Tom and I just returned from a splendiferous weekend in Las Vegas, which we undertook in a slightly early celebration of our 21st wedding anniversary. (The actual date is October 1.) Since we head to Sin City more often than many of our friends, we’re usually asked for recommendations, so I figured I’d just write up our little trip and let you take from it what you will.
We almost always drive to Las Vegas. From where we live in Los Angeles, it usually takes no more than five hours. That’s about comparable to flying, if you include the time you spend traveling to the airport, going through security, waiting at the gate, and taking a taxi from McCarran to your hotel. Another advantage to driving is that it saves money en route (a tank of gas each way compared to a plane ticket) as well as in town (no need to take taxis, and parking is free pretty much everywhere).
We affirmatively enjoy the drive through the scenic Mojave Desert, and it’s become our tradition to stop at the In-N-Out in Barstow along the way. One of their employees told us it’s the largest and busiest one in the entire chain. I have no reason to doubt that’s true.
We’ve stayed at many of the hotels on the Strip, as well as a few (Green Valley Ranch and the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas) off the Strip. We decide where to stay based on the purpose of the trip, where the best rates can be had, etc. This particular weekend was an unusual one in that many big concerts were in town and reasonably-priced rooms were difficult to secure. We settled on TI (formerly Treasure Island), which had emailed a generous promotional rate offer to me.
To our tremendous surprise, when we arrived at TI to check in, they informed us they were comping our room for the weekend. I don’t know whether that was a mistake, or because I had told them we were celebrating our anniversary, but we were well pleased. Also to their credit: when we called downstairs to report a problem with our internet connection, they had an engineer up to our room within 10 minutes, and he had it fixed within five.
Also in TI’s favor: the bed was exceedingly comfortable, with a range of pillows, a duvet in lieu of a bedspread, and the softest of sheets. Our room had a comfy reading chaise as well as a desk with wireless (and wired) internet, and a bright flat-screen television. Not that we spent all that much time in the room, but we were happy and comfortable when there.
Side note: even if you only visit Las Vegas once every Leap Year, it’s worth signing up for the email lists of the hotels in which you’d consider staying. And even if the extent of your gambling is that you drop a roll of quarters in a slot machine, it’s likewise worth signing up for the “Players Club” of the hotel(s) you like. Either way, they’ll email you promotional rates, as well as offers for reduced-price show tickets.
We booked two shows, each spectacular in its own way.
Friday evening, we saw Cirque du Soleil’s incomparable “O,” in permanent residence at Bellagio. This show is unlike any other show (even any other Cirque show) anywhere. In place of the stage is a 1.5 million gallon pool, and the athlete/artists make full use of it. They perform IN the water (synchronized swimming); they perform ON the water (tumbling and contortion on a floating barge? No problem!); they perform ABOVE the water (trapeze, parallel bars). The water affords them the chance to do tumbling and aerobatics they could never safely do if they had to land on a hard surface. Even the clowns make full use of the wet stuff. And did I mention that the bottom of the pool rises and falls in sections, to expose some or all of the water?
I don’t know what those crazy French-Canadians were smoking when they conceived of this show, but I’ve seen it six times already and will without doubt see it again. It’s a brilliant, inspiring, multi-sensory combination of athletics, artistry, aesthetics and technology. Seeing it from the rear orchestra or balcony affords the chance to fully appreciate the choreography and immense scale; seeing it from up close lets you marvel at the costumes, makeup and machinery. Either way, it’s a magical experience that you can ONLY get in Las Vegas (believe me when I say this show cannot travel to you, so you must travel to IT), and one I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Saturday evening, we saw Pet Shop Boys close out their North American tour at The Joint. It was the first time we’d been inside the Hard Rock Hotel, and we were pleasantly surprised at The Joint. Our seats were in the first row of the balcony, which made for spectacular unobstructed viewing, but the place is small enough that there probably isn’t a bad seat in the house. The show was tremendous. While I usually prefer all of my music to be live at concerts, that’s not PSB’s m.o., and we knew that going in. The staging, video vignettes and choreography all complemented the music thoughtfully, and made up for the lack of live drums, bass, etc. We’d definitely head back to The Joint for future shows, although we’re way too old, married and un-inked to spend much other time at the Hard Rock.
Fine dining opportunities abound in Las Vegas. It’s the one American city, for example, where Michelin-starred chefs Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy have opened restaurants. Julian Serrano, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, Emeril Lagasse, Michael Mina, Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay, among many other renowned chefs, have Vegas outposts. You won’t go wanting for good food when you’re not at the tables, shows or spas.
