For the past 20 years, I have found one reason or another to make at least one annual pilgrimage to Sin City. Bachelor parties (including my own), guys weekends, college fraternity reunions--you name it. Time after time Vegas' siren's call from the desert has found its way to my ears and lured me into its den of vices. But due to sleep deprivation or solemn pacts made with fellow rogues, very little of my time in Las Vegas exists to either remember or share.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Film has been destroyed. Witness protection protocols have been evoked. Pretty much all I can tell you is that what happened in Vegas--well, you get the idea.
But having recently left my 30's behind, I felt it was time to return to the dessert with a little more maturity and poise and find out what the town was really about if you had your wits about you. And so I grabbed the wife and set out to viva Las Vegas like a grown-up.
On prior visits, a hotel served one purpose: a place to park a bag and a quick shower. Sleep, if it ever took place at all, could just have well occurred under a cactus in the desert. This trip I wanted to stay somewhere with some panache.
A trusted college buddy/Las Vegas culture maven and bon vivant insisted I stay at the The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas attesting that it currently is "the white hot center of the universe." Sold. Upon arrival, it's easy to see why The Cosmopolitan is all the rage in a town that is all the rage. Unlike many of the newer casinos which have engaged in an arms race of flashy opulence, The Cosmopolitan simply exudes cool without even trying. Its two sleek black towers rise off the strip in a perfect location where you could walk to most of the Vegas landmarks…although you really won't want to leave.
The property is huge (2,995 rooms) yet it feels intimate and cozy. Both its guest rooms and public spaces are high design yet feel very relaxed and accessible. It's high energy but also mellow. And it simultaneously feels completely fresh and invigorating but also like a place you have been many times before. Rooms are plush and smart--a space you would love to call home. Most come with oversized Japanese soaking tubs, rain showers, kitchenettes and the premium view rooms overlook the Eiffel Tower of Paris Casino and the fabled Bellagio fountains. Plus another Las Vegas rarity: an actual outdoor balcony.
The common areas brilliantly concentrate the action into manageable areas unlike many of the cavernous layouts of the modern mega-casino where you can sometimes walk a quarter of a mile to get from one end to another. The first floor is the dynamic casino and the tri-level, 2 million crystal Chandelier Bar; the second level hosts a slew of fabulously eclectic indie shops and boutiques; the third unites the property's restaurants and spreads them like spokes on a wheel around a social hub where you can have a drink, play pool or lounge on cushy sofas. And whether you are at the casino, the hotel's pool district, the Sahra Spa and Hammam or having a bite at one the restaurants, the people watching, quite simply, is unparalleled.
Not only had I rarely been out of the casinos or sports books, I had rarely seen the light of the Las Vegas day. It was time to seize the desert day.
The first stop: a pilgrimage to The Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, setting for the juggernaut History Channel show Pawn Stars. Fans of the show tune in weekly for a an antique roadshow starring a motley 3-generation family who own the shop a few miles off the strip. Each week some of the most random and fascinating objects come into the shop which are frequently bought and ultimately displayed in the store after some high-tension negotiations.
A quick cab ride brings you to the store where an astounding 4,000 people a day line up to enter the shop and view the TV-famous items. There you will see many of the articles made famous on TV including World Series rings, Olympic Gold Medals, Civil War guns, rare vintage toys, autographed rock memorabilia--the shop itself is like a museum and it's free to browse. And if you are a collector, it's all are for sale except one thing: a samurai sword dating back to 1492. That one's a keeper.
The next morning after a reasonable bedtime (for Vegas standards) we embarked on probably the most exciting thing you can do (next to a huge run on the craps tables): a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon. We pre-booked our sojourn with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, the gold standard for this amazing experience, and departed from the hotel via an early morning shuttle bus, witnessing a number of walks of shame by disheveled revelers cabbing back to their own hotels. After a 45-minute drive, we arrived at Boulder City airstrip. After a quick safety video, we boarded a state-of-the-art EcoStar EC130 helicopter for lift off. After a smooth 30 minute flight which includes a sweep over Hoover Dam and Lake Meade, we touched down at the base of the Canyon. We had a quick (and rather surreal) picnic overlooking the Colorado River, 4000 feet below the Canyon rim, then took off in the chopper which glided back up in the air and back to the airstrip. The whole round trip lasted 4 1/2 hours and even my wife, a nervous flyer, felt totally at ease with the buttoned-up operation.
When it came time for some evening entertainment, there was probably only one show which had ever piqued my fogged interest: The Beatles LOVE show at the Mirage which combines the Fab Four's greatest hits with Cirque du Soleil. LOVE ushers you through the different Beatle eras with characters from the songs brought to life including Sgt. Pepper, Elenor Rigby, Dr. Robert and The Walrus. I have never much cared for Cirque du Soleil as while I usually appreciate the performers' genius, I find the themes tiresomely bizarre. But these are 90 of the most transcendent minutes I've ever experienced in a live show. Brilliantly costumed bodies fly from one end of the theater to the other, acrobats and roller bladers soar with Beatles music as you have never heard it before. There are even speakers built into the headrest of your chair, truly immersing you into Beatlemania. Indeed, this kind of experience could only be had in Las Vegas.
Eat Your Heart Out
My Las Vegas dining experience typically consisted of three things: gorging in mega-buffets, a ham and cheese sandwich at the poker table or a drunken call to room service between the hours of 4 and 7am. Sitting in a decent restaurant and actually enjoying a meal with my wife would be a foreign experience that I really looked forward to.
The first night we set upon the sexy Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill located in the Cosmopolitan. I had long been a fan of the New York City Blue Ribbon restaurants and this outpost is right on par with its Big Apple brethren. If sushi and sashimi are your thing, the masters at Blue Ribbon can take you to deep into the ocean with cuts and selections of fish seldom seen. But for more of the terrestrial cuisine lovers, don't miss the Fried Chicken "Blue RIbbon Style" with wasabi and honey or the buttery filet with Japanese sweet potato and black truffle sauce. And under no circumstances should you skip the ginger bread pudding for dessert. The scene really kicks in when the DJ arrives.
Across the street in the high energy Planet Hollywood Casino, The Strip House, another New York City import, activates a playful double entendre with its tender steaks and burlesque-themed red velvet walls adorned with antique black and white photos of nude nineteenth century European ladies. On one hand, it doesn't take itself too seriously. On the other (that being the food), it's deadly serious. Classic tender filets and fresh seafood explode with flavor and mastery along with creative surprises like black truffle creamed spinach and crisp goose fat potatoes. And the expression "save room for dessert" takes on a new meaning with the Strip House's legendary 24-layer chocolate cake. Layer after layer of the moistest cake and richest chocolate simultaneously defy gravity and the boundaries of sensibility in a rapturous caloric crescendo.
And what would Las Vegas be without one visit to a buffet. But unlike the barbaric queues of gluttony at many casinos, The Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan kicks an old concept into the world of haute cuisine with tastes and designs beyond imagination. Brunch offerings include red velvet pancakes, fried chicken served in stylish miniature deep fryers, house cured bacon, a mac-n-cheese bar and a dessert selection longer than a supermarket aisle. Brunch kicks off at 8am and serves the hungover faithful until 3pm.
This article originally appeared in Seasons Magazine.