There are few internationally famous cities as misunderstood as Vegas. That much is clear the moment you tell someone you live there. “People actually live in Las Vegas?” they ask, confused as to why a Brit from London — who once wrote a book about luxury travel, and the virtues of upscale homelessness — would possibly decide to abandon that venerable capital for a permanent home in Sin City.
Hollywood is partly to blame for the misconception — movies like The Hangover and Ocean’s Eleven play up the fantasy aspects of the town, for good and ill; the celluloid Vegas is a place where you go big and go home. It’s also expensive, crime-ridden and packed to the gills with strippers and blow. Why else would Anthony Zuiker choose it as the location for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation?
Let me assure you that everything you think about Vegas is absolutely true. The extortionate cost, the drinking, the escorts — not prostitutes; they’re illegal in Las Vegas — and the lights. That Vegas starts around Sunset Road, right next to McCarran airport and ends seven miles north at the Fremont Street Experience — home to the famous waving cowboy sign and a place where James Bond lead cops on a slightly-too-long car chase in Diamonds are Forever. This is the famous Las Vegas Strip — most of which is actually in Paradise or Winchester, outside the Las Vegas city limits — and which I once heard described as ‘a giant sieve that lets people through but keeps money behind’.
I don’t care how wealthy you are; if you come to Vegas, you absolutely have to spend a couple of days on the Strip, doing all the touristy nonsense. Go see the Luxor with its giant pyramid roof and 42.3-billion candle-power spotlight projecting into space, or Treasure Island’s Sirens of TI show, or the fountains at the Bellagio. Go to the Wicked Spoon Buffet at The Cosmopolitan (the best buffet in town, by a mile) or Gordon Ramsay BurGR at Planet Hollywood. Get front-section seats for Love by Cirque du Soleil (the best of all the Cirque shows) or back row seats for Absinthe (the most offensive, and entertaining, show in town). Then wrap up the experience by getting wasted at the 1 OAK nightclub (inside The Mirage), a favourite of Kim Kardashian.
Get it out of your system. So that when you come back a second time you can forgo all that nonsense and experience a far more sedate, more exclusive and infinitely more expensive side of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas has more than 60,000 hotel rooms — and such variety! From the fantasy castle architecture of Excalibur Hotel & Casino to the (artificial) lakeside Bellagio, with its 460ft-high fountains. And yet, as someone who once spent a very long month staying a single night in each hotel on the Strip, I can testify to the samey, cookie-cutter feel of most standard Vegas hotel rooms. At the high end — once your budget tips over the $500 (£320)-a-night mark — it’s a different story. A host of almost comically luxurious experiences start to open up: rooms with basketball courts and bowling alleys (Palms Casino Resort), private villas with gold fixtures and a grand piano (Caesars Palace) and, if you time your stay right, maybe even a naked member of the Royal Family (Encore Las Vegas).
Traditionally, Vegas hotels were built around casinos. But, after 2007’s US financial collapse, even the wealthiest Vegas visitors realised spending millions of dollars at the craps table wasn’t the most politically correct way to behave. Accordingly, many wealthy Vegas visitors have since sought out accommodation without gaming tables. Barack Obama, for example, took this austerity to a ridiculous level when he and his team took over the casino-less The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa for his pre-election debate preparations last year. Fortunately, for image-conscious CEOs and world leaders, foregoing roulette tables doesn’t have to mean skimping on luxury.
The Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas is a hotel within a hotel, hidden on the 35th to 39th floors of the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino at the south end of the Strip. Guests enter through their own off-Strip entrance, (handily situated opposite the private jet hangars at McCarren airport) before travelling via private elevator to Valley-View Suites for around $700 (£450) a night. The Four Seasons is also home to Verandah, a secluded restaurant offering probably the most sedate outdoor dining on the Strip. Particularly recommended is la pasta cotta nel vaso — the restaurant’s homemade seafood pasta, served inside a jar.
Further north, an exclusive experience can be found at the $9.2bn (£5.9bn) CityCenter hotel complex. Designed to appeal largely to a non-gambling crowd, CityCenter offers two non-casino hotels — the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas and Vdara Hotel & Spa — as well as Veer Towers, a 37-story luxury condo building with two dramatic, leaning towers.
If you simply can’t imagine a trip to Vegas without placing a bet, then Wynn Las Vegas and its sister property, Encore Las Vegas, offer a tolerable middle ground for luxury travellers. The gaming floors were designed by Roger Thomas, who threw away decades of Vegas casino layout wisdom by deciding guests would likely spend far more money if they felt relaxed and comfortable, instead of being attacked by flashing lights, assaulted by grotesque carpet designs and forced to navigate maze-like casino layouts. Thomas first tested his theory at the Bellagio, which, according to The New Yorker, resulted in the largest profits for a single hotel in Las Vegas history.
Less refined, but no less expensive, the off-Strip Palms Casino is home to some of the more entertaining ‘fantasy suites’. The largest is the Hardwood Suite, which, at around 15 grand a night, sleeps 10 and includes a full-sized basketball court, including locker rooms, showers and equipment rental.
Another Vegas fantasy is the ‘comped’ suite — free accommodation for VIPs and ‘whales’ (high-rollers). Every hotel offers comps, but few nail the experience as perfectly as Ceasars Palace. Only guests willing to bet big money are rewarded with keys to these ridiculously ostentatious mini-palaces, which boast 24-carat gold fixtures, a grand piano in the living room and gigantic outdoor bathing pools that lead, via a private terrace, to the hotel’s main swimming pools. How much does a guest have to bet to score a comped villa?
