Infamous for its reputation as a gambling, boozing and “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” party mecca, Sin City has been showing a softer side of late that each year gains in popularity with gay and lesbian travellers: that of upscale, luxury getaway.
Nestled among the more raucous entertainment palaces are enclaves of serenity and indulgence for mind and body. A hot-massage stone’s throw off Las Vegas Boulevard — aka The Strip — I checked into the eco-friendly Vdara Hotel and Spa, part of the Aria Resort and Casino. Nestled beside the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas and Bellagio, the Forbes four-star-award hotel is a smoke-free, no-casino oasis. The vibe and décor are meticulous, contemporary elegance.
My spacious suite offered a comfortable living area separated from the bedroom by a console housing back-to-back flat-screen TVs. A spacious marble bathroom had both freestanding walk-in shower and Roman tub for two. With a kitchenette and quaint dining area for two, the accommodation reads more designer apartment than hotel room.
Vdara is attracting enough LGBT visitors to register on the company’s radar, according to David Gonzalez, public relations manager for MGM Resorts International, which operates Vdara. Of course, it’s difficult to track who’s gay, but some customers self-identify and the number of same-sex pairs requesting one bed has increased, according to Gonzalez.
Is there any better way to adjust to a new time zone than with a luxurious spa treatment? Entering Espa at Vdara at 8:30am, I perused a menu of signature treatments that included specialties for both guys and girls. I opted for an 80-minute personalized treatment: traditional Swedish massage, aromatic oils, hot stone massage and full-body salt scrub. Final destination: Heaven. On. Earth.
Rejuvenation continued in the men’s wet spa area, with tea with lavender-infused honey, servings of nuts and fruit, lots of water and invigorating rounds between the steam room, whirlpool and dry sauna.
If your first-day goal is to relax and unwind, start with the spa and then spend the afternoon with a good book and great cocktails at Vdara’s spacious pool and lounge-chair area.
Vdara is among a small group of hotels that have eschewed the “party pool” for a more serene setting. It’s social, but relaxation and sun worship trump the Weekend at Bernie’s vibe found at some hotels. The pool deck affords views of surrounding modern glass architecture set against a clear blue desert sky, or you can opt for more private retreats or spa cabanas with semi-private plunge pools.
Alternately, check out The Shops at Crystals, the largest collection of luxury brands in Las Vegas, featuring a shopping list of world-class designer boutiques: Tom Ford, Jimmy Choo, Tiffany’s, Hermès, Paul Smith, Louis Vuitton and Versace. Crystals is a comfortable walk, or the Bellagio-CityCenter-Monte Carlo tram, which stops at Vdara, will whisk you there in just minutes.
A treatment at Espa includes same-day reentry privileges to the wet area, perfect for a refreshing hot tub or sauna after an afternoon poolside or shopping.
Start your evening at Aria, with cocktails at Sage, specializing in rare beers and spirits. Craig Schoettler, Aria’s first “property mixologist,” set out to break the boundaries of modern mixology and crafted a menu of sublime cocktails infused with puréed fruit, homemade bitters and boutique liquors. I fell in love with An Elusive Spring (Buffalo Trace Aria Select bourbon, blackberry syrup, lemon juice, mint bouquet).
For dinner, head upstairs to Jean Georges Steakhouse, a world-class steak and seafood eatery with a menu of eye-widening delicacies. Jump into the starters with Wagyu beef carpaccio with black-truffle fritters and lime salt or caramelized foie gras with black-olive seasoning, lychee and brioche. From the wood-burning grill, mains include certified Kobe beef from Japan, an Australian six-ounce Wagyu filet mignon and a challenging 36-ounce porterhouse; be sure to sample the accompanying house-made flavoured salts, mustards and steak sauces. Jean Georges is renowned for its Australian tomahawk chop — a thick, marbled steak roughly the size of an adult’s face with a foot-long protruding bone handle, it’s easily shared. Broiled bone marrow with parsley-lemon gremolata and black-truffle mac and cheese are wonderful side additions. Surf the turf by adding a North Australian lobster tail; colder Aussie waters produce a flavour similar to Maine or Atlantic Canada lobster.
