By David A. Fryxell / Photos by Lisa D. Fryxell
The slogan, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," is meant to imply a sort of wink-wink sinfulness, that when you visit America's casino capital you can cut loose without guilt or fear about what the church elders back home might say. It turns out, however, that what really "stays in Vegas" is your money.
Any dreams you might have about striking it rich in Las Vegas—the one in Nevada, not the one here in New Mexico—should be dashed about three nanoseconds after turning onto the city's famous Strip (formally, Las Vegas Boulevard): The elaborate architectural fantasies lining the Strip, ranging from a pseudo-Egyptian pyramid to disarmingly authentic but fractionally scaled replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, were not built by enterprises losing money. For every lucky schmoe smart enough to walk away from the blackjack table with a few extra chips, there's a dozen losers pouring coins into slot machines at two in the morning, trying to get back to even by throwing good money after bad. Gambling makes this depraved Disneyland in the desert possible, after all; the Strip is like a black hole for visitors' wallets, and the gaudy attractions that catch your eye are just the event horizon, beyond which nothing green, silver or gold can escape.
But that doesn't mean you can't subvert the laws of nature in Las Vegas and enjoy yourself here without feeding your bank account into the casinos' spinning, green-felted maw. It is possible to take advantage of the fantastical hoopla, luxury accommodations and world-class restaurants funded by Vegas' gambling machine, just for fun, and not personally spend bleary-eyed hours at the craps table or pour your soul, one quarter at a time, into the slots. Not that there's anything wrong with gambling, mind you, but Vegas turns out to be plenty expensive these days without adding casino losses to your tab. Think of a gambling-free visit to Vegas as a vacation partially subsidized by everybody around you who is determinedly losing money—suckers! (Though if you can't resist dropping a pocketful of change into the slots on your way to seeing the white tigers at the Mirage or shopping at the fabulous Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, we won't tell. Just don't make gambling the whole focus of your trip.)
If you still think of Las Vegas as a place to eat cheap at endless casino-hotel buffets, where breakfast as the grinning neon cowboy winks off for the day costs $1.99, you probably haven't been there lately. Sure, the crowds still line up for buffets, but if you want cheap you're better off staying home at the Golden Corral. And a few bargain joints still can be found, at places where, besides "Bone Suckin' Baby Back Ribs & All the Fixin's $9.95," the signs also promise "Bikini Bull Riding" and "Cold Beer & Dirty Girls." The bargains especially persist at the northern end of the strip, where the nouveau glitter begins to fade—replaced by wedding chapels—and near the neon gulch of old Vegas' Fremont Street. But the modern makeover that's made the Strip as much Disney—think Epcot Center with slot machines—as Dean Martin has come with a price tag. A big one. To take advantage of all that this new, quasi-mythical Vegas has to offer, prepare to max out your credit cards.
Getting there, at least, is still cheaper than flying to Disneyland or Disney World. From Southwest New Mexico, Las Vegas is a long day's drive or two days' easy drives, and you can take any of several scenic routes through eastern Arizona. (After a few days of glitter, you may need the respite of forests and scenery on the way home.) The main road to Vegas goes past the jutting canyons of Lake Mead and right over Hoover Dam, so there's sightseeing en route. (But the first casino looms immediately after the dam, even before you hit the vast exurban sprawl of Boulder City and Henderson. Stay strong—no detouring!) Or you can fly nonstop from El Paso starting at about $215. If you fly, you'll be gratified at how close the airport is to the Strip, and astonished that the slot machines start tempting you right inside the terminal, before you've even collected your luggage. If you drive, you'll appreciate that parking is perhaps the only thing hotels don't charge extra for, but beware that driving the Strip itself is not for the faint of heart or those in a hurry to arrive anyplace.
Where to stay once you get there? For the true 21st century Vegas experience, you must stay on the Strip, of course, and since you're saving so much money by skipping gambling, there's no need to settle for the Travelodge (yes, there's one right on the Strip). Avoid, too, those places not yet transformed by the latest building and renovation boom—dowdy old-timers like the Barbary Coast, the Flamingo or the Sahara (whose only recent "improvement" has been the addition of a roller coaster—yes, a hotel with a roller coaster, get used to it).
For visitors not simply seeking an array of slot machines to occupy 24/7, location is important, especially if you don't have a car: Distances along the Strip are deceptive, and what looks like "just a couple of blocks" turns out to be a sneaker-destroying death march through half-drunk crowds and intervals of wind-whipped sand from construction sites. Location is a strike against the otherwise-tony Mandalay Bay, a favorite of the hipster crowd, which lies at the far south end of the Strip, along with the Four Seasons. At the opposite, far northern extreme, the Hilton is dominated by conventioneers from the adjacent convention center (and "Star Trek" fans lured by its "Star Trek: The Experience" show-cum-thrill ride). Also on this end of town is Circus, Circus—but please, don't even get us started on clowns.
