Saturday, March 8, 2014

A European Weekend in the Desert of Las Vegas

The dancing fountains of Bellagio.
It was winter and I’d had enough of America.  Too much snow, too much cold, too many chain stores and too much traffic.  I needed a summer in Europe.  I needed to walk in twilight past splashing fountains, to linger over a good meal at an outdoor cafe, to feel the sun and the rustle of green tree branches overhead, to see flowers and statuary and history and art, all placed around me, for no reason except for their beauty.  I needed to experience the joy de vie, the wines and the haute cuisine of the French and Italians.

And so I went to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is the most European of all American cities.  Oh certainly, it’s in a desert, surround by stark treeless mountains.  The city has 15 miles of neon lights and from space, Las Vegas is the brightest spot on Earth.  For sheer tackiness, there’s nothing in the world that can touch it.  Or touch parts of it.

Because for every street of neon and lights and fast food, there is another in Las Vegas where you can walk around an Italian lake, stare at a fresco painted ceiling the size of a battleship, ride a gondola under canal bridges, or admire what appears to be centuries old architecture. 

Paris Las Vegas from Lago de Bellagio.
And food?  The grand master chefs of Europe are all here.  Chefs Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy of France, Gordon Ramsay from the U.K., Costas Spiliadis from Greece, and Jose Andres from Spain are creating menus in Las Vegas for elaborate new visions of their original restaurants – places of such sheer abundance, they could never be imagined in the old country.

The Shops at the Forum of Caesar's Palace
It’s all an illusion, of course.  Everything in Las Vegas is fake.  A mixture of cement and plastic formed into a visible homage to recreate a fantasy version of Europe’s “greatest hits.” 

And why not?  In recent years, dining, shopping and shows in Las Vegas are booming, while there are 13,000 fewer slot machines.  Every designer of Europe has come to The Strip with stores that almost match their countermarks on Champs de Elysee in Paris and Via Condotti in Rome.   Cartier, Versace, Oscar de la Renta, Gucci, Hermes, Dior, Channel, Louis Vuitton, Piaget, Yves Saint Laurent….they are all here, and what’s more, they’re all close together, on the easily walkable Strip.

Wines?  Le Cirque has 900 French wines.  The restaurant Aureole features an incredible wine tower that is four-stories high with 50,000 bottles.  Acrobatic women in harnesses float from the ceiling to hover up and down the wine tower retrieving bottles. 

The Eiffel Tower at Paris
If Las Vegas has created a homage to Europe, what a homage it is!   And joy de vie?  Nearly every hotel has a pool for “European” (i.e., topless) sunbathing.  Is there anyplace else in America with the same European relaxed adult attitude toward drinking, nudity and fun?

No, Las Vegas seems mesmerized by Europe (or at least a fantasy version of it) and as a result, there are some easy ways to have a quick European weekend in the middle of the desert. 

Here’s a start:

No place on the Strip captures the ambiance of Europe better than this 2,600-room hotel.  From dining al fresco at the authentic looking café Mon Ami Gabi to climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, it’s all a bit touristy, but that’s part of the appeal.  The 541-foot tall Eiffel Tower is a 50 percent replica of its sister in Paris, except that the one here in the desert is made of steel rather than cast iron plates, which actually makes it stronger.  All 2.5 million rivets on the Las Vegas model are fakes, just added to help create the illusion, which is continued with dozens of statues and Disney-quality re-creations of the Arc de Triomphe, Paris Opera House, the famous Hotel de Ville and the Alexandre III Bridge.  The extravagance is so huge, the hotel actually wanted to build a full-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, but it would have interfered with flights on the nearby airport.
One of the many quaint dining rooms in Le Village Buffet

Inside, it is always twilight in a quaint Parisian village setting as you walk down Le Boulevard, a cobblestone street under a painted sky that meanders past authentic looking storefronts selling French soaps and perfume, wines and cheeses, jewelry, art, and of course, French fashions. 

You can dine outside at Mon Ami Gabi, or with a 360-degree view from the top of the tower.  One of the best buffets in Las Vegas is Le Village Buffet, which offers traditional dishes from five French provinces, all in a wonderful French village setting.  Live-action stations offer Brittany crepes made to order, tender rotisserie chicken from Burgundy, sauerkraut and sausages of Alsace or penne a la putanesca from Provence.   From seafood bouillabaisse to braised pork belly and apples, it is all French (with some sushi thrown in for an appetizer). Dine “outside” in a re-created town square, or inside near a fireplace in a cottage.  All the rooms are decorated to mimic each of the regions.  For desert? Try the macaroons, fruit tarts, chocolate éclair or the acclaimed vanilla bean crème brulee.  It is the only buffet in Las Vegas listed on OpenTable, which allows you to make reservations and avoid lines – a common problem at popular restaurants.
Architectural detail in Paris

And of course, you must go to the top of the tower for the outdoor viewing deck.  A good tip – go up at twilight so that you can watch all the lights of Las Vegas come on, and have a perfect view of the next stop – the dancing waters of Bellagio. 

Inspired by the village of Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como in Northern Italy, this elegant $1.6 billion resort has 4,000 rooms – more rooms than there are residents in the real town of Bellagio.  The highlight is a green-blue, 8-acre lake lined with a grand promenade of cypress, olive trees and pines.  Marble circular viewpoints along the terrace are the perfect spot to watch the free evening spectacle of 1,200 fountains of water. Choreographed to music, the dancing waters shoot hundreds of feet into the air.  Perhaps it’s best not to know that the 27 million gallon Lago di Bellagio is actually filled with “gray water,” recycled water from the hotel’s sinks, bathtubs and showers.  No matter.  With the lights on, and the far side of the lake lined with yellow Tuscan buildings, you could easily be in Italy’s Lake District.

