Sunday, Sep. 07, 2008


If you have to gamble, do it fast and do it social: craps, roulette, a sports bet, a 45-minute round of blackjack you set a timer to. I zen out at the poker tables for hours and miss out on too much.

If you have to power nap, do it right before dinner. Otherwise, you should be able — and this is medically proven — to stimulate yourself constantly so you don't need sleep. Keep moving. Don't do more than one thing in each hotel, so you can see them all and establish a pattern of constant movement. Think of yourself as on the run from the cops at all times.

1. Bellagio Fountains

People stare at lots of free shows outside the hotels, but there's only one worth going to: the Bellagio fountains. Every half-hour between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and every 15 minutes from then 'til midnight, an 8.5-acre lake in the middle of the desert explodes with 1,214 spritzers shooting water up to 460 feet in the air — the water rockets and dances, perfectly choreographed to Frank Sinatra or Gene Kelly or "One Singular Sensation" from A Chorus Line. And yet, for some reason, it doesn't feel all that gay, which is quite a feat.

2. Cirque du Soleil

Even though it's expensive, cuts three hours out of your evening and sounds really boring, it's actually really cool and totally Vegas, despite its French Canadian origins — you can see Elton John anywhere, after all. The Cirque hires former Olympic gymnasts to catapult themselves all over the stage, risking their lives in outlandish costumes just for your amusement. I was in the Cirque offices once, and saw several people enter on crutches or in casts to collect their checks. If Wayne Newton ever ends up on crutches, I'll go see him.

All the Cirque shows are similarly good — and pricey, at up to $165 a ticket — but Love at the Mirage is the best.

3. Designer Dinner

I hope you're in town on an expense account. And I hope your T&E department is pretty lax. Because you can spend some serious cash on designer food in Vegas. If money is no concern, go to Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars for the best, most inventive, full-on ridiculous Parisian meal in America. If you're alone, eat at the bar-only Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand, because if you show up unaccompanied to an expensive restaurant in Vegas, you'll definitely leave with new friends and a plan for the night. If you want steak and big red wine, there are lots of options: I like SW Steakhouse at the Wynn; get a table where you can see the weird, intermittent, performance-arty water show. If you're more interested in making hot friends, go to N9NE Steakhouse at the Palms, or for something more culinarily interesting, there's Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak at the MGM. If you're going out with a date, try San Francisco chef Michael Mina's Nobhill, also at the MGM, or Aureole at the Mandalay Bay (ask for a table in the back by the courtyard).

If you're nervous about running up the tab, hit Fiamma Trattoria & Bar at the MGM. It's one of the few Italian restaurants whose main courses are as good as the pastas, and one of the few restaurants in Vegas that isn't overpriced.

Before dinner, get a drink somewhere with a view: Try the Mix Lounge or the Foundation Room at the House of Blues, both in the Mandalay Bay; or in the Palms there's Moon and the Playboy Club. And when you fill out your expense report, add a few extra guests' names.

4. Breakfast Buffet at the Wynn

John Cusack once told me, at a post-fight party at the House of Blues, that you never want to wake up in Vegas. Cusack has apparently never been to the right breakfast buffet. Sure, the intimate, beautiful Payard at Caesars serves one of the best French breakfasts outside of Paris (get a quiche and an almond croissant), but you can't do Vegas without doing a buffet, and the buffet at the Wynn is one of the few with really good food. The buffet at T.I., which changed its named from Treasure Island, KFC-style, is also pretty good and has a room designed by Adam Tihany. But the Wynn is a little better — plus, it's not at Treasure Island.

5. Shark Reef Aquarium

I get dragged by my wife to a lot of aquariums, so I know that the Shark Reef at the Mandalay Bay is, even at $16, a good one: half-outdoors, half-indoors, with rays, sea turtles, crocodiles, lots of sharks and, as of recently, a komodo dragon. If you're staying at the Mandalay Bay, you can turn to the Shark Reef channel and watch sharks live 24 hours a day on TV, which is pretty awesome at 4 a.m. when you're totally wasted.

6. The Clubs

I hate clubs. The painfully loud music, the too-sweet, overpriced drinks, the people who are so much better looking than I. But you don't skip the Uffizzi when you're in Florence just because you're not crazy about Italian art.