No hotel employee would go on the record with a number, but one told me, on assurance of anonymity: “a million bucks a night, minimum”. Do they have to lose that much, or win it? I asked. “We really don’t mind either way” came the reply.
Every celebrity chef worth his salt has a flagship restaurant on the Strip — almost all inside a hotel. Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali both have three, Wolfgang Puck six. The problem is that, with 39 million visitors to the Strip every year, most restaurants have chosen popularity over exclusivity.
Which is where the private dining rooms inside most of the Strip’s most popular restaurants come into their own. This is where the real culinary action is, and where — by special arrangement — it’s still possible to have a meal prepared by the guy (always a guy) whose name is above the door.
At The Cosmopolitan, é by José Andrés gets you a place at the eight-seater chef’s bar for a tasting menu of 23 ‘avant garde’ courses. These include a liquid nitrogen sangria, caramelised pork rinds, Spanish clavel (a flower) served on a dish moulded from a life-sized replica of the chef’s hand — all for $200 (£130) per person, without wine. A bigger barrier than the price, though, is availability. With just two sittings per night, the restaurant is booked up months in advance.
Slightly — only slightly — lower down the totem pole is Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Carnevino in The Palazzo. The main restaurant is home to the best steak on the Strip. But it’s in the restaurant’s private dining room where the bistecca fiorentina — a porterhouse steak for two at $160 (£103) — is best enjoyed with a $24,000 (£15,400) bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1990. Just one of many bottles on the restaurant’s famously expansive — and expensive — wine list.
Another place for a great steak in Vegas is somewhat more controversial. Locals will roll their eyes when you mention the Golden Steer on West Sahara. A favourite of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr (and with booths bearing those famous names, and others), the Steer offers old-school gritty glamour with a traditional steak menu to match. The food, truth be told, isn’t a patch on the better Strip steakhouses’, and the video poker games embedded in the bar don’t scream luxury. But, come on, Sinatra ate here!
Las Vegas nightclubs are either a 10th circle of hell — a soul-destroying, seething, sweating mass of humanity, crammed into an overheated box of noise — or they’re the pinnacle of celebrity-style glamour and decadence. The difference is money. With gambling revenues still whacked from the recession and a glut of hotel room availability, hotels are increasingly turning to their bars and nightclubs to make up the shortfall. Which means bottle service — from $100 (£64) a table at the low end, to upwards of 10 grand a pop on New Year’s Eve — is the only thing that matters.
At the time of writing, the cool kids are to be found at Marquee Nightclub & Dayclub, at The Cosmopolitan, and XS Nightclub, at Encore — although Haze Nightclub, at Aria, and The Bank, at the Bellagio, frequently draw a crowd, with celebrity appearances from the likes of Usher and Leonardo DiCaprio. At all these places, though, guests can expect to drop at least a grand before they’re able to jump the line. Bottle service has become so expensive, and the clubs so over-stuffed, that concert tickets often provide a better experience. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino remains the place to go for legitimate rock stars like Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, while Caesars Palace hosts residencies by Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Elton John.
The Strip will disappoint theatre lovers, however. In recent years, even recognisable shows — including The Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera — have been truncated to fit the presumed hour-long attention span of the average visitor. Instead, you’ll need to venture off the Strip, to the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts — a $225m (£147m) art deco-style cultural hub and concert hall that wouldn’t look out of place in New York or Chicago. The newness of the venue means the lineup is still patchy, but if you time your trip right you can enjoy a performance by the Las Vegas Philharmonic or Burt Bacharach from the comfort of your own stage-side box.
CityCenter is the newest and biggest place in Vegas to go for luxury on-Strip shopping. For reasons I’m certain have been psychologically proven, the complex’s The Crystals mall is pumped full of artificial perfume, giving the place a distinctly funerial vibe. But the floral stench has done little to keep away over 50 luxury brands, including Paul Smith, Fendi, Tom Ford, Bulgari, Cartier, and the shoppers who crave them. The centerpiece of the mall is yet another Wolfgang Puck — a pizzeria this time — built within a towering wooden sculpture that’s part treehouse, part Jenga tower.
The Esplanades, a boutique-filled walkway between Wynn and Encore, attracts a celebrity-studded crowd who want to shop for watches, clothes and jewellery away from the neon clamour of the Strip. Hermes, Graff Diamonds and Louis Vuitton rub shoulders with only the second Manolo Blahnik store in the US — and, for the truly cash rich, time poor, a personal shopper service is available throughout the complex.
The Great Outdoors
Nevada is almost 90% owned by the federal government, which means there’s a lot of unspoiled land to explore, including the Grand Canyon, Lake Mead and Death Valley.
All that land leaves plenty of space for golf courses too, the best of which is Shadow Creek Golf Course in North Las Vegas. Once among the most exclusive clubs in the world — with entry available only to invited guests of casino magnate owner Steve Wynn — now any MGM hotel guest can enjoy the facilities. A round among the lakes, waterfalls and exotic birds costs $500 (£320).
The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area offers great hiking and climbing and is about 20 minutes by car from the Strip. Red Rock also has one of the best spas in Las Vegas, inside the Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa. For the luxury traveller, particularly one on a tight schedule, a $500 (£320) helicopter ride from McCarran airport will take you right into the basin of the Grand Canyon in a little over half an hour.
And if the breathtaking scenery around Red Rock makes you decide you want to stick around a little longer? Thanks to the bursting of the housing bubble, properties around Lake Las Vegas, which used to be home to celebrities like Celine Dion and Michael Jackson, are now available for less than half a million dollars, including access to your own helicopter pad. And with water levels dropping every year, luxury lakeside living in Las Vegas is only going to get more affordable.
Published in the National Geographic Traveller – Luxury 2013 special issue