Take a time out in 'Sin City'
I honestly never had a desire to visit Vegas. It seemed like the Dells on steroids: cheap, colossal buffets of steam-table eats, depressing scenes of people with oxygen tanks robotically smoking and playing slots, strippers, irritating Borscht Belt comedians and Las Vegas Elvis in the white spandangalo cape.
Guess what? I wasn't too far off all those years, but not anymore. Vegas has become an upscale Disney World for adults, a sensory overload of gourmet dining and celebrity chefs; outstanding shows you can't see anywhere else on the planet; sleek clubs that thump deep into the night; hotels that overflow with activity; people watching extraordinaire; a mecca for shoppers; and, oh yes, gambling.
When the daily struggle of work and family is wringing the last ounce of oomph out of you, grab your best friend -- guy or girl -- and recharge in the town that's nothing but white-hot energy.
A few tips
Just like kids at Disney World, adults' eyes grow wide and we tend to overdo in Vegas because of the sheer scope of attractions. You might think Vegas is the perfect place to recreate by the seat of your pants, but if you narrow it down you won't need a few days off after your few days in Vegas.
Guys, even though it might be against your genetic code, plan at least one thing per day: a round of golf, a show or a nice steak dinner. You can improvise (gambling, lounging by the pool, scratching your nether regions and snoozing) around it.
Get together with your chum and plan an itinerary, but factor in a lot more time than you might think in order to get from here to there. The Strip is about four miles long, so dining in one hotel and seeing a show in another means a lot of walking or waiting in a cab line and then moving slowly among outrageous traffic.
Many of the hotels are humongous (Vegas claims 15 of the 20 largest hotels in the world) and you can do a half-mile just trying to find the hair salon, restaurant or shop of choice. Bring comfy walking shoes as well the Manolo Blahniks.
If this is your first trip, stay at a hotel on the Strip so you can get your bearings and walk when traffic snarls. You can easily casino-hop, enjoy some of the free attractions, such as the Bellagio Fountain Show (an outdoor dancing waters sort of show that's choreographed to music) and wander through the faux streets of New York, New York or Paris. Stroll other hotels and make mental notes for your next visit.
Spend your winnings or just window shop around the world: Paris Las Vegas, the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace with ancient Rome all around you or the stylish Grand Canal shops at the Venetian complete with bridges, gondola rides and an ersatz San Marco Square with roving performers. See models work the runway at Fashion Show Mall or go completely kitsch at Serge's Showgirl Wigs.
Las Vegas is a year-round destination and the days of cheap charters to and from the city are as distant as the Rat Pack. The busiest time is the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, but holiday weekends (Valentine's Day, Labor Day, Fourth of July, etc.) are swarming with revelers, too. Weekends in general are crazy/busy so you might opt for a Sunday-through-Wednesday visit and perhaps save on airfare and hotel rates.
I had a devil of a time snagging a seat on a nonstop flight from Chicago to Las Vegas in late September. The town is always busy except for a few weeks prior to Christmas. Since so many events take place in the city, from the NCAA Final Four to conventions such as the Consumer Electronic Show with more than 130,000 participants, everything from room availability to show tickets can be tight. Check with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to be sure you're not trying to get a room during the weekend of the Grammy Awards.
If you're returning home on a Sunday or Monday, it really is a good idea to get to Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport 2½ to three hours early. I arrived at the airport at 8:30 a.m. for my 11:15 a.m. flight. By the time I got through check-in and security, I had only 10 minutes to snag a bottle of water and a newspaper before boarding.
Las Vegas is truly the "Entertainment Capital of the World" with permanent and short-run shows from absurdist Blue Man Group and belters such as Celine Dion to the magi-comedy of Penn and Teller, musicals such as "Spamalot" and "Mama Mia" and risque burlesque performances. Go to the visitor bureau's Web site, type in your dates and see who's going to be in town. It could be George Jones, Marilyn Manson or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Men who want to see beautiful women should check out the "Crazy Horse Paris" at MGM Grand and "Fantasy" at Luxor. Gals can choose from the steamy Aussie blokes at "Thunder From Down Under" at Excalibur and "Chippendales" at Rio.
