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Las Vegas's Makeover

Sure, Vegas notions of class are grandiose: it takes hubris to create an eight-acre version of Italy's Lake Como in the American desert and fill it with dancing fountains choreographed to show tunes. But in a town that ranks the Liberace Museum as a cultural institution, Bellagio is a pretty classy joint indeed.

How can it not be?Just look at the names. At Bellagio's tony mall, there's Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Armani, Hermès, Fred Leighton, and Tiffany & Co. That $12-a-ticket art collection includes works by Picasso, Warhol, van Gogh, Renoir, and Monet. And, last Christmas, no less an American icon than Martha Stewart decorated the hotel's 32-foot Christmas tree. Even she seemed caught up in the opening-weekend festivities last October. "I just had a pedicure," she beamed when I met her.

Can sophisticated travelers really enjoy themselves in the New Vegas?You bet. The current combination of homegrown excess and imported cachet makes this the best place in America to throw moderation to the wind. Vegas is where you drink in the afternoon, order two desserts at dinner, and stay up all night just for the hell of it. You can nibble the delicious cheese of Jubilee!-a feathered extravaganza that has been running for 14 years at Bally's-one night, and then wash it down with the stunning water-themed Cirque du Soleil show O at Bellagio the next.

A year and a half ago, when I turned 35, I called a Fat Pack Summit—I invited 16 of my friends and family members, ages 27 to 78, to gather in Vegas to celebrate my birthday. I didn't have to twist anyone's arm. They came willingly from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York for a long weekend. Even my parents, both in their mid-seventies, showed up. (You haven't lived until you've seen a silver-haired Jersey girl in studded denim work the dinner crowd at the Hard Rock Café.) Because Vegas is such a strange place—so foreign yet so familiar—it put us all on a colorful, but neutral, playing field. Disoriented, we bonded as we wandered the Strip in search of thrills.

And we found them: we rode the roller coaster at New York­New York; bought color-coordinated M&M's at M&M's World; ate sloppy joes at the Motown Café; and posed for photos in front of the giant Siegfried & Roy statue on Las Vegas Boulevard South. We shopped the Forum Shops at Caesars, savored designer pizzas at Spago, and even met a little girl dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. She wasn't working, just visiting. At the age of four, she'd already seen the movie 100 times; her mother told us she dresses that way every day. It was surreal, but then again, so is everything in this town.

Stay at the MGM Grand—as we did that year—and you open your curtains to find the Chrysler Building staring you in the face. The city was then selling itself as a family-friendly monument to mall culture. You could tour Ocean Spray's Cranberry World West in the morning, watch the Audio-Animatronic show Atlantis at Caesars Palace in the afternoon, have dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, and see a Pip-less Gladys Knight perform at the MGM Grand that evening. Sin City?Not on your life. It was a high-tack wonderland enjoyed by people in their eighties and people born in the eighties.

Today, though, Vegas is a more elegant mistress-but still a mistress, not a wife. In the New Vegas, you still can watch a galleon sink in front of the pirate-themed Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, but you can also rent a poolside cabana, work out in a state-of-the-art gym, get a decent seaweed facial, and follow it all with banana tiramisù. It is, to my mind, the best of all possible worlds.

What's next for Vegas?More, more, more. On the site of the old Rat Pack favorite, the Sands, the 6,000-suite Venetian opens this month. There will be a 315-foot Campanile tower, a replica of the Bridge of Sighs, and, naturally, gondola rides. Next year, a new Aladdin Hotel will open with a Middle Eastern theme (inspired more by I Dream of Jeannie than by any actual place). Las Vegas gets bigger, and the world gets smaller: the Egyptian pyramid of the Luxor hotel, the medieval castle of Excalibur, the regularly erupting streetside volcano of the Mirage—the whole wide world is within walking distance. And it's a million miles from the tasteful life you know back home.

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