Obsessed with reinvention, Las Vegas throws off its raffish past (almost) for new hedonistic highs.
Not since the 1880s, when miners came to the new frontier to strike it rich, has Las Vegas, that quirky icon of Americana, been on such a roll. After a 10-year identity crisis, the city has been reborn and is now the fastest growing metropolis in North America. It attracts more than 39 million visitors annually. Meet the new Las Vegas, an unapologetically glamorous, high-octane American boomtown.
Modern Las Vegas has reclaimed its Sin City reputation, having moved away from the innocuous family attraction model of the 1990s that gave birth to camp, themed casinos like New York - New York, featuring an outdoor rollercoaster and ersatz Manhattan skyline. In a piece of genius repositioning, heralded by the “Whatever happens here, stays here” tagline, Vegas has ushered in a new era of guilt-free, high-consumption leisure for consenting adults.
There is more than $34 billion currently invested in the city including condominium developments, acres of retail space, boutique hotels and, of course, colossal casino hotels. The largest development of all is the $8.5 billion CityCenter project, offering a staggering 1.67sq km of hotels, casinos and retail. The entire development is larger than New York’s Soho, Times Square and Rockefeller Center combined. The city’s patchy sprawl is giving way to high-density developments, an effect that’s being touted as the “Manhattanisation” of Vegas.
Like a soap opera actress desperate for an Oscar, the new Las Vegas badly wants respect. Developers are hiring marquee architects such as Daniel Liebeskind and Cesar Pelli to leave their mark on a city known for its transient and, arguably, gaudy skyline. Gone are the trompe l’oeil facades and frescoes, in their place, esteemed architects with billion-dollar construction budgets.
If anyone can be credited with masterminding Vegas’ tectonic shift, it’s Steve Wynn, considered the éminence grise of Sin City. Wynn forever changed its course when he opened The Mirage in the late 1980s, luring wealthy middle-class travellers eager for a side dish of luxury with their gambling – enter big name restaurants and sophisticated nightlife options. Somehow Wynn managed to take the guilt out of the equation. He upped the ante once again with the Bellagio in 1993, at the time, the world’s most expensive hotel ($1.72b), which ‡ featured a gallery of Picassos. His latest, the $2.9b eponymous Wynn Las Vegas takes the level of luxury even further.
Wynn’s genius was in tapping Vegas’ overlooked revenue streams – nightlife, retail and dining. Vegas now features the most profitable restaurant in America and more marquee chefs than any city on earth. The Vegas of free-flowing drink freebies, dirt-cheap buffets and double-digit room rates is all but over.
Luxury companies that wouldn’t have touched Las Vegas a decade ago have made the city an imperative, opening multiple flagship stores within casinos. Some have opened their only North American store in the city.
Entertainment, once defined by kitschy lounge acts, has become high-tech. Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil claims the lion’s share of big-ticket shows with five different productions on The Strip, but Bette Midler, Elton John and Cher’s alternating dates at Caesars Palace Colosseum are bound to be the most coveted seats in town.
The new Vegas is also party mad. Enormous nightclubs – Pure at Caesars Palace, Tryst at the Wynn and the recently opened LAX at Luxor – have been conceived on an enormous scale and have no trouble luring deep-pocketed, insomniac guests.
The revelry is not just for after dark. The past few years have heralded the arrival of the pool club, where the pool stands in for the dance floor and plush poolside cabanas are rented for hundreds of dollars a day. Non-hotel guests can pay a nominal fee to join the revelry. Pool parties like the Hard Rock Hotel’s Rehab draw thousands each weekend.
This new glitz-out, Generation Y-friendly city can come as a shock to those nostalgically searching for the Vegas made famous by Rat Pack rabble rousers and gangsters such as Bugsy Siegel. The good news is that it still exists, sort of. These days you’ve got to hunt to uncover the city’s tawdry, raffish past and the best way to do that is to head downtown, where cheap stucco replaces the marble, old-style neon still rules and the stilettos and Louis Vuitton bags are replaced by trainers and bum bags. Downbeat, a touch depressing, but thoroughly American, downtown Vegas, in the shadow of The Strip’s mammoth casinos, defiantly wears its kitsch heart on its bedazzled sleeve. Attractions such as the Fremont Street Experience and the low-rent casinos offer serious throwback fun and a great nostalgia hit.
To really grasp the Vegas of yore, make an appointment at the Neon Museum’s Boneyard, a collection of salvaged neon signs, some dating back to the 1940s. While Vegas is undoubtedly a city obsessed with reinvention, there is a growing awareness of its history. In the new Vegas, neon doesn’t really die, it merely takes a ride to the nearest retirement home.
Distances between hotels and casinos can be deceptive and taxi queues can be maddening. Opt for the double-decker bus Deuce, which constantly services The Strip.
The Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino
3325 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
Palms Casino Resort
4321 Flamingo Road West (at Hugh Hefner Drive).
Red Rock Casino Resort Spa
11011 West Charleston Boulevard.
Skylofts at MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 891 7358.
The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 414 6200.
The Palazzo, 3265 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 789 4141.
Caesars Palace, 3500 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 369 6300.
The Forum Shops, Caesars Palace, 3500 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 733 7373.
The Venetian, 3377 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 388 8338.
The Beatles Revolution Lounge
The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 791 7111.
The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 632 9500.
Peppermill Fireside Lounge
2985 Las Vegas Boulevard South.
+1 702 735 4177.
See & Do
Bonnie Springs Old Nevada
1 Gunfighter Lane, Blue Diamond.
+1 702 875 4191.
Cirque du Soleil
+1 702 261 0007.
1775 Tropicana Avenue East (at Spencer Avenue).
+1 702 798 5595.
333 Valley View Boulevard South.
+1 702 822 7700.
Source: Qantas The Australian Way May 2008
Updated: July 2008