Of the 10 Vegas hotels recently top-ranked by Conde Nast Traveler, that leaves as the most convenient, centrally located options the Bellagio, Mirage, Venetian, Caesars Palace, MGM Grand and the ultra-ritzy (and ultra-priced) new Wynn. If it's sheer luxury you're after, opt for the swanky Bellagio, with its outside fountain show and its inside glassworks by artist Dale Chihuly; don't miss the conservatory, which combines ever-refreshed displays of real flowers with giant glass ones, or the colorful Chihuly orgy overhead in the lobby. Caesars and the Venetian are the standout theme hotels, with their Roman and canal-gondolier motifs, respectively, carried out in extravagant, painstaking detail; they're wildly over the top, of course, yet you can't help but admire the care with which they've gone to wretched excess.
The hotels themselves are among the chief attractions along the Strip (aside from gambling, that is, which each offers at every turn). Caesars' Roman theme continues throughout its extensive Forum shopping mall: Don't miss the fountain with its gilded statues of the gods or the delightfully hokey animatronic "Atlantis" show. At the Venetian, yes, you can ride a reproduction gondola along the "canal" that winds through its shopping arcade and past the faux St. Mark's Square. The otherwise forgettable Aladdin, across from the Bellagio, also has an impressive shopping arcade, all improbably set in what appears to be a "Thousand and One Arabian Nights" village. There we found, of all things, Silver City—a kiosk outpost of a Los Angeles-based jewelry store. Wonder no more who owns the Web site domain silvercity.com.
All three shopping arcades play tricks with scale and lighting, so every hour or so the sun seems to set over the "mosque" or the "Colosseum." In a city with almost no clocks, where casinos' interiors are suffused with a sort of permanent cocktail-hour twilight, it's yet another way to separate you from time, space and your wallet.
Other hotels that are attractions as well as places to stay and gamble include the turreted Arthurian Excalibur, piratical Treasure Island (with a nightly boarding party on the pirate ship out front), tropical Mandalay Bay and of course the Luxor, a pyramid fashioned from 13 acres of black glass and topped with a xenon light beam that's the brightest in the world. New York-New York does an especially evocative job of recreating its subject, from the mini-Manhattan skyline outside to the ersatz Central Park within. (There's another roller coaster here, too.) Similarly, Paris Las Vegas temporarily transports you to the City of Lights with its scaled-down copies of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Opera House, Louvre and Hotel de Ville, plus an Around the World in 80 Days balloon marquee. The extra touches are what make this "Paris" a must-see, like the legs of the Eiffel Tower extending from the ceiling inside to rest on a Monet-patterned floral carpet.
A number of the hotels offer more than just eye-popping, Epcot-ish themes to stare at, though these mostly pricey interior attractions vary widely in whether they're worth your non-gambling dollar. Do see the lions at the MGM Grand—they're free. Speaking of big cats, despite Roy Horn's mauling by one of his performing tigers, the Secret Garden of Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage remains open and worth a visit, with white tigers and lions plus dolphins. You can also see a pair of white tigers for free near the Mirage's south exit, and there's no charge to ogle the leopard sharks and rainbow-hued fish in the mammoth aquarium behind the registration desk. For more sealife, try the Shark Reef aquarium at Mandalay Bay if you're at the south end of the Strip, but don't make a special trip just for that. And don't waste your money on King Tut's tomb at the Luxor, an underwhelming snooze, though the Imax theater there may tempt you.
The Stratosphere Hotel—with the tallest observation tower west of the Mississippi—offers comparatively bargain rooms, if you don't mind being way at the Strip's north end, plus four thrill rides we can't imagine riding. The world's highest roller coaster (yes, yet another one) is just for starters; something aptly called Insanity hangs you out 64 feet from the tower's edge, then spins you at three g's. We get a little queasy just writing about it. More our speed and geek level is the nearby Hilton's 3D motion-simulator ride, "Star Trek: The Experience."
A few non-hotel-connected attractions also compete for your attention along the Strip. M&M's World celebrates the "melt in your mouth, not in your hand" candies in a Willie Wonka-esque profusion you wouldn't have thought possible. Quench your thirst after all that candy in the adjoining Coca-Cola store—a similarly outsized commemoration of all things Coke.
For pure shopping with less showbiz, go up the Strip to the Fashion Show Mall, across from the Wynn. It's a multilevel extravaganza of designer names, mostly at designer prices. For bargains, you'll need to drive to the Las Vegas Outlet Center or Las Vegas Premium Outlets, south and west of the Strip, respectively.
Besides becoming a sort of sinners' Disneyland, Las Vegas has lately turned into the restaurant capital of the Southwest. Other than—maybe—Chicago, it's hard to think of anyplace between New York and San Francisco with so many top-tier restaurants helmed by so many renowned chefs.
Merely perusing the guidebooks to pick a restaurant can probably add five pounds to your waistline, and every critic has his favorites. For a first foray, however, it's difficult for a hard-core foodie not to be drawn to the Vegas eateries of chefs made famous by TV: Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Todd English (a sometime-competitor on "Iron Chef America") and the "Two Hot Tamales," Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, all have restaurants along the Strip—and Emeril has two.
