For decades people have flocked to Las Vegas in search of the ultimate jackpot, or at the very least, some top-notch entertainment while trying their luck. From the birth of what is now the world-famous Strip during the Bugsy Siegel and Rat Pack eras to the decadent ‘80s and its attempt at ‘family-friendly’ tourism in the late ‘90s, the City of Sin has constantly morphed into the next big thing. In its latest incarnation, Las Vegas has gone noticeably upscale, judging from the abundance of ultra-luxe resorts, gourmet eateries, and world-class shopping and entertainment venues at every turn. So for this trip, we gave ourselves a challenge: Eat, drink and be merry, without the casinos.
For the uninitiated, it’s extremely difficult to maneuver in and around Vegas without encountering the sights and sounds of gambling. In fact, you don’t even have to set foot in a casino: Slot machines abound in supermarkets, drugstores, diners, even at the airport. For starters, our lodging of choice specialized in what the mega-hotels don’t: escaping the sensory overload of Las Vegas Boulevard. This was a vacation after all, and we wanted to relax!
We headed southeast to one of the area’s best-kept secrets: Loews Lake Las Vegas Resort. With its elegant, Morrocan-themed surroundings and sweeping mountain views, the 25-acre lakefront property makes you forget you’re only 20 minutes from the neon and noise on The Strip. Loews is part of the 3,600-acre Lake Las Vegas Resort community that includes Montelago Village Resort and The Ritz-Carlton. Privately owned executive homes, villas and condominiums (neighbors include Celine Dion and Michael Jordan) are also in the mix, giving the feel of an exclusive, family-friendly neighborhood. Most everything is within walking distance, from boutiques and free weekend concerts at Montelago Village to numerous pathways for walking, hiking and biking.
At Loews, the opulent lobby is furnished with pieces one might find at a market in Marrakesh. Intimate sitting areas and lounges are spread throughout the elaborate, richly colored surroundings and lead out to an enormous Mediterranean terrace with a jaw-dropping view of the lake.
Our Premium Lake View King ($179-$319) suite was roomy and had a super-comfortable bed. Upon arrival, a platter of dried figs, berries and an assortment of cheeses was delivered to our room. It was the perfect way to fuel up before exploring the resort’s expansive, perfectly manicured grounds.
Once outside, a plethora of fun-in-the-sun activities entices guests to immediately shed their street clothes for swimsuits. Just an afternoon of lounging by the white sand beach or poolside in a private cabana is gratifying enough, but there’s more, including teeing off on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Reflection Bay Golf championship course (rated 27th favorite golf resort in the U.S. this year by Conde Nast).
Our activity of choice was good, old-fashioned walking, treating ourselves to sunrise walks along the lake and lush, tree-lined sidewalks every morning. If you’re feeling more ambitious, Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam and Red Rock Canyon are only a short drive away.
We began our first full day at the resort with breakfast at Rick’s Cafe, where the graceful palms, slinky chandeliers, elaborate woodwork and even an upright white piano made us want to break into As Time Goes By, or at least start humming. Our hearty servings of smoked salmon sarpaccio and Dungeness crab Benedict hit the spot. Be sure to try the kitchen’s freshly squeezed, custom-blended fruit juices. Fine dining can also be had on-site at Marssa, with its Pacific-rim inspired menu and a full sushi bar by renowned master sushi chef Fuji Fujita.
But our culinary experience was just getting started. We moved our foodie adventure onto The Strip, where over the past several years, the appeal of the all-you-can-eat buffet has been waning. In its place, celebrated chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Palmer and Bobby Flay have led the effort to turn Las Vegas into a culinary mecca.
One of the more established eateries is Nobhill at the MGM Grand, a culinary homage to San Francisco by award-winning chef Michael Mina. Intimate glass booths partitioned with silk screens set the scene for one of the best dining experiences of our trip. Nobhill offers a prix-fixe tasting menu ($125, plus $65 for wine pairing) that spans Mina’s signature dishes like Maine lobster pot pie and fried Sonoma chicken with truffle macaroni and cheese.
Feeling adventurous, we also opted for chef Sven Mede’s ‘blind’ tasting, which included a sashimi and tataki duet of Hawaiian big-eye tuna and stuffed rabbit leg with morel mushrooms and ricotta gnocchi. No surprise, Nobhill’s presentation, ambience and service were also top-notch.
For lovers of Italian comfort cuisine, Mario Batali’s B&B Ristorante at The Venetian is a good choice. Batali, one of Food Network’s Iron Chefs, and his partner/winemaker Joseph Bastianich offer up regional delicacies such as house-made salumi, warm tripe alla Parmigiana and beef cheek ravioli. B&B’s pastry chef likes to show off, surprising diners with complimentary nibbles of biscotti and other goodies. The wine list is impressive, and the staff among the most knowledgeable around.