The pool at Bellagio
On the lovely grounds of Bellagio can be found an 8.5-acre Mediterranean-style garden filled with citrus trees and flowers and splashing hand-carved fountains.  The marble-columned Via Bellagio is a one of the ritziest pedestrian shopping malls in town with Prada, Armani and Fendi.

Next door to Bellagio, Caesars opened in 1966 and through continued refurbishments has become the most opulent of the Euro-themed casinos.  It is an over-the-top, indoor and outdoor monument to Ancient Rome.  And to decadence.  On the grounds, there are gorgeous fountains, manicured trees and hedges, tall Corinthian columns, and outdoor cafes sitting beneath a wall of Roman statues. 

The Shops of the Forum in Caesars Palace
Inside, the Forum Shops have 160 stores and restaurants along a maze of winding Italian streets that open into dramatic piazzas filled with fountains and 20-foot high statues of Neptune, winged stallions, Venus, Apollo, and of course, Bacchus.  

Every inch is designed to take your breath away.  The three-story entrance has unique circular elevators that climb up past columns and statues of 30-foot women, all rising out of turquoise pools of water.  Painted circular ceilings simulate a sky that changes from deep blue flecked with white clouds to a tranquil twilight of magentas and pinks. At every turn, there are grand archways, huge domes and marble pillars.  It’s easy to get lost, and even easier to be overwhelmed.  Even more fun, watch the Roman statues closely.  Many of them move.  

The full scale St. Mark's Campanile at the Venetian
The Roman theme is carried over to the pools, where waitresses dressed in togas serve frozen grapes in the Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis, while European-style topless sunbathing is the attraction in the adults-only Venus Pool Club.

Across the street from Caesars, the Italian fantasy continues with a re-creation of Venice, complete with a full size replica of St. Mark’s Campanile (bell tower) surrounded by canals filled with gondolas, piazzas, bridges, a faux Doge’s Palace and a mini-replica of the Rialto Bridge.  There’s nothing small about the gigantic Sistine Chapel-like fresco that fills the entire ceiling as you enter, or the labyrinth of indoor cobblestone streets that wind along canals to the “outdoor” cafes of Piazza San Marco.  Here, you can watch gondoliers in black-striped shirts and straw hats sing romantic Italian songs as they ferry lovers down the canals.  Cheesy?  Of course.  Until you see the two-story waterfall and marble columns of Palazzo with Manolo Blahnik for shoes, Canali for fashionable 
 Italian apparel, and direct from London, Thomas Pink.

Piazza San Marco in the Venetian
If the illusion is still not working for you, have another drink. The relaxed attitude of Las Vegas means you can take any drink with you.  Any drink. From a can of beer purchased at a liquor store, to a 20-year old glass of wine from an elegant café, it’s completely legal to go in or out of any resort or walk on any street carrying your drink with you.  Even Europe is not that liberal!

If you go:  Another tip:  Las Vegas also allows gambling.  For complete information on the what to see, do, eat, and where to sleep (or at least store your luggage) go to:  

The entrance to the Shops in the Forum
Booking your hotel:   Not everyone can win all the time, including Las Vegas hotels.  Seventeen of the top 20 largest hotels in the United States are located here, many of them with more than 4,000 rooms.  With that many rooms and conventions coming and going, every hotel experiences “dark” days where they have huge vacancies.  When that happens, they “dump” the rooms on Expedia and other sites for exceptionally low prices.

The challenge?  The “dark” days usually only last one day.  When I tried to book a Wed., Thurs., Fri. at the hotel Paris for this trip, I found the Wed.  night was $200, the Thurs. night $60 and the Fri. night $130.   So an average of $130 a night – not bad for the center of the Strip.  But why not just book the Thurs. night for $60?  Five minutes of looking through Expedia, I discovered Wed. was a “dark” night for Luxor, with rooms that night at just $70, while Fri. night at Treasure Island was just $65.  To get back and forth, I would need a car, but cars were available at Fox Rent a Car for just $14 a night.

The Freemont Street Experience
By doing staying in three hotels, I saved $160, and got an essentially free car rental for three days.

Changing rooms every night is not for everyone.  But it can definitely add to the Las Vegas experience.  The Strip is four miles long.  If you stay at the Luxor on one end, you’re not likely to see much of the Wynn on the other – and vice versa.  Move your hotel around, and over three days you will get to know the Strip with a minimum of walking.  You can stay in the hotel until noon, and check into the next one at 3, so if you’re traveling light, it’s really not much of an inconvenience and can add considerable to the trip.  Every night is a new trip.

Parking is free and easy. Every casino has thousands of free parking spots.

Caesar's Palace dates to 1966, ancient by Las Vegas standards
Cruising the Strip by car is fun – especially at dusk -- and having a car makes it easy to get to the Hoover Dam, about 40 minutes away, on a day trip that is definitely worth doing.

A car also makes it easy to get to the Fremont Street Experience and the new and truly excellent Mob Museum.  This three floor museum explores the history of the mob in America, detailing the more than 1,000 hits that have taken place.  They even have a piece of the actual wall where Al Capone carried out the St. Valentine’s Massacre, machine gunning down seven gangsters at one time.  You can still see the machine gun slugs in the wall.  There are exhibits, artifacts, videos and interactive exhibits of everything from an electric chair to the barber chair where a mobster was shot down.

Great fun, and very illuminating about the early history of Las Vegas and how it was at one time controlled by the mob.