We had an educational conversation with a bartender at the Wynn who let us in on the hotel-casino rating system. The reviewers look at the rooms, the casino, the entertainment options (theaters, restaurants, activities), and the configuration and rate it all together.
So if your rooms rule but you have no restaurants, you’re screwed. If you have an Iron Chef but no pool, same. It gets a little odd in the finer combinations though: he says the Wynn got five diamonds and the Bellagio only four because the distance from the garage to the casino at Bellagio is too far to be considered “accessible”. He’s wrong – they’re both 5-diamond resorts – but I can still appreciate the annoying specificity of the rating system.
I used a variation of that combo rating system to come up with my recommendations and no complex math was needed. My highest rating went to one place, the Bellagio, and it amounts to, “I like it.” Everyplace else made me a little sick to my stomach and made me wish I had a crock pot or my college diploma or something equally solid to ward off the Vegas schtick.
Pretty much anyone who’s going for a weekend trip and is under 70 is going to gravitate to the massive hotel/casinos on The Strip (actual address: Las Vegas Blvd). If you’re a Vegas regular, are not risk-averse or are leathery and 100 years old, you might head to the old-school places like The Golden Nugget or the Sahara, but that isn’t part of my Vegas 101 curriculum.
Where to Stay
Keep you itinerary in mind when picking a place to stay. The distances in Vegas are not massive but they’re substantial and can be a pain to schlep from one giant casino to another at night. When we’ve gone for events, we’ve stayed with our group: it’s more convenient to be able to stumble back to your room at 3AM than get in a cab. But it’s also meant that we’ve ended up staying at not-great places like the Rio because that’s where the group all found space. Consider the expense-to-convenience-to-comfort ratios when you make your pick.
If you can swing it, stay at the Bellagio. It’s the most human of all the places we visited. Yes, it’s got the same over-the-top Vegas vibe as everyplace else, but it’s excess isn’t completely tacky: the place is palatial for real. Added bonus: the color scheme does not make you want to run screaming out of the room(s).
The pool area looks like a garden and not a jungle, which is a nice break from the Vegas palms. The corridors aren’t crammed with drunken idiots. The cafes where you’ll end up eating your in-between meals are just as overpriced as everywhere else but the food, unlike everywhere else, is quite good. (Palio was a favorite. Try the panini.)
If you’d like more serious food, you can go all the way up the scale to Vegas’ outpost of the New York premier, 5-star restaurant, Le Cirque, and it’s sister restaurant Circo. For entertainment, Cirque du Soleil’s “O” is installed in its own permanent theater on-site and is worth the price of admission. The water theme takes center stage (literally), so it’s not Cirque’s most mind-bending, pure circus show in Vegas, but it’s still impressive, a pleasure to watch and completely entertaining. If you’re on the fence about circus, this is a great show to win you over.
The Bellagio is also home to the most amazing ceiling anywhere. Well, maybe not anywhere – there’s still the Sistine Chapel – but it’s a thing of beauty. Dale Chihuly installed a few thousand of his glass “flowers” in a space above the lobby and it’s astonishing. Also, Bellagio has it’s own art gallery (with proper world-class exhbitions, not velvet Elvises), an unexpectedly charming and intense botanical gardens (just off the lobby) and the famous Bellagio fountains.
All in all, Bellagio is the full resort package. You’ll like it there. And if you’re not into the Vegas thing, this is the place to insulate yourself from it.
Second choice – purely for the rooms, mind you – would be where we stayed this trip: Palms Place. It’s the new tower at the Palms and the rooms are luxurious without the usual Vegas garbage color schemes and accents: huge floor space, killer bathrooms with overhead showers and jacuzzi tubs, a small kitchen, great beds and, unbelievably, an understated dark wood, taupe, cream and palm green décor that is a pleasant antidote to the rest of Vegas.
Unfortunately, “the rest of Vegas” starts the minute you get out of the elevator at the Palms, so Palms Place is only a good choice if you’re going to stay put and luxury it up on-site (not even across the corridor to the original Palms, which is terrible) or immediately leave the premesis when you leave your room.
