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Desert Heart

Glamour, Glitz and Girls - Las Vegas Has All Three in Spades. Carole Pope Recaps Her Spell in Sin City.
Ever since playboy mobster Bugsy Siegal figured out that people needed a place to drink, gamble, and misbehave without consequences, Las Vegas has lured us into the burning desert sun. In the good old days, Nevada was wide open. Old school Hollywood stars kicked back at The Flamingo with bevvies of showgirls in a whirl of rat pack glamour. (I wish I could have seen Ann Margret make her infamous entrance onto the Vegas stage on a motorcycle!) There were no speed limits and no waiting period to get married; there was no sales tax or stateincome tax. Gambling was completely unregulated. But today, every casino is a brand and Las Vegas is a fast-paced, multimillion-dollar entertainment industry. Picture a cross between Orlando, Florida and New York City, and you’ll get an idea of Las Vegas in the 21st century.

The glittering Strip, the pulse of Vegas, is lined with hotels, casinos and mega-resorts over a 4.2 mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard. You can walk from resort to resort if you’re going a short distance; take a cab or rent a car if you’re going to stray from the main drag. There are also city buses, free trolleys, free shuttles and a monorail to get you to your next slot machine—check off2vegas.com/transit.html for everything you need to know about getting around.

I was lucky enough to descend on Sin City with a group of international LGBT journalists on a trip sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (visitlasvegas.com). Our mission: experience the best the town has to offer—and I’m still recovering.

I love flying into Vegas at night: The city is one big mass of shimmering light beckoning from the desert darkness. We stayed at the fabulous Encore Wynn (3121 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 877-321-4966 wynnlasvegas.com). Unlike other casinos on the Strip, which like to keep people trapped in a perpetually twilit netherworld, the Encore has windows looking out toward lush greenery, swimming pools, cabanas and manmade waterfalls. Apparently, the Encore discovered exposure to sunlight doesn’t deter people from throwing down their cash and gambling for hours on end.

Our rooms were in the upscale, immaculate Tower Suites, where high rollers are treated like Kate and Wills. Floor-to-ceiling windows cast sunny rays on king-sized beds swathed in European linens. You can swivel the 65-inch flatscreen between the bedroom and living room, and run your empire away from home with your en-suite office. Bathrooms include a 19-inch flat-screen television, dual sinks, separate shower and soaking tub, sensuous white robes and slippers. (Living in New York, one develops serious bathroom envy.)

After breakfast at the Encore’s Society Café we were given a private tour of the Encore by Roger Thomas, who designed the resort’s interior spaces with an Asian aesthetic coupled with baroque whimsy. Thomas picked up a load of frequent flier miles as he jetted all over the world, scouring countries for antiques and unique pieces that are part of the Encore’s look.

Dining and entertainment at the Encore Wynn similarly spares no expense. At the entrance to XS, the resort’s 3,000-capacity nightclub, you’re greeted by a panoramic display of erotically contorted, gold leaf covered bodies draped in fabric. The club opens out onto the resort’s grounds, where there are poles around which dancers are encouraged to get their inner stripper on. The Encore’s restaurants include Sinatra, a steakhouse that’s an ode to Old Blue Eyes; Sinatra’s Grammy and Oscar are on display in theft proof cases, and photographs of Sinatra look down on the space. Switch, a French-influenced surf and turf restaurant, features lighted walls and a ceiling that rise, fall and change color every 20 to 30 minutes. The black and white-themed steakhouse Botero pays homage to the work of the titular Colombian neo-figurative artist. One of his large female nude sculptures forms the centerpiece of the restaurant. I spoke to a waitress who told me it’s often possible to pull in $5,000 a night in tips.

That afternoon we experienced the wonders of the Encore Spa. The gold Moorish entrance is as serene as the statutes of Buddha that grace it. Black caftan-clad attendants lead you to changing rooms where white robes and slippers await; then you’re escorted to the treatment rooms along a hallway that looks like the set of a 1950’s Technicolor musical.

Later, I put on my poker face and tried my luck on the slots. I was disturbed to find housewives from Middle America (who looked like lesbians, but were most decidedly not) hogging my favorite machines. A musician friend told me that all the slots in Vegas are tuned to the key of C, which acts like a musical magnet to gamblers. Note to Encore: get more Monopoly slots. Each casino on the Strip wants to outdo each other when it comes to pools—Mandalay Bay imported 1,700 tons of sand for its faux beach; its wave pool has five-foot swells.

