As Las Vegas is hit by the recession, visitors looking for a great deal can really hit the jackpot. Discounts are available at hotels and spas but the fine dining and entertainment are as good as ever
Most visitors arrive in Las Vegas by plane, but a spaceship would be more appropriate transport to a destination that is so out-of-this-world. There are, of course, luxurious resorts, amazing restaurants and spectacular shows all over the world – but as soon as you touch down on Planet Vegas, you are forced to redefine your terms. Everything is bigger and better than it needs to be. I’ve double-checked my dictionary and there is no word to describe it. Las Vegas demands its own adjective… unbelievegas!
The hotels on the legendary four-mile Strip are lavish cities of indulgence. The reception at the emerald-green MGM Grand, where boxer Ricky Hatton keeps getting knocked out, leaves guests checking in to one of its 5,000 rooms just as giddy. It’s more like Heathrow than a hotel. Its casino has all the usual games such as poker and blackjack, plus the biggest game of all – a lion prowling around a vast glass enclosure. A half-mile walkway connects the MGM Grand to its swish new sister hotel The Signature, with its three golden-glass towers (two more to come). Rooms are mini-apartments with a marble bathroom, jacuzzi, kitchen and the only private hotel balconies overlooking the Strip.
Caesars Palace made its name in the Sixties when Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack played and stayed there. Continuing the Roman theme, sun-lovers can indulge in luxuries to delight even Celopatra. The Garden Of The Gods has five acres of pools with swim-up blackjack available, grape goddesses handing out frozen fruit, a tan ambassador making sure you don’t burn – and topless sunbathing. Next door, the Venetian and its sister the Palazzo maintain the European theme. They make up the world’s largest hotel complex with 7,000 rooms above a mini-Venice complete with gondolas and a winding canal lined with more shops than your average high street. The Palazzo’s Canyon Ranch is the world’s biggest spa with 120 head-to-toe treatments (50 minutes costs about £80) and a rain room for homesick Brits where you lie beneath an Atlantic storm or Caribbean monsoon.
By contrast, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is utterly American – the sort of place that tries to turn innocent guests into part-time pimps. The bronzed and well-breasted jiggle from dawn ‘til dusk for the MTV cameras at its racy Rehab Sunday pool party, while The Joint concert hall hosts gigs by Marilyn Manson and Kings Of Leon. Iconic pop and rock memorabilia is displayed everywhere, from Elvis’s spangliest jumpsuit to Britney Spears’ "Baby One More Time" school uniform.
The small but perfectly-formed Four Seasons Hotel is an oasis of calm by comparison. Perched on top of the giant Mandalay Bay Resort, this is the Strip’s smallest luxury hotel and spa, popular for weddings due to its grand architecture and lack of a casino – saving brides from traipsing past poker tables to get hitched. No self-respecting fiancé would dare forget to book his betrothed a Four Seasons "daycation" pass for £75, plus an array of romantic his-‘n’-her’s treatments with chocolate and champagne (to eat rather than apply). Meanwhile, THEhotel at Mandalay Bay "ushers in a new model of understated luxury", according to its website. At its spa, called the Bathouse, the hot and cold stone facial will rub you up the right way.
The Wynn Hotel has set new standards for Vegas resorts since opening in 2005 with its Ferrari showroom, 18-hole golf course and nine of the city’s finest restaurants. These include Wing Lei, the first Michelin-starred Chinese in the United States. A life-sized sphinx guards the Luxor Resort & Casino (which is shaped like a black pyramid), while Treasure Island holds pirate battles nightly and Circus Circus, built beneath the largest permanent big top in the world, has free circus performances every day.
Vegas doesn’t do anti-climaxes… and you ain’t seen nothing yet. The £5 billion CityCenter, America’s most expensive private construction project, opened its umpteen doors in December 2009. It comprises four new mega-hotels – The Harmon, Vdara, ARIA and Mandarin Oriental and the Crystals Shopping Mall. The site is so huge it will have its own monorail system. Nevertheless, Vegas has been rocked by the recession (the Wynn Hotel posted a 91 per cent drop in profits earlier this year, and there are rumours that Hooters Hotel could go, er, bust). The MGM Grand, Mirage and Bellagio now offer rooms for under £60, plus extra nights free, two-for-one spa treatments and theatre deals, and $100 credit on the slot machines.
