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Las Vegas

Shows and Spas

In a bid for respectability and business from discerning travelers, Las Vegas is giving itself a monumental makeover. Today, this former nexus of tacky, once merely a haven of bad taste, showgirls in peek-a-boo costumes and feathers, $8.99 buffets and gambling has gone upscale. The latest crop of renovated hotels and new restaurants, shows and shops rivals the best of Los Angeles and New York. In the frenzy to be bigger and better the city is borrowing cachet from all over the world and putting its own stamp on it. Excess still reigns, but in a classier rendition. The last incarnation as a family vacation destination didn"t quite fit so now Vegas is outfitting itself in the symbols of international shopping style and importing restaurants of national renown. Even the mix of revenues has been shuffled. Less than 50 percent of tourist dollars presently goes toward gambling.

The landscape and skyline are changing, too. Copies of famed world-wide geographical and architectural touchstones have been incorporated into the design of the latest theme hotels. Touted as the most beautiful hotel ever built, the lavish Tuscan-style mega villa, Bellagio, a hotel-resort-spa-casino-restaurant and entertainment complex and shopping mecca sits on an eight-acre version of Italy"s Lake Como. Its bravura is unparelled.

When we dined at Shintaro, one of the hotel"s 21 restaurants, dinner was accompanied by an enormous gush of water visible through the front windows. Outside swirling fountains shot into the darkened sky like a symphony of fire hoses dancing on burning buildings. Lights tripped over and fetching show tunes kept time with the water ballet.

Steve Wynn, casino impresario, was responsible for putting Bellagio on the Strip in 1998. Today it belongs to MGM Mirage, a hotel and gaming company whose prime properties are, along with its headquarters, situated in Las Vegas. At birth the hotel started out as a beauty, but MGM"s embellishments added more glamour.

Changing the season at the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

In keeping with the Italian theme glass artist Dale Chihuly"s Fiori di Como, an installation of blown-glass flowers, covers the lobby ceiling. Although based in Seattle, Chihuly"s work reflects that of the artisans of Murano, an island near Venice where he studied. The Conservatory & Botanical Gardens were on location from day one. Botanists, designers, carpenters and craftsmen redo the tableau seasonally. In January when a new set was being constructed onlookers were spellbound as they watched the progress. Predominantly red and gold, with a pagoda and Oriental-style bridge, it would when completed most assuredly look like a Japanese Garden.

The vaulted mall, Via Bellagio, brings to mind Milan"s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele ll. Late 19th-century high class arcades or gallerie roofed with steel-reinforced glass preceded modern shopping centers. Lined with the grandest names in fashion—Prada, Gucci, Armani—the design of the hotel"s street of boutiques appears to have sprung from the Italian concept of the mall.

The completion of the Spa Tower at the end of 2004 added 928 rooms and suites topped by a 4,000 square-foot Presidential Suite. Unique among accommodations, this dazzlingly spread decorated by a local firm includes an unusual feature, a conference room. It is the perfect party space, to which we can attest after having attended a social gathering there.

In a place so dedicated to the new, the now and the ephemeral, every attraction is at the first sign of obsolescence attacked by the wrecking ball. And so it was with the recently unveiled Spa & Salon. By its seventh birthday in 2004, the fitness and beauty facility was deemed over the hill and ready to be scrapped and redone. The 65,000-square-foot Spa & Salon Bellagio bears no kinship to a traditional resort spa. Think destination spa for a closer approximation to the facility"s design and services. Built with Zen principles in mind, four basic natural elements are present in the concept. Granite and shell stone represent earth, water streams down walls, candles depict fire and fans provide wind.

Spa Bellagio
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

The treatments are so unique that one might imagine that they had been conceived yesterday. Although Thai yoga massage is 2,500 years old, I had my first experience with it at Bellagio. The kneading of muscles, which dominates Western massage, is absent. Instead pressure is applied to energy points and much stretching is involved. Like shiatsu it takes place on the floor rather than on a table.

The practice of watsu, begun in 1980 in California, is a relatively young therapy when compared with some age-old treatments adapted for the spa, such as Egyptian gold and gem therapy. The setting is a specially designed room-sized pool filled with shallow water warmed to body temperature. The therapist floats the client using both massage and stretching to move her/him out further in the water and pull her back. I did not pack a bathing suit, but along with workout clothes the spa had one for me. Again this modality was a first. I plan to try it again.

Following the treatments many of the guests meet in the Meditation Room where the warm glow of candles and the sounds of New Age music and flowing water create a spiritual-like atmosphere. Lillian Africano, a spa writer, looked around at the women dressed in robes and lying on chaises and remarked, "This reminds me of the Roman baths.”

I was impressed by the new Fitness Center, too. Classes are held in the bamboo studio, named for the wood used in the flooring. Mat pilates is now a regular feature at many gyms, but unlike Bellagio few have pilates equipment.

I watched Steve Rosen, the boxing instructor, lead a women"s group in a rigorous workout. Rosen, who developed the class, said that it is the only one of its kind in Las Vegas and that four minutes spent on his routines equaled the benefits of 45 minutes of aerobics.

To encourage men to use the new salon and its expanded services, a barber room was set up just for them. Waxing/facial rooms and private manicure/pedicure rooms where one can indulge in the ultimate luxury of having two manicurists work on their finger and toe nails at the same time are also on site. Elizabeth, a make-up artist, who just came on board, made up my face. I was so delighted with the subtlety and natural artistry that I almost wished I didn"t have to wash it off. Particularly effective was her airbrushing technique, mixing colors to match the skin and spraying the base on with a small machine.

