Travel February 2001

Las Vegas, 'Tis of Thee

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

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.

Everything is a little bit better at Bellagio. Natural light, in violation of Las Vegas tradition, finds its way into the hotel's common areas through skylighted arcades, a conservatory, and even restaurant windows with a view. Italian craftsmen were brought in to lay the beautiful mosaic tile in the lobby. Cut flowers abound, thanks to a garden and a greenhouse staff numbering 150. The casino's machines have been dimmed and muted, and its low ceiling hung with striped silk fabric. The women who serve drinks, instead of looking like Playboy bunnies, dress in little black suits that would be appropriate at Goldman Sachs, if only their hemlines were a foot or two closer to the ground.

Here is the problem of Bellagio: the hotel is not just amusing—it's kind of ... nice. The rates, of course, reflect the quality: in late fall "deluxe," meaning standard, rooms were around $300 a night.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"What Happens to Steve Wynn?" (About.com, March 12, 2000)
A profile of Steve Wynn, focusing on the future of his career after selling the Mirage hotel to MGM. Posted in the Las Vegas for Visitors section of the About.com internet guide.

Built at a cost of $1.9 billion, Bellagio is the creation of Steve Wynn, the city's best-known entrepreneur, whose Mirage was before this the ranking luxury resort hotel in town. Wynn no longer runs either place; he was bought out a few months ago by MGM. I spoke with a Bellagio executive named Alan Feldman, who has been with the hotel from the start, and he gave me a bit of the history: "Unlike The Venetian, Bellagio is only lightly themed. The theme that we had in mind was really just 'romance.' We had thought of classical French styling, but we had also thought of something very modern. In fact, we had a design and announced a hotel built in the shape of a great wave. But then Steve Wynn went to Italy, and he was sailing on Lake Como, and he looked back at the shore and said, 'This is the most romantic place I've ever been. Let's build this.'"

Feldman and I were having a drink—in my case a $16 glass of Chardonnay—on the terrace of Picasso, looking across Lake Como to Paris, on the other side of the Strip. It was early evening. Each night Bellagio puts on a water show on the lake, geysers erupting from the surface with loud reports, the water exploding into the air like liquid fireworks. The whole show is choreographed to music heard by means of speakers discreetly placed on the perimeter of the lake. The scene we were watching was accompanied by a section of Appalachian Spring.

The jets rose and fell in perfect consonance with the swelling music, and in a little interlude just before the Shaker theme is repeated, the sprays dissolved into a cloud of mist. Then, as the stately finale began, the water erupted again, with more force. My companion had of course seen this many times before, but he was smiling with what seemed to be unaffected pleasure, and so was I. "Simple gifts indeed," he said. Boom! and a new fountain arose before us. Hearing this music, I can never keep the words out of my head, and there they were again. 'Tis a gift to be simple—the water shot up on every beat—'Tis a gift to be free ... By the close a wall of water stood before us, obscuring all else. Then, as the last chord resolved itself, the water dropped back into the lake. The mist cleared, and the Eiffel Tower was visible once again, its lights glowing in the dusk. At that moment I could not recall having felt before such an emphatic sense of being where I belonged: in America.

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