Prices may drop but the quality never does. It’s the attention to detail that makes guests feel like high-rollers: ice made from the drink you order, so it doesn’t water down your refreshment; black napkins for diners in dark clothes, so they don’t leave with white lint on their lap; and waiters who smile “welcome back!” when you return, even days later. The portion sizes mean you won’t need to return for days, either. From fast food to fine dining, prepare to leave with a stomach as round as a roulette wheel after ploughing through starters that block out the sun, main courses that could feed a family and desserts that even Willy Wonka couldn’t conceive.
Las Vegas boasts 17 Michelin stars, so the sheer quality of what is served amazes as much as the size. Head to Verandah at the Four Seasons for a stylish spin on the continental breakfast. The fresh juices and exotic fruits ooze with enough vitamins to meet your five-a-day for the next month. Or stagger to the doughnut bar where the light and fluffy rings are fried and topped to order. Book a table during Halloween and you will see French head chef Jean-Luc Daul’s giant gingerbread village, modelled on his hometown of Strasbourg.
Bring your camera to Sunday brunch at Simon in the Palms Place Hotel, where celebrity chef Kerry Simon chats to diners while they tuck in to wacky creations such as egg pizza, chilli tuna and wasabi potatoes. Leave room, though, for Kerry’s decadent junk-food dessert platter – cookies, toffee popcorn and chocolate sponge cakes beneath giant cloud of pink candyfloss. Lunch at Serendipity 3, opposite Caesars Palace, is equally entertaining. Indulge in calorific American staples such as pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries while slurping frozen hot chocolate so gooey it will glue your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Other tucker worth a taste includes the steak nachos at Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, the giant meatballs at LAVO at The Palazzo and the dim sum and dumplings at Beijing Noodle Number Nine in Caesars Palace, where the water-tank walls are alive with hundreds of giant goldfish.
Extreme circus Cirque du Soleil specialises in thrilling after-dinner shows, with six spectaculars at different resorts. No stay is complete without marvelling at their death-defying stunts. An 80ft-deep pool at the Bellagio is the stage for Cirque’s aquatic masterpiece "O". There’s also sexy cabaret Zumanity at New York-New York, Beatles tribute LOVE at The Mirage, Mystere at Treasure Island, Believe at the Luxor and gravity-defying Ka at the MGM Grand, performed on a rotating 360-degree stage. CityCenter will host Cirque’s seventh Vegas show from December, simply called Elvis (good news for the city’s army of impersenators).
The nightclubs of Las Vegas beat those of Ibiza for size and comfort, if not music (endless generic hip-hop). XS at Encore, the world’s biggest nightclub, sends 7,000 partygoers crazy every weekend. Tryst next door at The Wynn is a classy and dressy affair where Paris Hilton is often spotted on the dancefloor, while Studio 54 at The MGM Grand is a replica of Andy Warhol’s favourite 1970s New York club. Escape the hip-hop in Eye Candy at Mandalay Bay, where you can plug your iPod into the sound system so the DJ can pick tunes from your playlist. Donny and Marie Osmond, in concert most nights at The Flamingo, are among many icons (Cher, Midler, Manilow...) enjoying an Indian summer on the Strip. If you fancy sleaze instead of cheese, book a ticket to the topless musical Peep Show at Planet Hollywood, starring Playgirl Holly Madison – who clearly has great things in front of her.
The only things more seductive are the casinos – the beating heart of every resort. The din from a thousand slot machines sounds like an evil orchestra tuning up. You can hear the screams of a chancer on a winning streak, the groans of a gambler losing his last dollar and the kisses of leggy lovelies blowing their dice for good luck. It all looks and sounds so surreal, you expect Martin Scorsese to shout “Cut!” at any moment.
Whether their taste is for one-cent slots to $25,000-a-hand blackjack, 40 million people a year dream about putting the bling into gambling in these chaotic, compulsive places. Ninety-nine per cent leave with lighter pockets. It’s not just the long odds that can irritate. Prepare to be confronted by guys handing out escort service cards on every corner, queues for everything from coffee to a cab and the oppressive desert heat that turns the shortest stroll into a sweaty struggle (Vegas, by the way, has the longest streets in America).
Then there are the 100-storey building sites and the snail-pace traffic around CityCenter – but that is the price you pay in this insane, ever-changing city. In fact, the construction under way makes you look forward even more to your next visit, to see for yourself the latest fantasies this wonderland has dreamed up. After all, it’s a place that just keeps making offers you can’t refuse. Totally unbelievegas!