As one of the top three travel destinations in the USA, Las Vegas (the other two are Orlando and New York City) has more to offer than just gambling (or "gaming," as the local authorities prefer to call it). That's good, as losing is the normal result of all casino gambling, according to the American Gaming Association (www.americangaming.org), whose Expected Loss tables show that at best (for the player), you can expect to lose from 50 cents to $1.50 for every $100 you bet, at blackjack. The worst odds are at Keno, where you can expect to lose $25 to $30 for every $100. With other games, including baccarat, craps, roulette, reels and video poker it's somewhere in between. For even the most avid slot machine buff, then, there comes a time when repetitious losing begins to pall, and the great outdoors (at least, outside the casino) beckons.
Not only is winning abnormal (though, of course, it can happen), but you had better not try cheating. I spent two hours in the Surveillance Room of the Bellagio in September, observing a crew of five persons keeping watch on activities below with more than 2,000 sky cameras helping them along. Add to the cameras a large brigade of uniformed attendants and plain-clothes agents down on the floor, and a potential cheat is beat before he or she begins.
Everyone entering the casino is observed by cameras, and selected faces are matched with stored photos and biosketches of past cheats or suspects so that an eye can be kept on them throughout their stay. Cameras show the 144 playing tables (poker, baccarat, etc.) up close, with details such as signet rings showing up clearly, as do the faces of the cards, dice or wheels, of course. Those doing the surveillance are wise to everything, from tiny lights shoved into slot machines to hollow chip stacks, for instance.
Margaret Brooks, Director of Surveillance at The Bellagio, commented, "We try to prevent undesirables and suspects from entering or staying, but if they try to break the law, we call the Nevada Gaming Commission, and they send their people to handle the situation. We're not trying to be policemen ourselves." And Beverly Griffin, of Griffin Investigations, which provides photographs and information to several casinos, told me "The slogan of Las Vegas is "What happens here, stays here", but I like to add, 'And if you break the law, you stay here, too.'"
Beyond the Games
Outside the casino and in, there is plenty to do. The Frommer's Guide to Las Vegas lists an amazing variety of activities, from shopping to nightlife, theme parks to museums. Here are a few recent additions and some old favorites that I checked out on my visit last month:
Le Reve (The Dream), the new (since late April) spectacle at the equally new Wynn Las Vegas (tel. 888/320-9966; www.wynnlasvegas.com), is quite simply the best such production I have ever seen. Based partly on the work of the great psychoanalyst Ernst Jung, Le Reve takes place in a circular theater, in, under and above the water stage in the center. Designed by Franco Dragone, formerly creative director of Cirque du Soleil, it will surely incorporate at least one dream you have had, yourself, as many common dreams are represented in the swirling, diving, flying and exploding extravaganza before you. Incidentally, the original name for the Wynn hotel was Le Reve. Contact www.ticketmaster.com or the hotel's website for tickets. The Wynn Las Vegas Resort & Hotel itself is a marvel, a black, quasi-obelisk slab that contains 2,700 guest rooms, a 110,000-sq. ft. casino, a five-story waterfall and a golf course, among other amenities.
A museum devoted to the A Bomb may seem a bit gloomy, but if you are at all interested in the fate of the planet we live on, consider visiting the Atomic Testing Museum (tel. 702/794-5161; www.atomictestingmuseum.org), a new (early 2005) attraction. America's atomic bombs were tested 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas in the desert from 1951 to 1992 after Pacific island explosions caused International dismay, population removal, many deaths and ecological pollution. You can view two movies and see the history of the A bomb, H-bomb and more. Some attention is also given to the medical and ecological impact on people and land in the western US as a result of fallout from the tests. There are only five other museums devoted to the A Bomb, this one in Vegas being an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Open daily except a few holidays. Admission is $10, $7 for seniors, military and ages 7 to 17.
If you are really an atomic history fan, consider visiting the test site itself. This monthly affair involves registering in advance, bringing your own food and drink, and some red tape. Contact Brenda Carter at the Department of Energy office in Vegas at 702/295-0944, fax 702/295-1859 or visit www.nv.doe.gov/nts/tours.htm.