The brunch at Simon on the sixth floor of Palms Place is a marvel. The restaurant overlooks the swanky modern pool area, it’s sunny, the servers are in hipster PJs and the menu is a combination of a la carte (the corn-flake encrusted French toast and the dessert plate cannot be missed) and a staffed buffet featuring fruit, sticky rice sushi, wheatgrass shots and other eclectic and tasty delights. It’s worth a trip off The Strip just for the brunch.
There’s no shopping here, if you were looking for that. Except the gift shops, where I bought a Palms Place bathrobe. It’s the one I’ve been hunting for it and I love it like I would love a pet. Since I don’t have a pet, this bathrobe’s getting all the love.
While we’re on the subject of the Palms, a couple more notes:
- Don’t get sucked in by The Playboy Club on-site at the Palms: you pay an arm and a leg to get a table with bottle service and your bunny will pour your first round and then disappear. That’s it. Only go if you have money to burn or are into the retro leave-something-to-the-imagination bunny thing. There’s no striptease or anything racy, so don’t get all worked up. Bunnies on the job. Done.
- Paul Oakenfold has a not-so-resident residence at the club here (Rain), but getting in is a nightmare and you’ll be in line with the rest of the Vegas crowd (read: drunken pretenders). If I were you, I’d get my club fix in LA or New York and focus on comp’d drinks in the casinos.
- Speaking of the casino, the Palms’ is more than usually depressing. The crowd is a worst-of-both-worlds combo of frat boys and oldsters, and my soul shriveled for a moment every time I walked through.
Wynn Las Vegas
The Wynn Las Vegas is next in in line. It’s new and Vegas does new well. It’s also, um, what’s the word? Adult, I guess. Vegas version. Meaning no giant plastic cups of frozen drinks or dealers who look like they’re out on parole . I hear the rooms are good, albeit not the lap of luxury, and Nora Ephron at least is a fan of the breakfast buffet, so that must mean something. The food at the Wynn has a stellar reputation. Daniel Boulud is on-site and the Wynn has a wider than usual range of high-end dining options, so if you’re a foodie, the Wynn might be your first choice after all.
(If you’re following the links to the Wynn site, back me up here: doesn’t Steve Wynn’s voice sound a little like the guy from Men’s Wearhouse? “You’re gonna like the way you look.” Right?)
The water theme has followed Wynn from the Bellagio (which he built and used to own). Cirque du Soleil’s Le Rêve is in residence and the Wynn’s answer to the Bellagio fountains can be found outside the Parasol Down bar: a series of 12 multimedia shows projected on a wall of water and into a pool every half hour in the evenings. Rounding out the entertainment options at the Wynn is Danny Gans. I know: I’ve never heard of him either. He’s listed as, “the epitome of Las Vegas entertainment” and the write-up pegs him as a modern-day Rich Little. Which sounds annoying. Unless you’re 93. Which maybe you are. In which case, enjoy.
Overall, I was disappointed in the Wynn. Judging by the gold exterior and Steve Wynn‘s reputation, I was hoping for someplace sleek, someplace a step up from the Bellagio even. No such luck. Same garish flavor, albeit more expensive garish, as most of the places on The Strip, but its still a cut above as a whole package.
The Mirage rounds out the list and barely made the cut. It won me over with it’s baby dolphin + baby leopard combo. I’m not kidding: they have both. At once. Sadly, they’re not housed in the same enclosure, but they’re within 20 yards of each other and we can live in hope, can’t we?
The Mirage is home to The Secret Garden, where the tiger that ate half of Siegfried and Roy lives. It’s a dolphin research facility / big cat habitat. Don’t ask me what those two have to do with each other, besides tickle the plastic-surgery-addled imaginations of Señors Siegfried and Roy, but somehow it worked out. Both zoo-y attractions are straightforward and appealing and well worth visiting. It’s just dolphins and cats. And a couple of very shaggy, dim-looking llamas who have the look of mice kept next to the python tank.
