las Vegas
How to make the most of Nevada’s famous sin city
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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