Travel February 2001

Las Vegas, 'Tis of Thee

The sweet land of liberties deserves our respect—or at least our ambivalence

Craps used to hold center stage in Las Vegas casinos, but it has been eclipsed by the more solitary and competitive blackjack. (A clever academic could probably derive an entire sociology from this.) Craps remains the social game, and in the right circumstances the most fun. At the craps table you root out loud for the shooter, and the shooter talks to the dice, and the woman in gold lamé who's been making the reckless bets jumps into the air when the dealer intones, "Eight the hard way, eight."

The new wisdom in Las Vegas is that people don't come here for the gambling, they come for "entertainment." Logically this has to be true in some sense, since gambling is now so widely available elsewhere. Yet people gamble here who wouldn't gamble elsewhere. They feel free, historically licensed, to do so—that's what the place is for. And gambling still pays the bills: it accounts for about 60 percent of the revenues at an average large hotel. Purists—those who like their corruption uncorrupted—object to the new tourist-paradise Las Vegas, but it may be that the fantasy architecture, like the absence of daylight and clocks inside the casinos, only enhances that sense of suspended reality that can make a hundred-dollar bill look so insubstantial. In any case, whatever the architecture does for the gambling, there is little doubt that the gambling enhances the architecture—it provides the charge in the air, the sense of living dangerously, that keeps the place from being the Disney World it sometimes seems to want to become.

Las Vegas meets one fundamental criterion for a great city: it imposes its own reality on you. The cityscape effectively cuts you off from the outside world, but from time to time you may look down a long side street, get a glimpse of the red mountains beyond, and feel curious about the desert in which the city has grown. One day I rented a car to look around. The desert used to begin right outside the Strip's back door, but Las Vegas has sprawled. Its metropolitan area is the fastest-growing in the country, with a population now of about 1.4 million. (Forty years ago the entire state of Nevada had fewer than 300,000 residents.) To the east and the south development stretches for some twenty miles, all the way to Henderson, and so the drive down toward Hoover Dam (thirty miles from Las Vegas) has become rather dispiriting, in a landscape whose long, treeless views forgive nothing.

On the highway I thought about the theories of the architect Robert Venturi that appeared in a controversial book of a generation ago, Learning From Las Vegas (1972), celebrating the free spirit of Strip architecture and chastising reflexive critics of the style. There's something to be said for the Las Vegas aesthetic, which essentially holds that nothing is ugly, and in the city itself you get caught up in this liberating abandon. Even a billboard looks somehow organic, God-given. But the magic wears off at the city line, and I think that's the trouble with Venturi's argument. The Las Vegas aesthetic doesn't travel, isn't "scaleable."

To the west of the city the desert lies closer at hand. It begins abruptly just on the other side of a planned community called Summerlin, which is still under construction. This is one border that will be maintained, thanks to the Bureau of Land Management, which looks after a 200,000-acre tract here called Red Rock Canyon. You can get to it from downtown in less than half an hour. A local resident had mentioned Red Rock to me; the guidebooks give it short shrift, reasonably enough, because most visitors, if they are traveling outside the city, want to see the region's monumental, world-class sites: the Grand Canyon is a four-hour drive to the southeast.

Red Rock isn't monumental, just a place of great and serene beauty, its sparsely vegetated hills undulating toward the bold, wrinkled faces of the Spring Mountains. A sinuous road takes you close to the feature that gives the place its name: a gorge with walls of layered red and tawny sandstone. At numerous outlooks hiking trails head off into the desert, and though I hadn't come planning to hike, I found the idea irresistible. I walked into the mesquite, with one eye on my watch because of a late-afternoon appointment, for as long as I reasonably could. The next time I saw the city, I was dusty of shoe but clearer of mind. Knowing what I know now, I'd save most of a day on even a short trip to Las Vegas for a visit to Red Rock Canyon.

It's easy to hate Las Vegas, and it's just about as easy to love it, with a Venturi-like, campy embrace of all that glitters. But as I settled in, I came to wonder if the city doesn't deserve the respect we pay other places, the honor of ambivalence. It was the luxury hotel Bellagio, where I started spending most of my time, that got me thinking this way.

My introduction to Bellagio came through a visit to its Gallery of Fine Art, which announced a show of twenty-six paintings from The Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C., including works by Monet, Matisse, Bonnard, and Picasso. It is a mark of the way Las Vegas addles the brain that after paying a $12 admission fee I more than half expected the paintings to be forgeries. But they are real, and in this context seem somehow hyper-real. The show, which runs through March, is an experiment the hotel hopes to repeat with paintings from other museums. The deal: the hotel turns over all the gallery proceeds to the lending museum, which stands to make about a million dollars this time.

Bellagio, which has upped the ante for Las Vegas resorts, poses a problem of perception for the traveler. It contains more than enough excess to qualify as a bona fide Las Vegas experience, starting with its extravagant Lake Como, whose eight acres look more like forty in this desert city. Bridal parties make their way through the Via Bellagio shopping arcade; on past the Gallery of Fine Art and the function rooms, named after artists (tonight in Monet 1-4: the Phoenix 2000 Awards dinner for achievement in the "medical device industry"); and finally to the Wedding Chapels. Meanwhile, the gambling goes on day and night, with an annual "drop," as what's bet at the tables is called, of $1.4 billion.

But Bellagio is more than diverting. It has some amenities that would be enjoyable in any setting. In a city that has awakened to the pleasures of food, it offers an array of restaurants that could keep you quite happy over several days. Bellagio stands at the forefront of one of those very Las Vegas trends: what might be called restaurant colonization. It has invited a range of great chefs to reinvent their restaurants here; San Francisco's Aqua, Boston's Olives, New York's Le Cirque, all have outposts at the hotel. These represent major steps beyond the heaping buffets that have historically been Las Vegas's main contribution to cuisine—though Bellagio's buffet has its fans too. At Aqua, I happily violated one of my few surviving life principles (Never eat the inhabitant of one ocean when you're closer to another ocean) to have a salad built around half a Maine lobster and "heirloom" tomatoes—and it was a dish I'll never find in Boothbay Harbor. I did not eat at Picasso, Bellagio's premier restaurant, because to do so I would have needed to book a table two months in advance. Run by the Spanish chef Julian Serrano, it last year won a five-star rating. It features fourteen original works by Picasso on its walls and a brilliant carpet designed by the artist's son, Claude.

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