The Mirage’s thing is being jungle-y, so there are plants and waterfalls and the like all over the place, including around the pool. It’s a little claustrophobic at times, but plants are not made of plastic or plaster, like everything else in Vegas, so I’m fine with feeling a little cramped by them. Behind the reception desk in the lobby is a massive tropical fish tank that is just waiting for a villiain with a machine gun to come by but until then, you can stand and stare.
You don’t need to make a special trip for it, but if you’re at the Mirage, you should swing by the high-limit lounge and baccarat tables at the back edge of the casino and check out more Chihuly glass. Make sure you go in and have a look at the trippy ceiling above the bar but, word to the wise: avoid hallucinogenic drugs before your visit.
The evening entertainment options at the Mirage aren’t outstanding. They’ve got the required Cirque du Soliel act, but it’s Love, a musical show based on Beatles songs, so don’t get your circus-y hopes up. On the other hand, if you’re a Beatles fanatic and not looking for bendy wonders, this might be your bag. The other title act is another sanitized one for the kids and elders: Terry Fator, the ventriloquist and winner of America’s Got Talent. If you can’t trust Jerry Springer and David Hasselfoff‘s opinions, whose can you trust?
Things You Should Do
Cirque du Soleil. I know tickets are pricey, but shop around a bit and get to at least one of the shows: seeing them in a theater built for the purpose is very different from seeing them on tour. Mystère at Treasure Island (or TI as they prefer to be known) and KÀ are at the top of the pure circus list and “O” is right there behind them for spectacle. (Love and Zumanity can be missed.)
The Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat are great. The place isn’t huge, but the environments are visitor-friendly and it’s worth an hour and a half to check out the cats and dolphins and go home with a snowglobe. The trainers working with the dolphins and keeping the baby leopard company are the only show, but it was satisfying to see actual engagement with the animals rather than the performances you see elsewhere. If you get reservations, they have a “dolphin trainer for a day” program.
The Liberace Museum. This is an awesome thing. Go. If you don’t have a car, they have a shuttle. The museum’s two buildings bookend a mostly empty strip mall. One has the cars and pianos, the other has the outfits and accessories, and you have to go to both. Even if you’re not into Liberace or his brand of schtick, you have to be impressed by a Rolls Royce covered in tiny mirrors and pants with actual 14-karat gold braid. Also impressive: that a completely gay entertainer could be such a massive hit in red, spangled hot pants before anyone was out. Be warned: the staff loves this guy, so no smart alecky remarks.
The Bellagio fountains. Shows are every half hour from noon (on the weekends, 3PM weekdays) and are very, very worth it. They last about five minutes. Just head over to the front of the Bellagio on The Strip and wait. The music (waltzes, not techno) alone is an oasis in your day of knock-offs and liquor, and the fountains themselves are beautiful.
The Bellagio art galleries. As with any small museum, it all depends on your interest in their focus, but real art is a welcome change from the artificiality of everything else surrounding you.
The Chihuly ceiling in the Bellagio lobby and the adjacent Bellagio Botanical Gardens. Actual art. Actual nature. Both amazing and lovely.
Things You Could Do
Eat. If you’re a foodie, you’re going to love Vegas. You will also put on several pounds, but twil not be seen in you there, trust me. Pick your chef of choice, confirm his cuisine of choice in Vegas (Lagasse, for instance, runs a steakhouse here, not a New Orleans joint) and have at it.
Be warned that the smaller, “cheaper” restaurants scattered throughout the resorts are often overpriced and equally often not very good. You can end up spending a lot of money eating mediocre food, so plan ahead. My recommendation? Bite the bullet on really good dinners at a pretty high price and eat granola bars and fruit the rest of the day. Except on Sunday, when you should spring for brunch too. If you have a car, hit Blueberry Hill diners for the pancakes to start your day.
