The Strip — the centerfold of Las Vegas — is a top contender for the most glittering, high-energy, escape-from-reality stretch of real estate on the planet.
From those fabled hotels lining the boulevard, you can spot the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, an Egyptian pyramid and a medieval British castle, all inviting you to inhabit your personal fantasy — all within a rim of rocky mountains and platoons of palms. (You can also spot the airport, mere minutes away, too.)
Affordable flights and rooms — even better bargains during midweek stays — conspire to entice folks to trade their upright Norwegian behavior for hedonistic pastimes played on a desert stage. (Delta, Sun Country and Spirit on a recent web search were all offering affordable direct shots to Sin City.)
But remember, Minnesotans, this is a desert, and it’s hot.
Plan outdoor activities for early morning or toward sunset, then schedule midday R&R at your hotel’s pool or its bling-laden shopping arcade.
Walk nowhere. Trust me: Distances between hotel/casinos, each near the size of the Pentagon, are long and toasty. (The Strip is about 4 miles long, much too long to walk in the desert sun.) Hop the tram, engage a car service, grab a cab or summon Uber.
Take in the view
An ideal intro to this city is the High Roller — the world’s largest observation wheel (new in 2014), making a half-hour loop that captures an overview of all that shines below. It’s space-agey observation pods sit like jewels on the wheel. Bar cabins offer 30-minute “happy half hour” rides. Yoga specials (one hour) allow you to engage in asanas at midday or at sunset on select days.
Or you might sign on for a helicopter tour. Sundance offers a particularly appealing package with a 30-minute spin over the moonscape that is the Red Rock Mountains, landing at Pahrump Valley Winery, where Minneapolis native Bill Loken and winemaker wife, Gretchen, took over a failing property and restored it to medal-winning status.
Tour and taste, settle in for a four-course dinner facing the vineyards, then depart with a gift bottle before zooming back over the bright lights of The Strip.
Shop it off
Gaming fans, you’re never more than a ca-ching away from the slots. And for those whose game of choice is shopping, same deal. Consider the options at Bellagio: Beyond its Gallery of Fine Art — including an exhibit on the life of boxer Muhammad Ali and the opportunity to pick up your very own Van Gogh (“price upon request”) — you’ll find the storefronts of Gucci, Vuitton, Chanel, Prada, Dior, Tiffany, Armani and more.
Then watch the resort’s iconic dancing fountain while your credit card cools off.
Same goes for Caesars Palace, where you’ll spot Michelangelo’s David lookalike and the Trevi fountains you thought were in Rome, in company with Jimmy Choo, Fendi, Saint Laurent, Valentino and — what’s this? — H&M.
Mandalay Bay’s arcade doesn’t lack for glitter, either, while its Shark Reef invites voyeurs to get up-close and personal with a deathly komodo dragon, piranhas, sting rays and sharks aplenty. Opening nearby in 2018 is Vegas’ new stadium, where you’ll be able to watch the relocated Oakland Raiders, the city’s first professional football team. (Hockey’s on the way, too.)
Iconic old Vegas
And now for something different, as they say. Head beyond The Strip to Downtown Las Vegas, where the city got its start in the early 1900s. Thanks to gambling and lax divorce laws, the nouveau town quickly captured attention.
But, as times changed, it faded. Today, it’s ready for its close-up once again, attracting hipsters to iconic Fremont Street, which you can patrol on foot, under a blocks-long climate-controlled roof.
Yes, get your name engraved on a grain of rice or line up for your 99-cent shrimp cocktail, then grab lunch at Freedom Beat in the Downtown Grand Hotel/Casino with its menu of all-American comfort food — pot roast; shrimp and grits; burgers; and Benedicts.
Before that (or later, after dark) promise me you won’t miss the nearby Neon Museum for a guided tour of the historic 200-plus signs saved in its Boneyard — the golden nugget from the original Golden Nugget of 1946, the city’s first casino; the iconic Silver Slipper of 1955; and 1955’s Moulin Rouge, the first racially integrated hotel/casino. And so many others.
Then carve out an afternoon at The Mob Museum, housed in the actual courthouse where Sen. Estes Kefauver cracked down on organized crime. Visitors are read the Miranda Act in the elevator leading them to the slums of New York, which tempted Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants to turn to crime.
Then there’s the arrival of Bugsy Siegel in Nevada to purchase The Flamingo, the mob’s first casino, among many other stories.
See a show and chow down
So now you’re safe to make reservations for a show, such as BAZ, a sequin-studded song and dance mélange of filmmaker Baz Luhrman’s romantic hits. Or Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas, where female impersonators bring on stage everyone from Patti and Celine to Cher.
Now for the hardest decisions — where to eat.
Vegas is the dining capitol of the continent, if not the universe, where bold-name chefs from New York to New Orleans to L.A. — and even Paris — have opened outposts. Some of the newest arrivals include GIADA at the Cromwell Hotel/Casino, whose chef hails from Rome and knows a thing or two about a Caprese salad and fritto misto. Don’t miss the signature lobster ravioli. Or juicy, pine nut-crusted rack of lamb.
Lago, in the Bellagio, celebrates Chef Julian Serrano’s mastery of the Mediterranean kitchen, from a gorgeous seafood salad to a showcase plate of Spanish pata negra (like prosciutto) and creamy homemade burrata cheese. Then it’s on to linguine studded with tomatoes and the inspired union of pulled duck atop polenta.
Chef Lorena Garcia rules at The Venetian’s CHICA with her creamy guac, flavor-rich tostadas and wild mushroom quesadillas — or try the meltaway short rib and porchetta.
But don’t forget the corn — both on the cob (coated in white Mexican cheese) and in her take on mac and cheese.
Come hungry to the Bacchanal Buffet in Caesars Palace, where the elegant food line segues from Asian (sushi, dim sum, seaweed salad, noodles) to Italian (pasta, pizza, meatballs), to Mexican (pork in mole verde, empanadas) to all-American (carved roasts of every sort, ribs, burgers, cold shellfish, hot biscuits and gravy) and more-more-more. Plus an endless dessert station.
Chances are by now you’re already planning your return visit to the City That Never Sleeps (or disappoints).
Keep that swimsuit handy.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.