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TRAVEL Las Vegas: Something old, a lot that's new
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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"Welcome to the city of Lost Wages."

These were the words from a flight attendant during a recent excursion to Las Vegas, Nevada. However, this statement was also an anachronism of sorts—as Vegas now has a whole lot more to offer than gambling ( despite the numerous opportunities throughout the city ). And there's probably no better place to start than a new diversion that's attracting people in droves: The LINQ.

LINQ-ing up

The LINQ ( at The Venetian ) is a complex: a shopping, dining and entertainment district that aims to have something for everyone.

Among the restaurants are Chayo Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar, the casual cafe Squeeze, Flour & Barley, Brooklyn Bowl, Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop and, of course, a Starbucks.

That certainly is not all. Tag Bar & Lounge ( an interactive lounge that features a full-service bar with 300 beers from around the world and state-of-the-art electronic table game ) and The Purple Zebra ( with a self-serve daiquiri bar with 20 flavors ) provide nightlife, while shopaholics can indulge in eyewear ( Chilli Beans ), shoes ( Bella Scarpa and 12AM: RUN ) and gadgets ( Koto ).

However, the highlight for many is probably the High Roller. At 550 feet tall, it's the world's highest observation wheel. The High Roller has 28 glass-enclosed cabins. Passengers can enjoy stunning Las Vegas views in a 30-minute ride, the time it takes for the entire wheel to rotate. Additionally, each air-conditioned cabin is equipped with two benches for seating.

I will definitely have to check this out the next time I'm in Vegaas.

A "Grand" ol' time

Recently, while in Vegas ( before The LINQ opened ), I stayed at the MGM Grand—which was more cavernous than I had imagined. I did have the privilege of being in one of the Stay Well suites, which focuses on helping the weary or sick traveler. Among the amenities in these rooms are healthful menu options, a vitamin C shower, an air purification system and even a dawn simulator alarm clock.

As with most large hotels, there are numerous options in every realm, including nightlife and restaurants. One of my most enjoyable experiences throughout the whole trip was at Michael Mina Pub 1842, a casual eatery that specializes in huge portions. The lobster corn dog ( with mustard creme fraiche ) would keep just about anyone coming back for more, but it's far from the only great item: Try the fish tacos, the beef brisket plate or the jalapeno cornbread.

Somehow, with all the food I consumed, I managed to work out a couple days. The spa has all the items you'd expect from such an establishment ( everything from soft towels to steam rooms to massages ) but there's a state-of-the-art fitness center with cardiovascular and weight equipment.

Eat to the beat

One of the things I noticed was the abundance ( or, some might say, overabundance ) of celebrity-endorsed restaurants. That's not to say they don't offer excellent fare, though.

At Paris Las Vegas, there's Gordon Ramsay Steak. There were several interesting ( in a good way ) aspects of this place, from the ceiling art ( which reportedly replicates Ramsay's hand movements when he works with a Wellington ) to the various uniforms the employees wear that denote positions ( food runners, hostesses, servers, etc. ). Possibly because of its size ( a two-story dining area ), the restaurant is not conversationally challenged.

As for the food, delicious options abound, from blue crab soup to the American rib cap I had. However, the sticky toffee pudding ( served with brown butter sugar ice cream in the shape of a stick of butter ) is pure heaven on earth—honestly, it's one of the best desserts I've ever tried.

Then there's Tom Colicchio's Heritage Steak at The Mirage. The 220-seat restaurant will focus on meats prepared entirely over an open flame—from wood-burning ovens to charcoal grills. Something I'll have to try once I make my way back there is the lobster hushpuppy dish. Of course, my steak was cooked very well—although seeing the television in the semi-private area can be a boon or a bane, depending on your dining situation.

The artisanal American restaurant Sage ( at Aria ) is for the more sophisticated diner—and it's noticeable from the menu to the impeccable service. ( When a place has sweetbreads has an appetizer, you're definitely not at Dairy Queen. ) Other offerings include veal cheeks, bacon-wrapped pork loin, pan-roasted halibut and Kobe skirt steak. The place even has an absinthe menu.

I also had breakfast at Sugar Factory, in Paris Las Vegas. It's a good thing I'm open-minded, because some of the dishes would initially throw off some people—although they were quite tasty, indeed. For example, there's the Fruit Loop panna cotta and a surprising favorite: the Sugar Factory Signature Burger—complete with a white-chocolate bun. By the way, beware the goblets filled with delectable cocktails—you may wake up in a place and have no idea how you got there ( not that I would know ).

One thing I've noticed, though ( and it makes sense for such a tourism-driven city like Vegas, and I've seen it in Chicago ) is how casual people dress—even at some of the finer establishments. Things are more about convenience now; it's a new day.

Away from the strip

Most visitors stick to the Vegas strip. However, there's definitely much more out there.

One attraction is The Neon Museum ( with guided tours offered through Sept. 15 ). There are approximately 150 signs out in the boneyard ( yes, they call it that ), and the history surrounding them is fascinating. By the way, there are several rules ( only cameras are allowed; no cigarettes, even electronic ones ), so keep that in mind.

After going to the museum, take in a local eatery like Park on Fremont. This place has a funky, yet friendly, vibe—along with an eye-catching art collection and some innovative dishes. You cannot leave without trying the Phillly mac-and-cheese steak sandwich or the fried chicken-and-waffle sandwich.

Any party place in which the attire is "casual attire or costumes" is fine by me. If that's your thing, you'll definitely appreciate GhostBar DayClub ( GBDC ), in the Palms Casino Resort. The views from the roof are spectacular, to say the least—and, although the crowd was younger, I still found myself bobbing my head to the music ( mostly hip-hop ). I used to live for 1-6 a.m.; now it's 1-6 p.m. ( when this party hits ).

Miscellaneous: Cirque, shopping

I even managed to take in a couple Cirque du Soleil shows. Zarkana, which is at ARIA, "is a spirited journey through an abandoned theater where an extraordinary circus comes back to life," according to its website. For those who have never seen a Cirque show, it's amazing. However, I've seen about 10 at this point, and it is well-done—but it didn't dazzle.

However, the following night I saw Cirque's Michael Jackson One ( at Mandalay Bay—and, boy, it's probably the best Cirque show I've ever seen. Not only are some of my favorite MJ songs showcased ( like "Stranger in Moscow" ), but the show meticulously re-creates some of The Gloved One's most famous moves. It's definitely a must-see.

As for shopping, one can rarely do better than the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. There are literally dozens of shops with name-brand items ( Cole Haan, Banana Republic, Billionaire Italian Couture, etc. ), all set in a replica of Venice, complete with singing gondoliers whose voices echo throughout the site.

A new day for gay bars

Entrepreneur Victor Drai has announced the opening of Liaison—the first-ever gay nightclub at a Las Vegas casino. Located at Bally's, Liaison is in the space that Drai's famed After Hours nightclub occupied. Liaison will be a seven-night-a-week experience featuring an eclectic mix of hip-hop, rap, top 40 and a drag night.

Many thanks to R&R Partners for arranging this trip, and to Presidential Limousine for the service.

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