As the midnight hour approaches, make your way to the gay nightclubs. Liaison at Bally’s is the first gay nightclub housed inside a casino on The Strip. DJs in two separate rooms spin an eclectic mix of hip hop, rap and top 40. Liaison has booth-style seating, multiple bars and a stage with surprise live performances. Not far off The Strip is Share, with a stylish modern nightclub on the first floor and a luxurious and private ultralounge/bar vibe on the second floor. On Friday nights, a large bizarre clown head signals it’s time for Stripper Circus, a sexy show of gyrating go-go dancers that leave little to the imagination.
Nature & glamour
After sleeping in late, latte and rental car keys in hand, venture just outside the city limits to experience the serenity and calm of the desert (minimalists will love it). The majestic Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is 29 kilometres from The Strip, an easy 25-minute drive. En route you’ll get a feel for life in Las Vegas’s neighbourhoods (where liquor stores, drug stores and shopping are less expensive than The Strip). Once at the park, a 32-kilometre scenic loop showcases the rugged beauty of Nevada’s desert terrain and geological formations. At designated stopping points, you’ll find nature lovers and city slickers scampering along easy walking trails, exploring endless gullies and crevices or hiking more strenuous trails to vantage points with spectacular sightlines. Near the park entrance is a discovery centre that provides history and insight and a gift shop. At $7 per carload (good all day for reentry), the second most popular tourist site in the Las Vegas area is a bargain.
After a few hours communing with nature, plan a swanky evening of refined dining and breathtaking entertainment at the Wynn and Encore, spectacles in design and opulence. Combined, they hold more Forbes five-star awards than any other casino resort in the world, and they even boast an “LGBT concierge” to provide guests specialized information.
Chef Joseph Elevado’s modern Asian cuisine complements Andrea’s hip, high-energy dining experience that is integrated with the Surrender nightclub. Perfect for sharing are table plates of crispy pork korokke, Wagyu beef tartare and seared foie gras bao, or choose from five sashimi dishes. There are no wrong choices on the list of mouthwatering mains: Saikyo Miso black cod, five-spice garlic lobster tempura, spicy adobo shrimp and Jidori chicken breast all delight.
Wynn’s stunningly beautiful water-based Le Rêve blends mystery and romance with gravity-defying acrobatics. Theatre-in-the-round creates an intimate experience where The Dreamer pulls audiences into the world of the show, especially if you opt for less expensive front-row seating. Three times a guest and I have braved the “splash zone” seating and left dry.
If a jaunt to the desert isn’t in the cards, daytime attractions from fun to fascinating abound. Head north to old Vegas, where the Neon Museum and Container Park are must-visits; on the strip, The Linq Promenade and High Roller observation wheel make for great fun in the sun. Quirky but interesting is the National Atomic Testing Museum to glimpse the impact atomic-age mushroom clouds had on Vegas — and the camp of the Miss Atomic Bomb beauty pageant.
Commit to a Saturday night out on the town Vegas-style: experience cocktails, dining and entertainment at the upscale Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. To prep, make two reservations: tickets to the headliner at CLV’s Chelsea theatre and pre-show dinner reservations at Rose Rabbit Lie.
Reinventing the social club, Rose Rabbit Lie blurs the lines between restaurant, bar and club. The various club rooms (some hidden and worth searching out) have a seductive cocktail-culture vibe that shifts from relaxed to raucous; throughout, casual elegance is enforced by a reasonable dress code (consult RRL’s website before you get there).
Start the evening at Rose Rabbit Lie, allowing time for pre-dinner cocktails in the intimate, manor-like Library, then migrate — cocktail in hand — to your table in the upbeat dining room. For a starter, try the snow-pea salad, caviar flatbread or crispy oysters Rockefeller. The Berkshire pork belly, rabbit fricassee and slow-roasted octopus are all perfect plates for sharing. For mains, duck-confit pasta or short-rib Stroganoff are highlights among an array of tantalizing offerings.
