High Society: JCK’s Tour of Luxury Las Vegas

The suite and lowdown on luxury eating, sleeping, and shopping in Sin City

I’m a big believer in omens—even, or especially, the little ones. For example: I’m flying to Las Vegas on a sunny morning in late February because I have been charged with the arduous task of profiling luxury hotel, dining, and leisure options available to jewelers attending this year’s JCK Las Vegas and LUXURY shows June 1–4 and May 29–June 4, respectively. I know—no one, not even my mom, who accompanied me on last year’s Vegas research mission (see “The Road to Mandalay Bay,” JCK, April 2011), is shedding a tear for me.

But it’s early and I’m cranky after a marathon of work that’s kept me awake for too many nights. I’m in need of a respite. With a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit from Mickey D’s firmly in hand, I drag myself to the gate at LAX, where my omen arrives: Delta has upgraded me.

Upon landing at McCarran International Airport, Rick—a 23-year-veteran of MGM Resorts, which owns Mandalay Bay, home to the JCK show—greets me at baggage claim and escorts me to a limo powered by compressed natural gas. For guests of ARIA Sky Suites, the Five Diamond hotel-within-a-hotel inside the ARIA Resort & Casino at CityCenter, the sweet, eco-chic airport pickup is a signature—and a sure-fire cure for any residual crankiness.

We glide through the Sky Suites’ private entrance, and as the limo doors open, I am once again greeted by name (bless them, they call me Miss Gomelsky). The personalized service is, I learn, a Sky Suites trademark.

“My favorite part of the room, besides the view, is the bidet,” Rowena, a perky bellhop, says with a giggle as she shows me around the plush 1,000-square-foot, one-bedroom corner suite I will call home for the next two nights. (I soon understand her rationale. The heated toilet seat alone is worth the $700 nightly price of admission.) From the vantage point of my 39th-floor windows, Las Vegas is a beige-colored tapestry that stretches as far as the eye can see. But for once, I am happy to stay in. If you define luxury as a stylish blend of comfort and convenience, this is the most luxurious room I’ve ever called my own.

Top: A plush one-bedroom ARIA Sky Suite (heated bidet not pictured); above: ARIA’s Lemongrass, the Strip’s only Thai spot

Every feature—the radio, temperature, blackout curtains, lighting—is controlled by the push of a button on the digital console positioned near the king-size bed. It takes a few wild pecks to discover the curtain control, but for the most part, it’s an intuitive system. The digital touches lend the room a vibe that’s modern, sophisticated, and resolutely green: The windows that allow natural light to flood the complex—especially in the hallways—were designed with energy efficiency as a guiding principle.

The room also boasts plenty of analog pleasures. A sleek, spacious bathroom with über-flattering mirrors, for starters. Were it not for my lunch date with Stacy Hamilton, director of public relations for MGM Resorts International, I’d spend the next hour in the stand-alone tub.

I hustle downstairs to Lemongrass, “the first and only Thai restaurant on the Strip,” Hamilton points out. We discuss my luxury plan of attack over pork satay, lobster salad, chicken curry, and sesame-soaked jellyfish (slippery, strangely crunchy, and, to me at least, unexpectedly delicious).

As I pepper her with questions about the sprawling CityCenter complex, the remarkable story of its existence comes into focus. Once home to the Holiday Inn Boardwalk, a Coney Island–style casino that couldn’t compete with its flashier neighbors, the building that occupied this land was imploded in 2006 to make way for CityCenter. “The project miraculously opened in 2009 and really set a new standard,” Hamilton says.

The complex couldn’t have debuted at a more precarious time; the financial crisis was a year old and pundits were proclaiming the death of luxury. Its five properties—ARIA; Vdara, the nongaming hotel located across from ARIA; Crystals, the luxury shopping center positioned along the Strip; the Mandarin Oriental, a combination residence/hotel space; and the strictly residential Veer Towers—comprise one of the largest Gold LEED–certified multiuse projects in the world, a huge undertaking for MGM Resorts International and its joint venture partner, Dubai World.