Leaving the Encore for the new CityCenter (citycenter.com), a megacomplex of hotels, residences, shopping and dining on the Strip, we had a phenomenal meal at Sage inside ARIA (3732 Las Vegas Blvd South, 877-230-2742, arialasvegas. com). A hyper-modern, colossal gaming resort, ARIA’s exterior features waterfalls that rain down against the walls like an artfully controlled avalanche. The resort has open spaces and very sensual lighting to enhance the exotic design.

Sage was developed by chef Shawn McClain, named Esquire’s Chef of the Year, who created a menu of contemporary American cuisine using farm-to-table produce, artisanal meats and sustainable seafood. One of Sage’s specialties is a rich foie gras custard ‘brulee’ with bing cherries, toasted cocoa nibs and salted brioche.

Afterwards, I went on a quick shopping trip with a friend to the high end mall Crystals at City Center (crystalsatcitycenter.com) for a bout of haute retail at Louis Vuitton.

After dragging ourselves away, we went to see Spiegelworld’s production Absinthe at Caesars Palace (3570 Las Vegas Blvd South, 702-731-7110, caesarspalace.com). It’s everything Cirque du Soleil is not. Taking place under a circus tent, Absinthe is an adults-only erotic, raunchy blend of burlesque and scary high wire acts, and it’s appealing no matter what your sexual orientation. The emcee, who goes by the name Gazillionaire, looks like he’s packing a couple of tube socks in his pants, while his sidekick Penny works a sexy naiveté thing and puts on a graphic sex show with two puppets. Other performers work perilously close to the audience.

The next day we went for dinner and drinks at the Cosmopolitan Hotel (3708 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 877-551-7778, cosmopolitanlasvegas .com) which caters to a young, hip crowd. The walls of the resort are gunmetal gray and covered with video monitors displaying a shapeshifting environment of constantly changing digital art. Leather-studded walls in the reception area give the place an edgy vibe and the world’s biggest chandelier, constructed with two million crystals, hangs from the ceiling. We ate dinner at Jaleo (3708 Las Vegas Blvd South, 702-698-7950, jaleo.com) in the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Chef Jose Andres, the king of molecular gastronomy, brings it with a menu of tapa-based cuisine that tasted better than anything I’ve ever eaten in Madrid. We started with pan con tomate and white asparagus topped with a tangy manchego cheese. This was followed by various acorn-fed jambons, pork and beef tapas, fish and chicken fritters served in shoes, and a massive pan of paella with chunks of succulent whole lobster.

After dinner it was on to the Chandelier Bar, located in the middle of—wait for it—the hotel’s chandelier. We sampled drinks including the signature favorites Thai Down (Milagro Blanco, Domaine De Canton, strawberry puree, a Thai chili syrup and basil leaves), and the Fire Breathing Dragon (Bacardi Dragon Berry, raspberry puree, lemongrass and Thai chili syrups). A drop of liquid nitrogen in the latter created a smoking effect—or maybe my head was exploding by then!

I capped off the night by viewing Cirque du Soleil’s KA at MGM Grand (3799 Las Vegas Blvd., 702-891-7777, mgmgrand.com) from my seats in the orchestra pit, two stories below the stage. KA’s staging encourages the illusion of being suspended in space, with a set controlled by hydraulic cylinders and a vertical gravity crane. During the show the stage morphs into a mountaintop, a floating ship, a battlefield and a beach; a crew of 150 people and air bags galore make it all happen. KA’s musicians not only play the score, but also appear on stage as part of the production. If one show won’t satisfy you, make time to see Cirque’s The Beatles LOVE, its dazzling show based on the music of The Fab Four playing exclusively at The Mirage (3400 Las Vegas Blvd South, 702-791-7111, mirage.com).

The next day we had lunch at the Border Grill at Mandalay Bay (3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 877-632-7800, mandalaybay.com, bordergrill.com). Chefs and business partners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have appeared on the Food Network’s Too Hot Tamales. As with so many restaurants in Las Vegas, the Border Grill is all about clean food and sustainable cuisine. We sampled items from the modern-Mexican menu—everything was delicious—accompanied by fresh fruit juices and margaritas.

Standouts are the Kobe beef sopes, green corn tamales, Guajillo pork tamales and a variety of quesadillas.

No trip to Vegas is complete without checking out the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel (1205 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 702-384-0771, vivalasvegasweddings. com). Owner Ron DeCar started out as a wedding singer, so you know he’s an expert on the industry. You’ll have your wildest, kitschiest fantasies fulfilled when Elvis, Mr. Spock or an assortment of vampires, bikers and gallant knights officiate and the witnesses include Marilyn Monroe and Sigmund Freud (we’ll keep the psychoanalysis to a minimum). The chapel is part of a motel complex with theme rooms including a fifties diner, a Goth room and an Elvis-styled abode. While we were there, some Scandinavian tourists showed up dressed in an ABBA-Elvis combo and were married by one of the three Elvis impersonators who work at the chapel.