Shopping. Bellagio is the least obnxious but also most expensive. The Forum Shops at Caesars are a nightmare. The Venetian shops are in the middle. Vegas shopping is mostly chain stores, so if you live near a city, you’re not going to see anything new here. If you live in the middle of nowhere, go wild.
Places You Could Stay
Four of my ten targets are on the “OK” list. You won’t be unhappy at any of these places, but their charms are restricted to specifics.
The MGM is fine, but it’s huge. Seriously huge. Bring your walking shoes huge. The average rooms are not memorable in either direction. Same for the casino. They do have a (free) lion habitat – MGM, get it? – that has bad-ass lions who roam around instead of lying around, they have KÀ, which is one of the two Cirque shows on The Strip that you should see, and they have Joel Robuchon as their requisite celebrity chef. Ultimately though, the place is too damn big to feel like anything but a strip mall melted onto a casino.
I know it’s tricky to build a huge place that doesn’t feel like a cavern, and I wish Mandalay Bay had learned that trick. Since they didn’t, you might want to stay elsewhere. Unless you’re going to spend most of your time at the pool, in which case, maybe this is the place for you. Their pool complex is truly impressive and a see/be seen must if you’ve got the body for it. They even have a stage anchored in the middle of one fo the wading pools, which made the Go-Go’s concert I went to there much more suspensful than it would’ve been otherwise. Risk of electrocution definitely amps up the vibe. Chef Alan Ducasse runs Mix, if you need a culinary fix, and if you’re into Disney, their headline show is The Lion King.
Skip the Shark Reef Aquarium (dark, badly designed aquarium) and go to The Secret Garden at the Mirage instead.
The House of Blues has a private club/restaurant called The Foundation Room that is posh and amazing. If you can get in. There are ways to get around the members-only policy, especially if you’re staying at the resort. Give it a shot: it’s worth it for the views and the Buddha Bar-meets-opium den decor.
Maybe the recession isn’t the time to a visit a place that prides itself on its indoor shopping mall. I was OK with the Venetian the last time I was in Vegas, but on closer inspection it feels like a knock-off of the Bellagio. It’s trying but it’s not quite there. And that indoor canal thing is creepy. I spent the entire time thinking, “Why don’t these people just go to Venice already if they want it so bad?” Of course I know why they don’t all just go to Venice – money, the language, American imperialism, yada yada yada. Unfortunately, the effort to import it left me with a slimy, amusement park taste in my mouth that’s not compatible with the luxury feel they were going for at The Venetian.
Also not in keeping with the classy vibe are their current headliners, David Spade and Wayne Brady (who can be forgiven for that talk show because he killed on Whose Line Is It Anyway?). But I’m OK with those guys because they can compete outside the city limits, which can’t be said about a lot of the performers here. Blue Man Group is their resident theater troupe.
If you’re into celebrity dining, The Venetian takes the cake for sheer volume: they’ve got frozen foods (Wolfgang Puck) to French Laundry (Thomas Keller) with a steakhouse (Emeril Lagasse) and an Iron Chef (Mario Batali) in the middle. They’ve also cornered the celebrity spa market by opening a branch of Canyon Ranch on the fourth floor that’s open to non-guests.
Planet Hollywood was my wild card, replacing New York, New York on the original itinerary and the only non-resort on the list. It stood out as having a uniformly younger clientele and an edgier (read: stripper) focus, as evidenced by the the pole dancers in the casino’s Pleasure Pit, their hosting of the Miss USA pageant, and their “sophisticated, ultra-hot” nightclub show with Mel B (the Spice Girl). PH has a few restaurants and a pool, but is primarily a hotel-casino and doesn’t bill itself as a full resort. I wouldn’t mind staying there just because it’s a little more normal and younger, but it’s not going to be the full-on Vegas resort experience.
By the way, did you know that Miss USA is the one who goes to the Miss Universe pageant, not Miss America? Huh. I have nowhere to file that information, but adding to the global store of my knowledge is always a good thing, don’t you think?
