Mention at a typical D.C. dinner party that Las Vegas is a favorite destination, and conversation stops.
Suddenly you morph from sophisticated world traveler to shallow lover of all-you-can-scarf buffets, yard-long strawberry margaritas and penny slot machines.
So when I and my favorite vacation mate, Barry, promise pals Paula and Patrick a long weekend of delectable dining, super shopping and hiking in addition to turns at the tables, they’re understandably skeptical. But willing.
Real estate investor/developer Patrick did Vegas years ago, before the invasion of ultra-luxury hotels and celeb-chef restaurants. Paula, who works for a global firm that works with developing countries, is a newbie who envisioned “strippers on every corner.”
A couple of months later, we check into the MGM Grand resort’s recently renovated rooms.
I had lobbied for more extravagant lodgings — say, casino perfectionist Steve Wynn’s Encore resort tower suites, Bellagio rooms overlooking fountains that dance to music, the elegant tranquility of the non-gaming Mandarin Oriental. But (to Paula’s and my disappointment) the men prefer comfortable but not super-luxe digs so that we can indulge instead in diversions such as racing Ferraris and Lamborghinis and enjoying expensive meals.
“If you want to talk about high-end restaurants per linear mile, I don’t think it’s possible to beat Las Vegas,” says Anthony Curtis, founder of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter and Web site. With world-renowned chefs stirring the pot (including D.C.’s José Andrés), choosing where to dine is a delicious dilemma.
We start at Madrid-born Julian Serrano’s Picasso at the Bellagio, a dimly lit den of romance where originals of Pablo’s art hang on the walls, servers anticipate your need for a Manhattan and the pigeon is served medium rare, as requested. P&P pronounce the fare better than most $250-per-couple Washington restaurants.
Then it’s on to the blackjack tables, where Patrick reminds Paula of the rudiments of the game before we — jet-lagged — call it a night.
Friday morning, I drive the group to Exotics Racing, a half-hour from the Strip at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Barry and Patrick are entranced by the lineup of gleaming Maseratis, Porsches, Ferraris and Lambos. After an orientation, they don helmets and nervously rev red Ferrari F430s, as instructors in the passenger seats guide them through cornering and roaring down straightaways at 125 mph.
While they’re occupied, I drive super-shopper Paula to Las Vegas North Premium Outlets, where tourists roll empty suitcases to fill with designer bargains. I give her an hour, only enough for her to survey the Coach store and pick out presents for her daughter and nieces. No time, alas, for the deals at Armani, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana and Tory Burch.
Back at the track, the guys are giddy after doing five laps in fantasy cars. They wish they had bought more time, but we’re on a schedule.
Paula and I have a date at the Encore resort’s spa — for my money, Vegas’s best. It’s decorated like an opulent but tasteful stage set, with every detail perfect, from heated stone chaises by hot and cold plunge pools to locker fronts designed like vintage suitcases, to Moroccan lanterns that light the way to treatment rooms.
After a soothing oxygen facial (Paula) and expert deep-tissue massage (me), it’s time to break out the spike heels and dress for a show.
I had suggested Cirque du Soleil’s risqué combo of acrobatics and comedy called “Zumanity.” But majority rule dictates a Vegas star spectacle, this one featuring country-music legend Shania Twain. The glossy-maned brunette trots out her greatest hits at Caesars Palace in the requisite 90-minute act (designed to get gamers back to the casino as quickly as possible). It includes multiple costume changes and two horses. A little cheesy, I think, but in Caesars’ Colosseum, where the sound is super-size and special effects over the top, we’re on our feet with the rest of the audience at show’s end.
Tonight’s eatery is Nobu at Caesars Palace, a celeb fave from renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa in which actor Robert
De Niro is a partner. Struggling to catch our busy server’s attention amid the buzz of VIPs and wannabes, we drop a few Benjamins on sushi and sashimi. Yellowtail tuna with jalapeño and black cod miso are memorable, but we decide we’re paying a premium for the A-list vibe.
Saturday, we go separate ways, only to coincidentally end up in Red Rock Canyon, within 30 minutes of our hotel. Barry and I drive the 13-mile scenic loop and hike wind-whipped rock formations on our own. But ever-efficient Paula has done research and lined up a private guide. He picks Paula and Patrick up at the hotel, hands out jackets, water and snacks, and soon has both of the heights-averse duo climbing rosy-hued sandstone and inching along narrow ledges with noses pressed against the rock. They celebrate with a kiss and high-five.
I persuade shopping-averse Barry to cruise the Shops at Crystals, a stunningly designed temple of commerce in the
CityCenter complex. A salesman at Ermenegildo Zegna tells us high rollers drop six figures on the high-end menswear. Now think-tanker Barry feels better about spending double what he would at Brooks Brothers on an Italian version of the Washington uniform: navy blazer, tan pants.