While it might seem like all of Vegas is one 24-hour party, after dark the city’s club scene goes into overdrive. Renowned lesbian DJ Lisa Pittman reigns as the resident turntablist at three of Vegas’ premier nightspots: Marquee (at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, marqueelasvegas.com), Tao (at the Venetian Resort, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 702-388-8588, taolasvegas .com) and Lavo (at the Palazzo Hotel, 3325 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 702-791-1818, palazzo.com). The Las Vegas native also produces BootyBar, the biggest lesbian monthly party that regularly draws 500 women to the Copa Room at the Bootlegger Bistro (7700 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 702-518-4053, bootybarlv.com) on the second Saturday of every month.

A multigenre, party rocker DJ, Pittman plays “Vegas style”—on any given night, she’ll switch it up between indie, hip hop, house anthems and more based on the vibe of the audience. “In Vegas, every day is like New Year’s Eve—so I bring that level of energy up a notch every night,” she says.

The city’s gay scene is diffuse, and the LGBT clubs face stiff competition from Vegas itself— the over-the-top entertainment at the resorts, the mindboggling buffet of shows and sights, and the round-the-clock energy is fabulous enough. You won’t need to find refuge at gay clubs unless you want to. And when you do, check out Krave on the Strip (3663 Las Vegas Blvd., 702-836-0830, kravelasvegas.com) where go-go boys cavort under showers and the crowd is evenly mixed between men and women most nights of the week. On Saturdays, Krave Lounge hosts KittyBar (lesbiansinvegas .com), a nine-month-old lezzie party from promoter Katherine Schneider. Each week, both locals and tourists rock out to hip hop, Top 40 and house and try their luck in kissing contests, dance-offs and other activities. Schneider also helms the social networking website queerkat.com, a busy online source for the lesbian lowdown around town.

For a change of scenery, Schneider recommends Blue Martini (6605 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 702-949-2583, bluemartinilounge.com), an ostensibly straight martini lounge at the Town Square retail complex at the southern end of the Strip, which nevertheless attracts “tons of lesbians.” Relying more on word of mouth than advertising, the pretty, outdoor setting attracts a greater percentage of locals—and local lesbians—than other Strip resorts.

The city’s gayborhood, the Fruit Loop, lays just off-Strip on Paradise Road and is home to several LGBT clubs with non-glitzy, Cheers-like atmospheres. Freezone (610 E. Naples Rd., 702-794-2300, freezonelv.com) features Ladies’ Night on Tuesdays with a “lick her bust” (ahem) from 8pm-1am and pole-dancing, beer pong and wet T-shirt contests for a dose of Vegas sleaze. Though it caters primarily to boys, Piranha Nightclub and 8 1/2 Ultra Lounge (4633 Paradise Rd., 702-791-0100, piranhavegas.com) offers cozy VIP nooks and views of the Strip to go with your bottle service.

It’s very possible to spend a week in Sin City and never leave the casinos, but the surrounding desert is worth exploring. Commune with nature by hiking, biking or rock climbing at Red Rock Canyon (Red Rock Canyon Rd., 702 515-5350, redrockcanyonlv.org). It’s named after the red sandstone that forms the topography and is part of the beautiful, mystical Mojave desert. Within the park, you can drive a 13-mile scenic loop or get out and explore the landscape.

Thirty miles east of the city, locals and tourists enjoy the recreational opportunities afforded by the Hoover Dam (usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam), which created Lake Mead, the largest manmade reservoir in the U.S. Constructed in the 1930s, the Dam is both an engineering marvel and a work of art incorporating terrazzo tiles, sculpture, and metal work within its structure. Visitors can take tours of the powerplant or simply marvel at the incredible views from the observation deck. You can make a grand entrance by helicopter or by car.

Lake Mead is a popular oasis in the desert for boaters, swimmers and anglers in all four seasons, and there’s really no bad time to visit the region (remember to hydrate!).

Visiting Las Vegas is always a fun and surreal experience: Resort hotels are affordable, the restaurants and entertainment are world-class. Whether you want a hedonistic, sexed-up weekend; to lounge poolside with retro Rat Pack aplomb; or lose yourself in the eerie beauty of the desert, I can’t think of a better place to do it.
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