Then, there's Cirque du Soleil with no less than five very different shows playing in town. One of the great things about the brand is that men and women are equally awe-struck by the intricate moving sets, rush of visuals, athletic performers, mysterious music and otherworldly dimension to which you travel in the course of 90 or so minutes.
"Mystere" is sort of like Cirque 101 with the customary silly humor punctuating acrobatics. A provocative cabaret-style production, "Zumanity, Another Side of Cirque du Soleil," crosses into the burlesque and is strictly for an adult audience with its explicit content. Guys especially appreciate the martial arts, multimedia and pyrotechnics of "KA" at MGM Grand, and if you don't fall in love with water-themed "O" at the Bellagio and "LOVE," the exuberant tribute to the Beatles at the Mirage, start putting your affairs in order because you clearly haven't a pulse.
A good seat for "O" can run around $150 and you'll be padding Celine's portfolio at $100 to $230 per ticket. There are a few afternoon shows, such as magician Rick Thomas at the Stardust, that'll put you back an easy $25. Book tickets for your must-see shows before you actually set foot in "Sin City."
After my BFF, Diane, and I maneuvered early morning airport nonsense, we arrived in Vegas feeling like balsa wood in a hammer-testing facility. Should we go for ultra-caffeineation, a nuclear-strength adult beverage or a nap?
Opting for afternoon high tea in the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas might have been the smartest part of our three-day adventure. The vise-like grip of heat, crowds, smoky casinos and general din simply relaxes upon entering the soothing, non-gaming atmosphere at the south-end-of-the-Strip hotel. (The rooms of the Four Seasons actually occupy the top four floors of Mandalay Bay's main tower, but it has separate elevators, check-in, restaurants, spa, pool and fitness facilities.)
Tea, mini-scones, sandwiches and pastries, plus a glass of champagne served in elegant surroundings, made us feel like the princesses we were meant to be and gave us time to chat and laugh.
Save time and give your bunions a break by making a dinner reservation in the same venue as your show. Because a 10:30 p.m. performance of "O" at the girly gorgeous yet refined Bellagio Hotel and Casino was on our itinerary, we opted for dinner at one of the property's 10 exceptional restaurants.
Sensi didn't disappoint. If only every "casual" restaurant offered a fun, open-kitchen environment and an international menu featuring four complementary cuisines: Italian, Asian, grilled and seafood. The execution of every dish was spot on and the waitstaff whip smart.
Just to say we did, we had to hit the latest hot spot TAO Asian Bistro in the Venetian for sushi, sake flights and the uber-hip setting.
Guys might be happy to know that there are more steakhouses in Vegas than you can shake a sirloin at. Try BOA in Caesars -- The Forum Shops (spectacular views of the Las Vegas Strip; award-winning martinis, classic Caesar salad prepared tableside and bone-in cuts extraordinaire) and Strip House in Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino, with a name that plays on both carnivorous connotations. With its buttery red-leather booths and flocked wallpaper, Strip House has an upscale bordello look. It served the finest steaks, a deep roster of wine, 24-layer chocolate cake and sexy cocktails instead of -- well, you know. Expect man-sized portions of everything, including lobster bisque, redolent of sherry and cream, goose fat potatoes and creamed spinach knocked up with black truffles.
When I scanned the menu of New American comfort fare at STACK in the Mirage, I knew why we were surrounded by tables of guy friends: roasted tomato soup complemented by a mini grilled-cheese sandwich; mini Kobe chili-cheese dogs and spiced fries; hunks o' prime beef; whipped potatoes dubbed "Better Than Mom's"; and jelly doughnut "Munchkin" holes. We girls adored the miso black cod in lettuce cups sufficiently to order it twice.
If you're into the collective reverie that is the Las Vegas buffet, you can't go wrong with the Spice Market Buffet in Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. Locals voted it the best buffet in 2007 in the Las Vegas Review Journal. It offers the conventional seafood, Asian, Italian and Mexican items as well as a Middle Eastern food station serving tandori chicken, shish kebab, hummus and curried vegetables.