For our last supper, I’ve chosen Andrea’s restaurant, at the Encore resort. Encore is a favorite because it’s a cosseting cocoon on the raucous Strip. Paula settles happily into a creamy beige banquette to order spicy tuna rolls from a server who could win Miss Congeniality at a pageant. Over the bar, a huge screen shows a mesmerizing image of the eyes of Wynn’s second wife, Andrea. I tell the group that George Clooney is among celebs who’ve dined here; sadly, he’s not in sight tonight.
Later, we sit under crimson Venetian glass chandeliers in Encore’s casino and play blackjack with fervor. Barry, Patrick and I are more experienced, but Paula is on a roll and delightedly exits with a fistful of dollars.
We return to the MGM to enter cowboy heaven. National Finals Rodeo is in town, and a sponsor is throwing a party open to all. We grab plastic cups of Crown Royal whiskey and cheap wine and attempt to two-step alongside polite, square-jawed gents in boots and cowboy hats. One 6-footer pulls up his “Don’t Mess With Texas” T-shirt to display a huge tattoo of John Wayne on his belly.
Nope, it isn’t city-slick, but we’re on our last night in Vegas, baby, having an after-hours high time singing along to “Friends in Low Places.” We dance till 2, guaranteeing bleary eyes at the airport.
Cut to a month ago, when Paula and Patrick were over for dinner, and I was telling them Vegas had a record year (41.1 million visitors in 2014), new upscale hotels (the Cromwell, Delano, SLS Las Vegas), new shopping ops at the Linq open-air mall and a terrific restaurant from star chef Giada De Laurentiis.
“So,” said Patrick, pulling out his iPhone calendar. “When are we going back?”
Encore Las Vegas
3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
The newer sister property to elegant Wynn Las Vegas takes you far from the carousing crowds from $199. Upgrade to a 745-square-foot Tower Suite in the gleaming bronze-colored high-rise, and get a private check-in area, plus a lounge serving complimentary breakfast from $299. As with most Vegas resorts, joining the players club wins lower rates.
Bellagio Hotel & Casino
3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Famed for fountains that sway and spurt to music, rooms and suites at Bellagio recently have been renovated. If you don’t splash out for digs overlooking the waterworks, you can see them in real time on in-room TVs. From $199.
MGM Grand Hotel & Casino
3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
This 5,044-room resort offers options for luxury lovers, including Vegas’s Michelin-worthy, ultra-pricey Joël Robuchon French restaurant and trendy Hakkasan nightclub. Recently renovated Grand Kings give good value. Done in a sleek, boutique-hotel style, they boast pillowtop mattresses and start at $75 plus tax. Like most every Vegas lodging, MGM Grand displays online month-by-month rate calendars showing the cheapest nights.
Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas
3752 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
The discerning bed down in what is touted as “discreet luxury and Oriental harmony” at a tranquil non-gaming haven. Even standard rooms, starting at $229 plus tax in slow periods, are divine. So is the spa, bar with Strip view and the popular afternoon tea service.
The Cromwell Las Vegas
3595 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Opened in 2014, the intimate Cromwell has 188 rooms with hardwood floors and vintage-stylish furnishings. Guests have easy access to its hot nightclub, Drai’s, and the High Roller observation wheel. Rates start at $145 plus tax.
Andrea’s at Encore
3121 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Designed with a feminine sensibility with creamy decor as homage to resort owner Steve Wynn’s second wife (a Warholesque image of her eyes hangs over the bar). The menu is heavy on light sushi, but there’s Wagyu beef for hearty appetites. Small plates start at $8; entrees at $28.
Nobu Las Vegas at Caesars Palace
3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Sip rare sake and savor sushi, sashimi and other Japanese/South American fusion dishes under whimsical light fixtures inspired by Japanese tea whisks. It’s celeb-chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s biggest outpost. The small plates, meant to be shared, start at $7, but many are $25 and up.
Picasso at Bellagio
3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Surrounded by original Picasso masterpieces, guests fork up foie gras, veal chops and warm chocolate fondant with banana caramel ice cream. Diners on its terrace overlook the Bellagio fountains. Tasting menus only, starting at $75 a person pre-theater; $115 afterward.
The Shops at Crystals
3720 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
The fashionista fantasy tempts with more than 40 high-end boutiques, from Balenciaga to Van Cleef & Arpels, The contemporary-art-museum-like surroundings are worth a stroll, even if you don’t possess an American Express Platinum card.
6925 Speedway Blvd.
Rev a Ferrari or Lamborghini on a track, from $299 for instruction and five laps. Porsche Caymans start at $199.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
3205 Nevada Route 159
Fewer than 20 miles from the Strip, sienna-colored sandstone arches and other rock formations offer a rugged escape. Drive or bike a 13-mile scenic loop, hike more than 30 miles of trails. Hike This! ( www.hikethislasvegas.com) is a recommended outfitter. Tours also are listed at viator.com.
Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appétit
At resorts all over town
Taste fare from Gordon Ramsay, Michael Mina, Emeril Lagasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Guy Savoy and more. April 23-26.
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D.C. freelancer Kitty Bean Yancey is an award-winning former USA Today travel writer who contributes to AARP and Organic Spa magazines, among other publications.