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Strip Search

A Quest for the Best in Las Vegas

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I hadn’t been to Vegas for years and what I remembered was a somewhat seedy culture of $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffets, tawdry girlie show flyers and billboards littering the Strip, all accompanied by the inescapable cacophony of quarter slot machines.

But I heard things were different in Vegas—different in a big way—so I set out to see for myself.

My bargain-priced Southwest Airlines flight set down in McCarran Airport after a short flight from Oakland. I had one goal for the next three days: seek out the “new” Las Vegas and sample some of the best the Strip had to offer.

What I discovered was astonishing: the old Vegas is almost completely gone. Rising from a colossal mix of major remodels and big-scale teardowns were palatial, finely appointed casino hotels boasting sumptuous lodging, fine cuisine, world-class spas, haute shopping, cutting-edge clubs and resplendent swimming pools. It wasn’t cheap anymore—it was high end, expensive and much more fun.

Royal Retreat

In my rental car I drove a short distance to the southern end of the Strip and my elegant hotel for the next three nights: the Four Seasons Las Vegas. Of course, the Four Seasons chain is renowned as one of the world’s finest, but I chose the Vegas location specifically because it promised a quiet “boutique”-hotel alternative to the nonstop bustle of glitzy casino resorts.

The Four Seasons’ 424 rooms and suites—few, by Vegas standards—occupy the upper echelons of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino tower. But you’re almost completely unaware of this; the hotel’s separate lobby, restaurants, pool and spa on the ground floor are set in a quiet, nongaming environment. No slots, no tables. In fact, you could skip Vegas’ casino scene entirely and truly enjoy a stay here.

A bank of swift elevators bypasses the Mandalay Bay floors to swoosh you to your overnight aerie. Mine was a room with great nighttime views of Vegas’ re-created pyramids and sphinxes, mini Eiffel Tower and light shows far below.

Like all Four Seasons hotels, this one treats guests with personalized service, meticulous attention to detail, and no taxi queues or checkout lines. It has an upscale spa ranked by Travel & Leisure as one of the world’s best, a state-of-the-art fitness facility, a couple of very nice restaurants and access to the newly remodeled beach and pool complex at Mandalay Bay—11 acres that include three exotic pools, a meandering river, a European (topless) sunbathing pool and a 1.6-million-gallon wave pool with a sand-and-surf beach.

When I was ready to hit the casinos for some blackjack, I rode the elevator to the “C” level and passed through a discreet door that offered direct access to the vast Mandalay Bay casino area. It was like going between heaven and, well, something more sinful, but very entertaining.

Casino Scene

Strolling Vegas’ largest casino resorts, I noticed something missing—noise. Gone were the legions of nickel and quarter slots spitting streams of silvery change; slots now deliver unexciting credit vouchers instead of coins. Also (mostly) gone were loud drunks sounding off at blackjack tables. In their place: deadpan high rollers on display in semiprivate rooms doing their imitation of the TV poker professionals. Casino drinks now cost real money and there wasn’t one five-buck steak dinner in sight.

Body Treatments

I’m not a spa person, but for those who are, know that Las Vegas has become a renowned spa destination. I felt compelled to check out one of the most famous, the Canyon Ranch SpaClub within the Venetian hotel casino. At 69,000 square feet, it is the largest pampering palace in town.

After wandering though the Venetian’s shopping mall and faux Venetian streets and canals, I took an elevator to the rambling spa facility, which has 62 treatment rooms, a 40-foot climbing wall, a fitness facility, men’s and women’s lounges and a health-food cafe.

I made a quick ascent up the climbing wall before checking out some of the more extravagant treatment areas, including the “Euphoria” room, where an aromatherapy scalp massage and botanical body mask is followed by a rose-petal soak in a gleaming German-made copper tub. Just across the hall, in a room outfitted with an elegantly tiled chamber and a fiber-optic sky, couples can enjoy a mud and herbal steam “rasul ceremony,” a traditional Arabian cleansing ritual. Spa-tacular.

Gourmet Gatherings

One of the Strip’s hottest dining spots is in the newest casino hotel, Wynn Las Vegas. At the eponymously named Alex, chef Alex Stratta serves up award-winning Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. Among the standouts are starters: marinated crab and sweet shrimp with grapefruit and avocado, lobster quenelles with crayfish, black truffles and Romesco sauce (a Catalan flavor), and Santa Barbara prawns in a cauliflower velouté. Main courses include Dover sole in a potato crust with shellfish, artichokes and confit tomatoes, and a venison chop with crimson gold apples, heirloom beets and ginger-spice glaze. A meal at Alex is a splurge, but worth it.

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