Mention at a typical dinner party that Las Vegas is a favorite destination, and conversation may stop. Suddenly you morph from sophisticated world traveler to shallow lover of all-you-can-scarf buffets, yard-long strawberry margaritas and penny slot machines.
Despite this reaction, I forge ahead. While sharing dinner with my favorite vacation mate, Barry, and pals Paula and Patrick, I promise the group a long weekend of delectable dining, super shopping and hiking — plus a few turns at the tables.
Despite their skepticism, they’re willing to be convinced.
A real estate investor/developer, Patrick did Vegas years ago, before the invasion of ultra-luxury hotels and celeb-chef restaurants. Paula, employed by a global firm that works with developing countries, is a newbie who envisions “strippers on every corner.” A couple of months later, the four of us are checking into the MGM Grand resort’s recently renovated rooms.
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Despite my lobbying for more extravagant lodgings — say, casino perfectionist Steve Wynn’s Encore resort tower suites, Bellagio rooms overlooking the dancing fountains choreographed to music or the elegant tranquility of the non-gaming Mandarin Oriental — comfortable and not super-deluxe digs get the men’s vote.
The motivation here is that we’ll 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 website. With world-renowned chefs stirring the pot, 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 Picasso’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 around 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.
A logical suggestion is Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil’s risqué combo of acrobatics and comedy, 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).
The show includes multiple costume changes and two horses. A little cheesy, I think, but in Caesars’ Colosseum, where the sound is super-sized and special effects over the top, we still end up on our feet with the rest of the audience by show’s end.
Our eatery of choice is Nobu at Caesars Palace, a celeb fave from renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa — with the claim to fame of having actor Robert De Niro as a partner. We struggle to catch our busy server’s attention amid the buzz of VIPs and wannabes, and drop a few $100s on sushi and sashimi.
Although yellowtail tuna with jalapeño and black cod miso are memorable, we decide we’re paying a premium for the A-list vibe.
Saturday, we go our 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.
Ever-efficient Paula, with research in hand, makes a better choice and lines 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 a 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. Think-tanker Barry feels better about spending double what he would have at Brooks Brothers on an Italian version of a navy blazer and tan pants.
For our last supper, we choose 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 the celebs who’ve dined here; but, sadly, he’s not in sight tonight.
Later, we sit under crimson Venetian glass chandeliers in Encore’s casino, playing blackjack with fervor. While Barry, Patrick and I are more experienced, Paula is on a roll and delightedly exits with a fistful of dollars.
Some months later, having invited Paula and Patrick over for dinner, I make mention of Vegas’ 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.
Patrick has one simple question as he pulls out his iPhone calendar. “When are we going back?”
If you go
Where to stay
▪ Encore Las Vegas, 3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 877-321-9966, www.wynnlasvegas.com. The newer sister property to elegant Wynn Las Vegas takes you far from the carousing crowds, from $199..
▪ Bellagio Hotel & Casino, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 888-987-6667, www.bellagio.com. Famed for the fountains that sway and spurt to music, Bellagio has recently renovated its rooms and suites. From $199.
▪ MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, 3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 877-880-0880, www.mgmgrand.com. This 5,044-room resort offers plenty of options for luxury lovers, including Vegas’ Michelin-worthy, ultra-pricey Joël Robuchon French restaurant and trendy Hakkasan nightclub.
▪ Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas, 3752 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-590-8888, www.mandarinoriental.com/LasVegas. A favorite of discerning visitors, the Mandarin Oriental is a tranquil non-gaming haven with divine standard rooms that start at $229 (plus tax). It features an impressive spa and a popular afternoon tea service.
▪ The Cromwell Las Vegas, 3595 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-777-3777, www.caesars.com/cromwell. Opened in 2014, the intimate Cromwell has 188 rooms with hardwood floors, vintage-stylish furnishings and a hot nightclub, Drai’s. Rates start at $145.
Where to eat
▪ Andrea’s at Encore, 3121 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-770-5340, www.wynnlasvegas.com/andreas. Designed with a feminine sensibility and creamy decor, Andrea’s menu is heavy on light sushi, but there’s also Wagyu beef for hearty appetites. Small plates start at $8; entrees at $28.
▪ Nobu Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, 3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-785-6674, www.noburestaurants.com. Sip rare sake and savor sushi, sashimi and other Japanese/South American fusion dishes under whimsical light fixtures inspired by Japanese tea whisks. The small plates, meant to be shared, start at $7, but many are $25 and up.
▪ Picasso at Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-693-8865, www.bellagio.com/picasso. Surrounded by original Picasso masterpieces, guests fork up foie gras, veal chops and warm chocolate fondant with banana caramel ice cream. Tasting menus only, start at $75 a person pre-theater; $115 afterward.
What to do
▪ The Shops at Crystals, 3720 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-590-9299, www.theshopsatcrystals.com. The fashionista fantasy tempts with more than 40 high-end boutiques, from Balenciaga to Van Cleef & Arpels.
▪ Exotics Racing, 6925 Speedway Blvd., 702-405-7223, www.exoticsracing.com. 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, 702-515-5350. Fewer than 20 miles from the Strip, sienna-colored sandstone arches and other rock formations offer a rugged escape. Hike This! (www.hikethislasvegas.com) is a recommended outfitter. Tours also are listed at www.viator.com.