TRAVEL:A revamped Vegas stakes its future on class

Posted by queenmadison

"WHERE are you going?" asks the chirpy black guy behind the desk, who's directing human traffic at Las Vegas' amazingly efficient McCarron International Airport.

"To the Luxor," I reply.
"OK, $6," he says and hands me a small white disc. "Here's your ticket: take it to the driver at the van over there."
My "ticket" is a casino chip. What else would they use for a bus ticket in Vegas than the ultimate currency of gambling?
And I laugh at the price – $6 to get from the airport to my hotel. Las Vegas was built around gambling tourism, so the airport is just 10 minutes from the Strip and its gambling dens.
I've just made it to my room when the phone rings. It's someone from the Las Vegas Convention and Tourism Authority, who I've organised to meet the following day.
"I expected to just leave you a message," he tells me. "What are you doing in your room? You're in Las Vegas." Apparently, there's no time to waste.

It's been 11 years since I was last here. In some ways it's the same and in others it's unrecognisably different.
For a start, there are new casinos and a different feel to Vegas than on my visits in 1995 and 1997. The new casinos are completely different to the ones that went up in the 1980s and 1990s; they're more ambitious, if that's possible, even though Vegas has long been famous for ambitious building projects.
Although older stars – such as Caesar's Palace, The Mirage and Treasure Island – still shine, the new breed of casino is more about class than tricks.
Right now, bang in the middle of western side of the strip, a project more ambitious than any other in the city's 100-year history is roaring to completion.
Called CityCenter, it's a six building self-contained "city", occupying nearly 31ha of some of the world's most expensive real estate, at about $US20 million an acre (0.4ha).
The project's total cost is more than $US8 billion and includes a 4000-room, 61-storey casino complex, two 400-room high-end non-gaming hotel rooms, 2650 luxury condominiums spread throughout the six buildings and retail, entertainment and dining covering 46,450sqm.
CityCenter, due to be finished late next year, has its own hospital and will employ 12,000 workers.
Beyond the mind-boggling statistics, the most interesting thing about CityCenter is the minimal emphasis placed on gambling in its slick marketing material.
It's true it will have a casino: all hotels in Las Vegas do (bar Trump Towers after The Donald was repeatedly denied a gambling licence).
But the way CityCenter is going about its business is very "new" Las Vegas. These days, the emphasis is on luxury, entertainment, food, relaxation and shopping rather than gambling. In fact, it's as though gambling is just a side issue, almost an embarrassing one at that.
I walk The Strip and wonder what's happened to the signs advertising mindless heavyweight fight nights, cheap second-rate shows and ghastly buffets featuring $2.99 shrimp cocktails. Until the late-1990s, Vegas was fuelled on these and the gimmick casinos that people would go to gawk at. The widely-held perception is that Vegas is still like that. It isn't.
In 2003, for the first time, gambling was overtaken by "other revenues" as the city's No.1 income source, and the gap has widened slightly each year since.
Yes, Las Vegas is still a massive gambling city – but it's also now a premiere dining and shopping destination.
The world's great chefs, from French masters such as Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon to UK firebrand Gordon Ramsay and American superstar Thomas Keller, have set up astonishing palaces to fine dining – it is possible to have a $500 meal in a grand belle epoque dining room, washed down with $10,000 wines.
The shopping is equally superb. Many famous labels have a store here, from Tiffany & Co to Rolex, while the great American department stores such as Saks 5th Avenue, Nordstrom and Macy's have giant outlets at the Fashion Show Mall.
The Bellagio is where the Vegas revolution began with a bang, when, in October 1998, visionary Steve Wynn outlaid $US88 million on the opening night party, including a performance by Cirque du Soleil.
The Bellagio's luxury and opulence – all done without gimmicks such as a giant fake pyramid or a fake New York skyline – quickly made other casino hotels in Las Vegas look ridiculous.
Just 21 months before The Bellagio was launched, for instance, New York New York opened to world-wide publicity. However, its garishness quickly looked passe.
Since 1998, most casinos have followed The Bellagio's lead, with The Venetian, its sister The Palazzo and Mandalay Bay as temples of taste rather than showiness.
Wynn himself has reloaded. He let control of The Bellagio and his other hotels, such as The Mirage and Treasure Island, go in 2000, when he sold Mirage Resorts to MGM Grand Inc.
He then used the cash to snare 93ha on The Strip to build Wynn Las Vegas and a replica structure, the soon-to-be-opened Encore, next door.
At Wynn Las Vegas and Encore, he has changed tack again. Even though he pioneered the idea of the show out front of the casino to draw patrons in (Treasure Island's sinking pirate ship show, for example), his new casinos have no street show, meaning people must venture inside to check out what's on offer.
The Wynn-inspired high-end ventures have had a flow-down effect, dragging the mid-range casinos to a higher standard.
All now have a plethora of restaurants and offer shopping and shows.
When I go looking for them – for nostalgia's sake if nothing else – I find the all-you-can eat buffets do still exist, but they're no longer advertised.
As for the shows, competition has driven the standard of performers through the roof.
The weekend I'm here, the artists performing include Cher, The Police, Robin Williams, David Spade, Toni Braxton, Barry Manilow, David Copperfield and Jay Leno. Even Air Supply is playing, at $US33 a ticket.
For me, the gambling is fun enough but not the be-all and end-all in Las Vegas.
During my weekend, I manage to fit in a Police concert at the MGM Grand, dinner at the superb TAO Asian Bistro at The Venetian, several other great meals, a half-day trip to the spectacular Red Rocks Canyon just outside the city's western fringe, a quick visit to the upmarket LAX nightclub at the Luxor, although I was nowhere near young, nor "LA" enough to fit in, some retail therapy and a few hours by the massive Luxor pool.
Did I expect to do all this when I boarded the bus for the Luxor? Sort of, but I was stunned, and uplifted, by the change.
Las Vegas is now a destination for all travellers, including families, and a must for anyone venturing to North America. Even if it's just for a look, some great meals and shopping.

How to make the most of Las Vegas
-Stay on The Strip. All the action is there and everywhere else is a bust. Try to stay midweek, when room rates are slashed.
-Key mid-range casinos include Luxor, MGM Grand, Excalibur and Bally's, with high-end options including The Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas and The Venetian. If you're down on your luck and need a cheap option on the Strip, try the Imperial Palace.
-Avoid Circus Circus at all costs. Travel agents here still have it on their books, but it is a run-down stinker.
-The best gambling casino is still Caesar's Palace. It's magnificent after all these years and has been kept in tip-top condition.
-Explore The Strip yourself. Unlike in other major tourist spots, your hotel won't help you much, as it wants you to stay and gamble. Buy The Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper for $US1, with its daily visitor guide.
-Do not take a taxi down The Strip at night. The traffic is unbearable.
-Bypass the hordes of illegal Mexican immigrants in oversize T-shirts handing out advertising cards for hookers – the saddest sight on The Strip.
-Get out of Las Vegas, at least for a half-day, to check out the amazing surrounding sights including Death Valley, Red Rocks Canyon, Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Use a tour company, like Pink Jeep Tours, for these day trips.