The giddy roller coaster of highs and lows makes Vegas an irresistible destination. Here anything is possible - after all, the Eiffel Tower is across the street from Bellagio and gondoliers make tips in the desert. The Strip is a fantasy world, where living on the edge is not only encouraged, but expected.
In a town where nongaming revenues have finally caught up with the gaming kind, rock star chefs, over-the-top accommodations, and big ticket entertainment give the 38.9 million annual visitors plenty of ways to blow through any winnings. If what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, for gamblers that includes their money, to the tune of about $8.2 billion last year.
For the down and out, it can be a town without pity, but if you're on top, living large is what it's all about. Not sure which way the dice are going to roll? Not to worry, Vegas can cover you.
For high rollers . . .
In a place known for coddling big money players with complimentary everything, the boom in luxury suites is geared to anybody who can afford a 10,000-square-foot loft overlooking the Strip.
While some casinos don't advertise their most luxurious rooms, reserving them for gamers, there are dozens of $10,000-plus-per-night suites in town, spots with amenities like butlers, bowling lanes, and hydraulic beds. If they are available, and you can afford them, these digs can be yours.
High-end suites are nothing new here. Over the course of 800-plus performances, Elvis Presley maintained a 5,000-square-foot suite on the 30th floor of the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton). Even the King would be impressed with the most expensive penthouse in town: the Hugh Hefner suite at the Palms, $40,000 a night. The Palms celebrity cachet is undeniable: Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan have all stayed in its top suites.
At MGM, the high-tech Skylofts, where the Diamonds Are Forever Package is $20,000 for a two-night stay, are among the newest uber-luxe accommodations in town. They come with their own music butlers and priority seating at the hotel's restaurants and nightclubs. Another hotel within a hotel, The Signature at MGM Grand, seems like a bargain, with 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom suites available from $510. What Skylofts and The Signature offer is that VIP, separate-from-the-masses experience.
How high a roller you have to be to rate one of these swank suites is difficult to determine. "They don't even tell us that," said Alyssa Bushey, PR manager at Caesars Palace. Caesars recently unveiled three penthouse suites for high rollers in its new Augustus Tower, decked out with features like a 408-gallon fish tank, a Steinway grand, and a media room.
"Anyone can be a high roller somewhere in Vegas, it just depends on the hotel," said Ben Rafter, whose Las Vegas-based travel agency TravelWorm specializes in gaming getaways. "Downtown, it might be $25 hands of blackjack. At Wynn, it will be substantially more. If you're gaming at a $100-a-hand table anywhere, you're going to get noticed."
Whether you're a high roller, or you just want to eat like one, the Vegas dining scene can satisfy. "Next to New York, it's the most important food town in America," said chef Tom Colicchio, whose upmarket Craftsteak holds court at the MGM.
At Fleur de Lys, chef Hubert Keller's palace of good taste at Mandalay Bay, you can get a $5,000 Kobe hamburger with truffles and foie gras . . . and a bottle of 1995 Château Pétrus, which Tobias Peach, the general manager, says accounts for about $4,975 of the price.
Spirits can account for quite a bill around town, from the $1,300 bottle of aged Myoka Rangyoku sake at MGM's Shibuya to the $3,000 Ménage a Trois at Tryst night club at Wynn. That's a trio of Cristal Rose, Hennessy Ellipse, and Grand Marnier Cent Cinquantenaire, shaken with 23-karat gold flakes and sipped through a souvenir golden straw studded with a nine-point diamond.
The Picasso in Bellagio is drop dead gorgeous - even before you notice the Picassos on the walls. Chef Julian Serrano's restaurant offers a $105 five-course tasting menu. At Michael Mina, also in the Bellagio, one of the biggest ticket items is Mina's signature caviar parfait of potato cake, smoked salmon, crème fraîche, and Siberian, Russian, or Persian caviar, priced from $175 to $295.
Perhaps the most decadent experience is a 16-course, $360-per-person feast at Joël Robuchon at the MGM. Pair the meal with wines from the 740-label list and figure in dessert by Kamel Guechida, named pastry chef of the year by Bon Appetit. You'll feel like a high roller, no matter your bank account.
. . . and lower budgets
Vegas can be a tough place when you're on a budget unless you know where to look. If you have gas in the rental car, there are bargains to be had.
For the cheapest beds in town, travel toward Boulder Highway, where rooms at places like Whiskey Pete's, Buffalo Bill's, and Arizona Charlie's run $21 to $37.
When it's time for breakfast, there's the Gold Spike, a seedy gambling joint at the edge of the downtown section, just off Fremont Street. Once termed Glitter Gulch for its phenomenal neon signs, downtown fell on hard times as the Strip's star rose. The 12-year-old Fremont Street Experience, a free light show, was installed to stem that tide.
Downtown has an old Las Vegas feel that appeals to locals, as well as anybody interested in good deals on food and plenty of penny and nickel slots, along with low minimums for table games.
"If you're looking for $5 blackjack tables, downtown is the place to be," said Rafter. "When people travel anywhere else - New York, San Francisco, San Diego - they want to get off the beaten track and follow the locals. Here, that means going downtown. But you don't really find that attitude in Las Vegas - most people stay on the Strip, unless they're looking for bargains."
Some deals are hard to beat, like the $1.99 breakfast at the Gold Spike, available before 10 a.m.
Walk a block up to Fremont, and the area's appeal becomes more apparent. A string of old-time casinos, including the Vegas Club, Fremont Hotel, and Binion's Horseshoe, exude pioneer charm. At the Fremont, the Paradise Buffet is still a bargain. For $6.96 you can load up at the carving station, get an omelet made to order, and a variety of salads and desserts for breakfast and lunch. The price goes up a few bucks on the weekends when a champagne brunch is served. Dinner is in the $15 range, depending on specials.
One of the best deals in town is at the Plaza Hotel, with its Lucky 7's buffet, $7.77 from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Rounds of prime rib, turkey breast, fried chicken, and a burger and pasta station draw crowds at all hours, so expect to wait in line.
For hokey charm and rock bottom prices, look no farther than the Golden Gate. With its San Francisco prospector's vibe, the Golden Gate has a folksy appeal, but it's the food that earns the highest marks. Head for the San Francisco Shrimp Bar & Deli - home to the 99-cent shrimp cocktail, a big helping of sweet bay shrimp doused in a zippy cocktail sauce. Feeling flush? Spring for the $2.99 big shrimp deal.
There are even a few good deals to be had near the Strip. At the Hard Rock the popular $7.77 steak and shrimp deal at Mr. Lucky's 24-7 is the place to fuel up before partying. Then there's Terrible's where breakfast is served midnight to 7 a.m. for $2.99. It's not the most fashionable address, but a bargain is a bargain. And winning back your stake is tough to do on an empty stomach.
Beth D'Addono, a writer in Belmont Hills, Pa., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.