The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (tel. 877/957-9777; www.bellagio.com) no longer contains Steve Wynn's fantastic private collection -- he took it with him when he left this hotel he built. Still, as director Matthew Hileman says, "it's the only branded hotel fine arts gallery in the world." Hileman puts together exhibitions that stay for a few months at a time, paintings by Impressionists from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts being there until January 8, 2006. Open daily, $15 for adults, $3 less for students and seniors.
The Liberace Museum (tel. 702/798-5595; www.liberace.org) is a big draw, not only with mature people who grew up with his television presence, but with younger fans. Many of the latter may be influenced by the Liberace Foundation's outreach with scholarships to young performers. But here you can see the world's largest rhinestone and some of his costumes, which now seem tame by comparison with contemporary glitter wear. There's a free shuttle from several hotels. Currently playing splendidly in the staccato Liberace style at the museum is Wes Winters, who is also a composer in his own right.
In that blighted area between The Strip and Downtown, artists are making a comeback, and Ivana Trump is constructing a condo building. A good spot for viewing contemporary painting is the Arts Factory at Charleston and Main, where creative men and women such as Steven Spann (tel. 702/384-3860; email email@example.com) have their studios. Spann recently sold many of his paintings to Elton John, he says.
Reproductions of fine art adorn many of the resort hotels, but the collection I like best is at the Venetian (tel. 702/414-1000; www.venetian.com), where Italian artists were brought over to recreate murals, ceilings, and artifacts in fine detail. Among the highlights at the Venetian are Veronese's "Apotheosis of Venice" (1585), Tiepolo's "Four Heroic Episodes" (1725), Bambini's "Triumph of Venice" (1680) and an Armillary Sphere. Good reproductions of several buildings complete the feast for the eyes, ranging from the Doge's Palace to the Ca'd'Oro, the Bridge of Sighs to the Campanile. Add to all this the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, which draws real works of art from the collections of the Guggenheim in New York, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Kunschistorisches Museum in Vienna, and you have a hotel that is truly supporting the arts.
A future project is the Neon Museum (www.neonmuseum.org), presently a collection of old signs from casinos, restaurants and hotels around town. The sponsors hope to have a building to house these artifacts (a giant silver slipper, ditto magic lantern, for instance) by 2007, they say.
Though shopping anywhere is beginning to look like shopping everywhere else, the way the stores are put together can be different from place to place. In Vegas, the Fashion Show (tel. 702/369-8382; www.thefashionshow.com) complex, across from Treasure Island, the Venetian and Wynn Las Vegas, is unique in that it has seven flagship department stores, and over 200 shops and restaurants. They also have a concierge center and a Great Hall for fashion shows, though the presentation I saw at the latter was very far from being great.
Most hotel rooms in Vegas are said to be controlled by one of two huge groups, Bally's or the MGM Mirage. It's convenient to book with either, as each has several humongous properties, making room availability an easy factor in your planning. Be sure to check out discount room offers on websites such as www.vegas.com or www.hotels.com. I have stayed in several Vegas hotels, visited many more, and recommend you choose based on location, as getting around is not easy, especially in the usually hot weather. The Strip is long and walking in daytime is arduous, though evening strolling there can be fun.
If you can tear yourself away from your own hotel's buffet or cafÂ¿, consider one of these hot spots (listed here with dinner prices, lunch being lower):
Andre's, in the Monte Carlo Resort and also Downtown, remains a favorite with lovers of real French cuisine, even after 25 years. Pricey, but good value for money, are entrees such as phyllo wrapped chicken breast at $30. Very good service.
Good for a chain is the Capital Grille, in the Fashion Show complex, with sirloin or filet mignon going for $34.95. Open since 2004, with good, but improvable, service.
Vegas.com says it will get you free bookings at 30 or more of the city's restaurants, including Spago, Postrio, Eiffel Tower, Lupo, Lutece and similar. Reviews are also available on the site.
The latest addition to nightlife for those who like staying up all night is Tao, a fantastically decorated restaurant/nightclub sprawling over 40,000 sq. ft. By the way, if you sign up with www.vegashotspots.com, they promise all-inclusive, prepaid VIP party packages at over 60 clubs and lounges, hundreds of restaurants, and more.
More info is available at www.visitlasvegas.com, the official website of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.
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