Our quest for lighter fare brought us to Okada at Wynn Las Vegas, where chef Masa Ishizawa serves up authentic teppanyaki and robata cooking. Everything about Okada is refreshing: Zen-inspired touches include bonsai cacti on the tables, frosted glass plates and ceiling beams ‘tied’ together to resemble giant bamboo trunks.
Al fresco diners get a front-row seat to one of Wynn’s tropical waterfalls. Lobster miso soup, braised shark’s fin and grilled sake-soy Chilean sea bass are among the highlights on the menu, along with the Okada roll, a mammoth sushi creation topped with whole, chilled lobster. The unique dessert menu includes a zesty-sweet green apple sorbet and ‘chocolate crispy finger,’ a chocolate sushi roll.
For a complete sensory experience (and perhaps a celebrity sighting), Tao at The Venetian is the place to be. Rows of tubs filled with scented rose petals and Buddhas of all shapes and sizes beckon guests into the gorgeous, multi-tiered lounge and dining areas, which radiate a hip, East-meets-West vibe. The menu offers an eclectic mix of Asian cuisine, including exotic mochi ice cream flavors such as lychee, green tea and coconut. This is a place to see and be seen (Paris Hilton was at the nightclub during our visit), so get an early reservation. The dining room gets louder and the outfits skimpier as the evening progresses.
There are endless offerings along The Strip when it comes to lunch, but our top choices served up standards with a gourmet flair and were reasonably priced. David Burke’s oval-shaped dining room at The Venetian features a gorgeous, red glass fountain as its centerpiece and unique interpretations of classics like lobster bisque, smoked salmon pastrami Reuben and grilled flat iron steak with Paris mustard sauce and red wine syrup. They’re visually spectacular and gastronomically satisfying.
If you feel like a burger, head to The Country Club and prepare to be wowed. Overlooking the Wynn golf course and waterfall, the restaurant offers a casual but sophisticated meeting place for lunch. The burgers are piled high and over-the-top: The smoked chipotle burger brims with guacamole and peppers while the open-faced surf & turf burger is topped with roasted tomato coleslaw and a butter-poached Maine lobster!
Another enjoyable lunch was at Giorgio Ristorante E Caffe at Mandalay Bay on the south end of The Strip. The menu offers a little bit of everything from all regions of Italy. Come hungry, the portions are hearty. Sardinian excecutive chef Nico Chessa believes in using ‘simple ingredients to make beautiful dishes.’ And he’s willing to share what he knows via cooking classes in small groups. Conveniently housed inside a boutique mall, Giorgio provides a welcome respite from all that shopping.
Speaking of shopping, Fashion Show mall on The Strip is a good, one-stop destination for the standard department stores (as if anything is standard in Vegas!): Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. Runway shows are held regularly along an 80-foot retractable catwalk. The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian is another good stop. Done up as a replica of St. Mark’s Square, it has more than 80 boutique stores like Kenneth Cole, BCBGMAXAZARIA and Movado, and shares space with a winding canal complete with gondola rides. For luxury shopping, head to The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace. Imposing Greek god statues keep watch as shoppers lose all willpower to nameplates like Valentino and Versace.
While entertainment is all around you, there are a few must-see shows worth a spot on your itinerary. Cirque du Soleil’s highly acclaimed ‘LOVE’ at The Mirage is the troupe’s vividly colorful interpretation of The Beatles’ legacy. It’s a moving production that makes you think maybe just maybe John, Paul, George and Ringo are somewhere in the building. Get your tickets early as this one often sells out. Ticket prices are steep ($102-$165), but almost every seat is a good one. The show is held twice nightly (except Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Another top choice is Cirque du Soleil’s ‘O,’ where acrobats, synchronized swimmers and divers perform jaw-dropping stunts above a 1.5-million gallon pool. Avoid the first couple of rows if you don’t want to get wet. ‘O’ at Bellagio is held twice nightly (except Mondays and Tuesdays; $93-$150).
One of the best deals on The Strip is the parking: Valet parking is free at all hotels/casinos. To cut down on short car trips up and down The Strip, hop on the Monorail ($9 for an all-day pass) for a quick, fun way to zip above traffic. A good strategy is to park your car at the MGM Grand and take the Monorail to The Strip’s center.
After four days in Vegas, I can say ‘mission accomplished.’ Living like a highroller can be achieved without ever placing a bet. There are plenty of diversions to keep you (and your wallet) busy, so why bother feeding the slots?
If you go…
→ Comfortable clothing and shoes are a must, but pack some dressier outfits for dining out and going to shows. It’s also a good idea to bring a light sweater or jacket to evening shows or concerts.
→ The sun is out year-round, so have plenty of sunscreen on hand. The temperature peaks in June, July and August, when the average reading is 100 degrees or higher.
→ Dinner reservations are a must at fine dining establishments, and tickets for most shows are available for purchase several months in advance.
→ Loews Lake Las Vegas Resort is a 20-minute drive from McCarran International Airport. For more information, visit www.loewshotels.com.