If you've always suspected that the schtick displayed on Food Network's "Emeril Live" might be just a way for a mediocre chef to "kick it up a notch" and be more appealing on the tube than on the plate, let us just say: Bam! Not to worry. Emeril's New Orleans Fish House, in the MGM Grand, is a thoroughly elegant dining experience. Service is pampering without being stuffy, the 2,200-bottle wine tower will leave you goggling, and the food is memorable—from the opening crab bisque to the house dessert, banana cream pie—without any of the over-spicing or -saucing you might fear from watching Emeril on TV. (If it's New Orleans cuisine you crave, by the way, there's also an outpost of Commander's Palace in the Aladdin.)
Emeril's newest restaurant, Delmonico Steakhouse, is an equally polished take on the classic New York steakery, worth a splurge even if you're not a steak buff; the nut-encrusted lamb chops, for one, will temporarily take your mind off beef. (Other meaty choices include Smith & Wollenksy's, duplicated from the Manhattan original, and Charlie Palmer Steak at the Four Seasons.)
New York grillmeister Bobby Flay is arguably as big a Food TV Network star as Emeril, but the translation of his Mesa Grill to the Vegas Strip is markedly less successful. Nothing special here, foodwise, and the location overlooking Caesars' massive, TV-studded sports book makes it feel more like eating in a bar than in a four-star restaurant.
Fellow US "Iron Chef" Todd English's Olives, in the Bellagio's small shopping arcade, brings the Mediterranean flavors of his renowned Boston restaurants to Vegas. The food is better than the busy, Muzak-blaring surroundings; in season, try to get a table outside on the patio instead, overlooking the Bellagio's manmade lake and fountain show.
The "Two Hot Tamales'" Border Grill, in Mandalay Bay, is the most casual of these TV chefs' restaurants: a brightly colored oasis whose lower level abuts the hotel's spectacular pool. The food will feel the most familiar, too, though the Border Grill's upscale takes on enchiladas, chilaquiles and the like definitely show higher aspirations than your average Cruces taco joint.
Don't bother dressing up too much for any of these restaurants, however. Vegas' days of tuxes and pearls have vanished with the Rat Pack. These days, "business casual" is fine, and we barely missed the hanging bag with our fancier duds that we forgot at home.
In one change for the better, most restaurants have discovered no-smoking sections, a welcome respite from Las Vegas' tobacco-friendly if resultantly smoggy atmosphere. Nowhere else in America will you see—or smell—so many cigars; it's as though visitors decide to take up cigar smoking just because they're in Vegas.
Reservations are a good idea everywhere, but particularly at Emeril's two establishments. Have the concierge at your hotel make them for you—heck, what's the point of paying for a hotel ritzy enough for a concierge, otherwise?
Your concierge can also arrange show tickets, though you'll still have to schlep to the box office—through the inevitable maze of gambling opportunities —to pick up your tickets at least an hour before showtime (bring photo ID and the credit card you used). Since you're mostly eschewing all those gambling temptations, though, you might as well take advantage of Las Vegas' famed nightlife when you finish dinner. Night, after all, is when this neon-lit city really comes alive.
The official www.vegas.com Web site is the simplest way to see who and what's performing when you'll be visiting; theoretically you can also book through the site, though it's glitchy enough that you may go the concierge route instead. Truly big stars play here—there's even an Elton John store in Caesars, for gosh sakes—and some, like Celine Dion and Barry Manilow, are on long-term engagements. Plus Cirque de Soleil performs its acrobatics in various forms at seemingly every other venue you see. Magic fans are especially in luck, as Lance Burton is a fixture at the Monte Carlo and Penn & Teller are featured at the brash new Rio, just off the Strip; both will amaze, but Penn & Teller's less-traditional, subtly subversive act will make you think as well. David Copperfield is also a frequent Vegas headliner.
Getting to and from dinner and shows will make you acutely aware of the footsore challenges of navigating the Strip. Besides taxis (which you can catch only by standing in line at a hotel—no hailing on the street) and your shoes, it's worth keeping in mind that free shuttles or trams connect the Mirage and Treasure Island (now abbreviated to a hopefully hipper "TI," which, sorry, we still associate with calculators), Bally's and the Rio, and the Luxor, Mandalay Bay and Excalibur. A monorail—yet another new Disneyesque touch—runs from the MGM Grand to the Sahara, with several stops in-between; see www.lvmonorail.com for details. At $5 a ride, however, you may decide a brisk walk is just the ticket instead.
After a few days of neon, crowds and noise, you may also decide you need to get away from getting away from it all. The Grand Canyon, of course, is in neighboring Arizona, but it's a long daytrip at best. For just a morning or afternoon out of Vegas, head due West to Red Rock Canyon, less than 20 miles from the Strip. A 13-mile driving loop lets you soak in all the rugged geological grandeur, or you can stop at a half-dozen places for hikes ranging from moderate exertion to truly challenging, all with spectacular scenery.
The best part for this non-gamblers' tour? There's not a slot machine in sight.
Desert Exposure editor David
A. Fryxell only bets on things he