But the thing about truly fine dining is that it’s theatre in and of itself. Would you really want to race through dinner at Le Cirque or Bartolotta in order to make curtain for a show? (Well, you could if you really wanted to; we noticed that Le Cirque has a $68 prix-fixe pre-“O” special.) My point is that we prefer to either see a show OR luxuriate over a fine meal, and rarely try to do both in one evening. That’s not to say we’d only eat fine food or fast food; there are many happy mediums.
For our Friday night meal, we chose Yellowtail, a Japanese restaurant in Bellagio. The food is terrific and they were able to get us in and out in 90 minutes, plenty of time to catch the late show of “O.”
The edamame arrives prepared two ways: traditionally steamed and salted, or in a sweet and spicy chili sauce. Both were delicious. The menu includes a range of cooked food and sushi. We highly recommend the cucumber salad, the eggplant skewers and the teriyaki chicken. We found the sushi rolls, while tasty, weren’t spectacular. A few were a bit gimmicky for our taste (pop rocks in a spicy crab roll, for example).
By all means give Yellowtail a whirl if you fancy Japanese food. But be on the safe side and make a reservation, and let them know if you need to be out in time to see a show. Even then, don’t be surprised if you’re not seated promptly during busy periods. We weren’t seated for our 8pm reservation until 8:35; to their credit, the management was incredibly apologetic, swore it was an unusual wait, and bought us each a glass of wine to make amends. But it’s another reason to dine very close to where you’re seeing your show. In our case, it was just a 2-minute walk across the Bellagio casino to the “O” theatre, and we were in our seats well in time for the show.
We spent a bit of time at both the North and South Las Vegas Outlet Malls. The Las Vegas Premium Outlets, a few miles north of The Strip, offers discounted merchandise from designer shops including Burberry, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Lacoste, St. John, Missoni, and dozens of others. We snagged a cashmere scarf at Burberry for less than half the SRP, and last year got a sport coat for about 15% of the original SRP.
The South Las Vegas Outlet Center features a number of the same stores, but, uniquely, has a shop called “Character Warehouse,” which features excess inventory – primarily apparel, but also some books, mouse ears, pins and other memorabilia – from the Disney Theme Parks. It’s a bit like Goodwill, in that the inventory is constantly being refreshed and you may or may not find anything of interest. Our son is a huge Disney theme park fan, and we were able to snag something he wanted this weekend.
If you’ve read this far, and enjoy wine and spirits, you’re in luck. The reason I’ve buried this part of the tale at the bottom is because I’m ambivalent about sharing it. It’s no wonder that Las Vegas is home to more Master Sommeliers than any other place in America (and perhaps the world): any kind of wine, spirit, or beer you desire can be found here, perfectly presented, in the proper stemware.
Perhaps the best-kept secret in Las Vegas is that most of the fine dining (and I mean ultra-fine dining) restaurants have small bar or lounge areas. You needn’t be having dinner there to have a drink, and the drinks will be spectacular. You can, as we did on both Friday and Saturday evenings, sit at the bar in Julian Serrano’s Five Diamond restaurant Picasso, where Master Sommelier Robert Smith is happy to recommend and present wines by the glass. And the barman, Jason (who has been there for seven years), makes superb conversation, and lets you know when to turn around and gaze at the Bellagio fountains performing just outside the restaurant.
You also, of course, get to gaze at a Picasso while seated at the bar. Just sayin’.
Another advantage to enjoying a drink at a restaurant bar, as opposed to a “bar” bar, is that it’s possible to actually converse. Now, not everyone having a drink in Las Vegas is looking for intercourse of the verbal variety, of that I’m well aware. (And let’s not even go into the stratospheric “bottle service” charges levied by some of the most popular nightclubs.) But for those who can do without the pounding music and “meat market” environment of some of the more popular watering holes, a lovely restaurant lounge may be just the ticket.
In addition to Picasso, you might enjoy a glass of wine or whiskey at Prime Steakhouse, directly across from Picasso, which also has a small but welcoming bar area. So do the lovely Aureole and Fleur de Lys restaurants at Mandalay Bay, SW Steakhouse at Wynn, and Restaurant Charlie at Palazzo. The lounge at Guy Savoy (in Caesar’s Palace) is reportedly a sublime place to enjoy at glass of Champagne. I look forward to testing that theory on our next visit.