With show tickets in hand, head upstairs to The Chelsea theatre, a 40,000-square-foot black-box theatre with unobstructed views and sharp acoustics. We caught Chelsea Handler’s Uganda Be Kidding Me tour; upcoming shows include Billy Idol (Feb 21) and Amy Schumer (April 24).
After The Chelsea, return to Rose Rabbit Lie for another round of cocktails and to discover what magic will unfold that night. With spontaneous live entertainment that is continuously evolving, RRL promises flights of performances ranging from torch singers to world-class house bands, to pop and lock, neo-soul to acoustic, to tap and syncopated dancers, and more.
Brunch fans flock to Simon at The Palms to enjoy chef Kerry Simon’s signature approach to American comfort food. The vast offerings include a buffet and made-to-order fare: French toast, ome-lets, sushi rolls, salads and carving stations. Simon’s must-try dish is meatloaf, made from a secret family recipe, served with mashed potatoes and succotash. A restaurant staple is the whimsical “junk food platter”: Hostess cupcakes, Sno Balls, cookies, Rice Krispies squares, Froot Loops treats, brownies and cotton candy, and more. Consider enjoying Chef’s food poolside: a private cabana at The Palms’ chic, Hollywood-vibe pool comes with a $150 minimum food and beverage purchase, so if you start with brunch, you’ll be well on your way.
If you’re in the mood for a pool-party vibe, in season (Sundays, May through September, 1–7pm) check out Temptation Sundays at the Luxor hotel, Las Vegas’s longest-running gay pool party. Hosted by JSon of Naked Boy News, Temptation is a sexy social scene around an expansive pool area. With a vibe more modern nightclub than “boom boom” circuit party, it’s easy to chat with new friends to a soundtrack of high-energy music by resident DJ Matt Lucio and special guest DJs. The crowd is a good mix of locals ($10 admission) and tourists ($20 admission), with occasional sightings of headliners from The Strip. Full-day rentals of elite deluxe cabanas complete with LCD TVs and refrigerators start at $300. Lounge in luxury in plush daybeds starting at $150. Bottle service starts at $100.
After a day at the pool, book a table at Yusho, the Japanese-inspired grill and noodle house at the Monte Carlo. With décor informed by vintage industrial spaces, anime and Japanese ramen shacks, the feeling is airy, bright and casual. Inspired by his travels throughout Japan, Singapore and mainland China, renowned Chicago chef Matthias Merges crafted his interpretation of traditional Japanese street food in a menu broken into five categories: pickles and relish, noodles, grilled/fried, steam buns and sweets. Meats and veggies are grilled over an open fire; order the duck breast with shiitake marmalade and Xinjiang lamb with cucumber and cumin. Traditional steam buns arrive open-face; crispy cod and pork shoulder deserve inclusion in your choices for the three-bun sampler. Complement your selections with a side of Yusho’s house pickles or assorted kimchi, and don’t shy away from the tasty rooster-ball ramen soup — it requires less commitment than the name implies. Japanese beer and a large sake selection complete the Yusho experience. Ask your waiter for advice on customized pairings of sake with each dish.
To complete the weekend, head to the Colosseum at Caesars Palace for a nighttime concert. For gay and lesbian fans, Caesars has in recent years firmly entrenched itself as the Vegas home of the one-name diva-queen residencies: Bette, Cher, Celine, Shania — and Elton. Late January through March, John will perform five decades of hits in his Million Dollar Piano show. Rod Stewart has dates scattered throughout January and February. For country fans, Reba McEntire joins Brooks and Dunn for summer 2015 dates.
For the perfect final night in Vegas, buy a ticket for Celine Dion’s concert (she’s on hiatus but will return) at the Colosseum. The show uses modern high-tech effects not expected alongside a large orchestra — from Celine performing inside a massive circular rainstorm to a mesmerizing optical effect in which she performs a duet with herself in holographic form. Celine’s sophisticated show, the elegant orchestra and the luxury of the Caesars showroom evokes vintage Vegas: the era of atomic cocktails, dapper suits and smart evening dresses.
Las Vegas remains the perfect destination for a wild weekend of boozing and gambling, but when you deserve a long weekend of luxury and pampering, you can #DoVegasDifferently.