The hot club changes quickly, but right now LAX at the Luxor — yes, the Luxor (they're redoing it) — is the place to check out late at night. The Bank at the Bellagio and Tao at the Venetian, which is, by the way, the highest-grossing restaurant in the U.S., are solid. You can try an ultra-lounge — Tabu at the MGM, Pure at Caesars, Cathouse at the Luxor — which requires less dancing, but is going to be more Euro-trashy and bottle-service oriented. If you want to stare at young girls dancing on a table, go to a strip joint. Okay, fine: Spearmint Rhino or Crazy Horse Too. Happy? Now get out there and dance, no matter how drunk you have to be to do it.

7. New York-New York Roller Coaster

It's not the wildest roller coaster in existence, but this one goes right through the New York-New York hotel and takes only a few minutes. The hotel is worth seeing for its brilliantly compressed version of Disneyfied Manhattan, and the roller coaster is a better way to tour it than walking through.

8. Party at the Pool

There's dirty Vegas — strip clubs, hookers, cocaine, hotel room swingers — and there's filthy Vegas: pool parties. Personally, if I'm by the pool, I just want to read and try to figure out if that woman in the thong is a trophy wife or a hooker. Or maybe I'll get on a raft and float with the kids around the Mandalay Bay river pool, or run into the fake waves at the fake Mandalay beach.

But the theory to pool partying is this: Why go to a strip club when you can let the strippers come to you? The Rio Hotel has a deal with the Sapphire Club, so that one of the hotel's pools is populated by off-duty dancers; but the scene doesn't seem to have gelled yet — it's just a bunch of dudes paying ($50 on weekends) to ogle strippers getting a tan. There's also Rehab, the party on Sunday at the Hard Rock, which has become a disgustingly overcrowded spring-break spectacle — a drunken, wet frat party — though there's something to be said for that.

Still, I'd stick with these just slightly more adult pool/club scenes (toplessness is strongly encouraged, so no kids): Bare at the Mirage; Venus at Caesars; Moorea Beach Club at the Mandalay Bay; and Tao Beach at the Venetian. You'll have to pay to get in (usually about $10–$20 for women, $30–$50 for men), which is kind of ridiculous. But once you get over that hurdle, you'll want to spend a whole lot more to get a cabana and feel really special. And you'll probably get bottle service to impress people. Also, you can play blackjack in the pool at most of these places — in Vegas that's called multitasking.

9. The Spa

Why would you come to Vegas to be understimulated? That's like going to Mecca to eat pork. But apparently some people think of massage as decadence. It took this town a while to understand that women exist as something more than entertainment for men, but they've finally got it, and Vegas is now — as far as a plethora of high-end options goes — the best spa destination in the country. Canyon Ranch at the Venetian and the Spa at the Bellagio are the best, but you pretty much can't go wrong. I'm guessing that at most places the sauna smells sweetly of cedar, eucalyptus and alcohol from the fruity drinks at the bachelorette party the night before.

10. Downtown

Maybe you're Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas and the happy-roller-coaster-fake-New-York-acrobat-show Vegas isn't quite right for your alcoholic suicidal mood. Or maybe you lack the depth, but want to write moody punk songs anyway. That's when you go downtown to the tiny, old part of Las Vegas that is technically the only part of the city where Mayor Oscar Goodman has jurisdiction. It's seedy and ugly and makes you feel like an outlaw. I've played poker at Binions — home of the World Series of Poker — at a table where everyone but me looked like one of those old men under the ghost masks on Scooby Doo. The city's first step in sprucing up downtown is the the sort-of-cool, sort-of-depressing Fremont Street Experience, where parents bring their kids to watch the outdoor mall's ceiling tell little vignettes in laser lights, like a Western Stone Mountain. Then they give blood for slot machine money.

Bonus: Liberace Museum, Gun Store and More!

If you've still got time to kill, there are lots of other things you can do in Vegas. You can hit the Liberace Museum; the small, overpriced, but legit Gallery of Fine Art at the Bellagio; and the weird zoo exhibits of tigers and dolphins at the Mirage. You can get Thai food at Lotus of Siam at the strip mall on East Sahara Avenue or, better, the Mexican restaurant in the same mall that serves one dish: a sublime goat taco. You can go to the Gun Store, just off the Strip on Tropicana Avenue, where you can — without anything more than a driver's license — spend the day shooting Tommy Guns, AK-47s, SAWs, Uzis, M-16s and MP-40s for less than $100. If that doesn't complete your fully American experience in the most American city in America, you can always go to a chapel to marry a stranger.