Spas and sports
Las Vegas has transformed in yet another way by becoming one of the finest spa destinations in the country. Most hotels have their own oasis of serenity and a visit is a welcome respite from the sound of slots, wafting cigarette smoke and jostling crowds.
Whether you opt for a reasonably priced 25-minute refresher massage at the Excalibur or try Raindrop Therapy at the immense Spa Bellagio (54 treatment rooms), it's a fine investment in yourself.
Diane and I were so wowed by high tea at the Four Seasons we returned to the hotel for massages in the Spa, rated No. 13 overall in Travel and Leisure Magazine's Top Hotel Spas in the U.S. and Canada. Try one of the signature Asian rituals, such as the Bali Sea and Flower Ritual that includes massage and invigorating exfoliation. The Spa also offers foot massage, ladies. Enough said.
Las Vegas trend watch: poolside spa services that combine drinking, a good sun soak and spa treatments. Unwind at TAO Beach (a celeb magnet) at the Venetian; Venus Pool Club at Caesars Palace; and Mandalay Bay's Moorea Beach Club; among others.
An idyllic girl or guy friends getaway, and one that I might do next time, would include time on the Strip and at least a day at one of the off-Strip resorts to simply rejuvenate.
The JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort and Spa, a 20-minute drive from the carousing, offers a 40,000-square-foot Aqua Sulis Spa and Fitness Center, access to a dozen championship golf courses nearby (including TPC at The Canyons where Tiger Woods won his first pro tournament), cigar lounge, casino, three pools, eight eateries, and a sports and race betting club.
Get back to nature at Red Rock Canyon, just 10 minutes away, but if you feel the neon beckoning, hop on the resort's daily complimentary shuttle service to the Strip.
If you're staying in town on a Sunday and notice few men strolling around, look for the nearest Sports Book, that room off of the casino with 50 or more televisions broadcasting different sports. It's a fan's dream: betting on favorite teams, watching multiple games simultaneously in cushy, comfortable chairs with snacks and drinks seconds away.
Some Sports Books offer packages that guys will cheer. For example, Rio's Best Seat in the House package for up to four fans includes oversize Lazy Boy recliners in a private area, control of nine plasmas, a couple cases of beer, unlimited snacks and absolutely no one to tell you to take out the garbage. Rates vary per day of the week.
Unlike a stay at a balmy beach resort, you will be ready to leave Las Vegas, turn the body clock back to normal and return home. Four days in Vegas could be pushing it, but in a couple of weeks you'll be thinking about your next foray into the neon desert.
If you go
Las Vegas, Nev.
GO: If you like fabulous food, sizzling entertainment, luxurious spas, ultra gaming or just need to inject some excitement into your humdrum existence
NO: You have serious issues with any of the seven deadly sins
Need to know: Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, (877) 847-4858, www.visitlasvegas.com
Getting there: American, US Airways and United have nonstop flights from O'Hare and Southwest flies nonstop from Midway.
Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas: (800) 819-5053, www.fourseasons.com/lasvegas
JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort & Spa: (877) 869-8777, www.jwlasvegasresort.com
Rio All Suite Resort & Casino Las Vegas: (866) 746-7671, www.harrahs.com/casinos/rio/hotel-casino/property-home.shtml
Excalibur Hotel & Casino: (877) 750-5464, www.excalibur.com
Sensi: The Bellagio, (877) 234-6358, www.bellagio.com/pages/din_casual.asp
TAO Asian Bistro: The Venetian, (702) 388-8338, www.venetian.com/TAO.aspx
BOA Steakhouse: Caesars -- The Forum Shops, (702) 733-7373, www.boasteak.com/balboa/index.htm
Strip House: Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, (702) 785-5555, www.striphouse.net
Cirque Du Soleil Las Vegas: www.cirquedusoleil.com/cirquedusoleil/en/default.htm
-- Jacky Runice