Places Not to Stay
Holy God. If there was one place we went where I almost had an attack I hated it so much, it was Caesar’s. Celine Dion, Bette Midler and Cher? Kill me now. The dealers wear gold chains over open shirt collars, for Pete’s sake. The ceilings are low, the décor looks like gigantism caught up with Party City and the much-touted Forum Shops at Caesar’s made me physically uncomfortable. (I’m not saying they don’t have Dior and Harry Winston and all the other high-end stores they list on their site. They do. But all the stores in between are Whores ‘R Us. Basically you’re in a mini Mall of America and you won’t be able to forget it. If you want diamonds and Chanel, go to the Bellagio. Otherwise, shop at your local mall before you go and you’ll be all set.)
I seriously do not know why anyone would ever go here. I think they might’ve been trying to corner the guy market with their brown carpets and black pyramid, but the place is godawful. If you were even considering it, keep in mind that Carrot Top and Criss Angel are their idea of a rocking good time. I’m getting a little bit nauseated just thinking back on being there, so let’s move on.
Lower-end places. “Low-end” in Vegas is not good. Trust me. You’ll want to drink yourself to death. (A bartender told me that suicides in Las Vegas are common and kept under tight wraps by the tourism board.)
- In the words of one of our bartenders, “Circus Circus is a dump.” I don’t like anyone tarnishing the reputation of the circus, but I wouldn’t stake my money and my weekend on that objection.
- New York, New York has a rollercoaster and it is, er, New York (ish), but by all acounts there’s not a lot to do there. Plus, I don’t like people ripping off New York.
- Rio. We stayed there a while ago and ick. Just a big Motel 6, if memory serves.
Things You Shouldn’t Do
- Hoover Dam. Just don’t. Unless you have to drive that route anyway or you’re an engineer, in which case, be my guest. It should be no more than a little over an hour to get out to the dam, have a look and get back on the road to Vegas, but, in reality, it took us two and a half hours to get there, an hour and a half of which was spent on the last 8-mile stretch before the dam in single-lane traffic. Profoundly frustrating and not worth it.
- Set foot in Caesar’s or The Luxor.
- The Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. I’m an aquarium person. I love them and I give them a lot of latitude if they throw me a seahorse or two, but this one is not worth the $17 entrance fee or the 150-mile schlep from the entrance. There was no visible effort put into the design and it feels like the kind of thing they tacked on to make the casino kid-friendly. It’s dark. There’s no curation: barely any descriptions of what you’re looking at. The maze of tunnels keeps bringing you back to the same tanks. The diversity and density in the tanks is poor. It’s not educational for kids and it’s not interesting for adults. The thrill of having a 3-foot shark swim above you in a tunnel wears off after a minute – when you realize you were hoping for a 10-foot shark – and you’ll be ready to leave. Hit The Secret Garden (at The Mirage) instead, or even the Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand.
Things are not close together. What you need is a bike, but that’s not going to happen since a.) you will never find one, and b.) in the impossible event that you do find one, you will be instantly killed in traffic.
If you’re considering walking from the Wynn (north end of The Strip) to Mandalay Bay (south end) to see the sites, you will not be fit for human contact at the end of your day. If you’re on foot, assume that you’ll last for about four hours and call it a day by settling onto a stool at a table, a game or a bar. It’s hot, it’s dry and there are a lot of people, all of which try the patience of your normal, sober person. If you’re not sober, you have a better shot, but in that case, you may as well limit your itinerary anyway ’cause you won’t be able to see straight.
Your options are cabs, shuttles or your feet, all of which will cost either your wallet or your patience. If you’re going for an event, staying at the place where the event’s taking place and only plan on one outing for a show, you’re fine.
If you’ll be there for a day or two and you’re a do-er not content with spending your day hungover in bed (like me), just bite the bullet and rent a car. Parking is free at all the resorts, you’ll be able to skip the massive taxi queue at the airport and, most importantly, you’ll feel like you’re not trapped on The Strip and can make multiple round trips to the Liberace Museum. Or the grocery store for snacks, fruit and water at normal prices. Or a diner where lunch is half-decent and doesn’t cost $50.