A day of beauty requires a follow-up evening of fun. With some big names at the helm of the restaurants—Sirio Maccioni in Le Cirque and Circo, Todd English at Olives, Jean-George Vongerichten at Prime Steakhouse, Julian Serrano at Picasso and Michael Mina at his eponymous seafood place, it makes you want to do some progressive dining. The latest addition to the restaurant scene takes care of that. With an internationally inspired menu, you can eat at Sensi and choose Italian, Indian, Indonesian and French food. The walls of Sensi, the Italian word for senses, are made of glass. Diners can look into four open kitchens to watch the chefs at work.

Tuscan Kitchen
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

Also new in the food arena is the opening of Tuscan Kitchen, a demonstration space with equipment to die for including a vintage $24,000 proscuitto slicing machine from Italy. Executive Chef Wolfgang von Wieser assisted by some of the hotel"s 900 cooks prepared a three-course lunch. As he worked the screen behind him was adjusted for distance and size so that guests could watch him from an ideal vantage point. Wieser intends to develop a cooking school at the kitchen. It will also be used for demonstrations of up to 60 persons followed by private dinner parties.

Being a solid Cirque du Soleil fan I chose to continue my night out by going to a theater at Bellagio to watch "O” for the second time. It"s been playing since 1998 and still attracts full houses. Unlike some of the company"s other productions that travel, Cirque shows that open in Vegas stay there permanently. The stage upon which "O” appears is a pool and the performance takes place in, over and on it. Suzanne Duffy, a public relations executive, who sat near me, said that this was the fifth time that she had seen "O.” She is still excited by the performance and for the first time she noticed that the singers in the boxes were dressed as brides. Publicity notes say that the show is "inspired by the concept of infinity.”

Cirque du Soleil produces three other shows in Vegas, all of them in theaters at MGM Mirage Hotels. Luke Eliot, a writer whose beat is Vegas, favors "Mystere” at MGM Treasure Island because of its ethereal quality and sensuousness. Zumanity, playing at MGM"s New York-New York, is "another side of Cirque de Soleil.” Some theater-goers are entertained; others are put off by the theme of sexuality, sensuality and eroticism. Zumanity veers from the expected circus acts to a European cabaret-like format. Even the seating has been rearranged. Choose between cabaret stools, sofas or traditional theatrical seats.

Ka, MGM Grand

Ka, the latest effort of the Montreal-based troupe, debuted in December 2004 at the MGM Grand and like "O” plays on an intricately designed set in a specially-built environment. Ka employs the usual extravagant costumes (these are Asian-inspired) state-of-the art sound system, gravity defying martial arts displays and fire stunts galore. Unlike other productions this show has a plot, the tale of separated twins who reunite after a daring journey. Some of the action that moves the narrative along are a very dramatic shipwreck and drowning; a caterpillar, turtle and starfish emerging from the sea onto the sand; and shadow finger puppets. Acrobats walking on a wheel and climbing a 90-degree angled wall with and without the help of pegs substitute for the usual trapezes.

Skyloft, MGM Grand

Along with the debut of Ka late last year, MGM Grand, another star in the MGM Mirage constellation, just had its brightness meter upped to maximum wattage with the addition of more astral-like facilities. SKYLOFTS, the new duplex one- two- and three-bedroom accommodations with sizable open-floor layouts and floor-to-ceiling two-story windows mirror urban lofts. Each of the dramatic and contemporary white and
neutral-toned 51 lofts were designed so that, despite some common features, no suites are completely alike. Super-extravagant bathrooms are the new hotel status symbols. The Lofts more than meets the challenge with "immersion chamber” showers with waterfalls, steam and rain; steam rooms; and infinity-edged tubs with "champagne bubbles” massagers. To complement these uber-lodgings personal butlers are always on call. There are even butler categories: dream butlers who provide amenities to help you sleep and spa butlers who create a spa atmosphere.

Remember Christophe, the salon owner who cut Bill Clinton"s hair and caused an outcry in the press about his stratospheric prices. He"s opened a fifth mod, high-tech branch at MGM Grand and was visiting the day I had my hair cut. Another stylist, Lawrence, whose price is more modest, did a great job on me. All the women I was with were pleased with the results of their cuts, color and styling.

The most recent dining establishment to find space on the hotel"s restaurant row is Shibuya serving modern Japanese food and featuring a sake sommelier. Shibuya"s decor is also modern Japanese. Bent metal slats form open sculptures that serve as room dividers and noise absorbers. If guests were to request an omakase meal, the chef might compose one from all parts of the menu: sushi and sashimi, teppanyaki, and cold and warm plates listed as a la carte specialties. Our group put ourselves in the chef"s hands with a caveat. We asked for sushi and sashimi. Plate after plate arrived tasting like the entire briny-to-sweet spectrum of the sea. Western-style desserts incorporate Japanese flavors like sake and green tea.

Along with the opening of Shibuya, MGM Grand has in the past year seen the arrival of wichcraft, a casual spot for original sandwiches from award–winning chef, Tom Colicchio; Diego featuring regional Mexican food and a tequila master overseeing a noted collection of this fabled drink; and Teatro Euro Bar, a hot late spot bringing together nightlife and entertainment.

The energy generated in Las Vegas makes it perhaps the only truly non-stop city on earth, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. Like an illusionist who conjures up lighted candles out of the air, materializes decks of cards and then sails them into invisibility, hatches doves and watches them fly away, Vegas is a magic show, pushing away reality, substituting it with fantasy and making us believe in make-believe.

Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas NV 89109. Tel. 888-987-3456. http://www.bellagio.com

MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas NV 89109. Tel. 800-929-1111.

Winter 2004-05