No one denies year one was tough. But year two and, now, three? To hear Farid Matraki, senior vice president and general manager of Crystals, tell it, the luxury business has gotten its groove back. “We’re between the top five producing malls in the United States,” says Matraki, when I meet him after lunch for a tour of the mall (though mall fails to capture the stark majesty of the Daniel Libeskind–designed shopping center). As we walk past massive emporiums—including a 16,000-square-foot Dolce & Gabbana store that opened in January—Matraki is full of optimism.

“You know the ad that says the center of Las Vegas has shifted?” he says. “It did for retail, too. If you are a serious luxury shopper, you’re not going to a place where you have to walk a mile and a half to get to the store you want. Here you come in and you shop and you leave. From the valet, you’re in and out in three minutes.”

It’s true—Crystals has an organic design, with curves that entice passersby to keep exploring. Even I am seduced. With a little time to kill, I wander into the Tom Ford boutique. The only item truly within my reach is a 50 ml bottle of Ford’s new Azure Lime scent, which I snap up. At $200, the juice will forever smell like luxury.

Get a major dose of retail therapy at Crystals, CityCenter’s luxury jewelry-and-apparel mecca.

An hour later, my receptors sense a new, equally luxurious scent wafting in: that of pumpkin pie, as a pumpkin-infused glycolic peel is gently slathered on my face by an articulate aesthetician named Maile. We’re at the spa at Vdara, the nongaming, nonsmoking CityCenter hotel that is popular with business travelers (and leisure seekers: A local I know swears by the Vdara pool). Here and now, between facial treatments, I finally start to feel the relaxation that has eluded me.

By the time I get back to my room to meet up with my friend Reuven, who’s in town for the Western Petroleum Marketers Association convention and is joining me for dinner, I am officially ready to indulge. We have reservations at Le Cirque at the Bellagio, followed by a performance of O” by Cirque du Soleil. But first things first: cocktails. We begin at the new Hyde Bellagio, a chic lounge with lakeside seating and wicked drinks—not the least of which is a liquid nitrogen Cable Car cocktail that tastes, to quote Reuven, like “frozen booze baby food.”

At the Hyde Bellagio lounge, the decor is chic and the drinks are wicked.

As it turns out, the Cable Car is not a bad palate cleanser; the intense flavors and textures at Le Cirque certainly require one. General ­manager Ivo Angelov greets us and delivers treat No. 1 (of many): an amuse bouche of quail egg served sunny-side up with asparagus puree, Ibérico ham, and truffle emulsion. “I call this breakfast,” he says before leaving us in the capable hands of waiters Carl and Tom and the sommelier, Frederic. The chef’s tasting that follows is a gastronomic orgy of langoustine, foie gras, sea urchin, wild turbot, and Kobe beef, each course paired with wines that Frederic describes as some variation of sexy, soft, or “smooth like a baby’s bottom.”

The cheese course ushers in what seems to be another omen: We’re served Tête de Moine, or Monk’s Head, which was once considered so valuable it was used as currency. (I’m no cheese savant; I only know this esoteric Swiss specialty because Blancpain and Breitling trace their watchmaking roots to the Saint-Imier Valley, where Monk’s Head is made.)

As Reuven and I stumble to our seats at “O,” seconds before the show begins, the flavors of our epic meal fade from memory, but the knowledgeable men who served us—coworkers since the restaurant opened in 1998—do not, thanks to the down-to-earth attitude that accompanied our completely over-the-top dinner. My definition of luxury is growing more nuanced by the hour: Quality is a given, but personalization and ­authenticity are what truly allow an experience to transcend the ordinary.

A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s aquatic-acrobatic spectacle, “O

O” finds me snoozing on Reuven’s shoulder, which is disappointing given that this is my first time at the iconic Cirque show. However, not even a wine- and food-induced coma obscures the obvious: After more than 6,000 performances, the aquatic spectacle centered on a 1.5 million-gallon pool teeming with world-class acrobats, synchronized swimmers, divers, and characters remains the ultimate Las Vegas spectacle.

The following morning, a rich Nutella brioche at the Jean Philippe Patisserie on the edge of the ARIA casino sates me until it’s time for lunch at Todd English’s Olives, a Mediterranean-style restaurant set amid the swanky shops at the Bellagio. I opt for a patio seat close enough to the water to study the snaking pipes that power the world-famous fountains, which will commence their dance across Lake Bellagio later this afternoon.

A first course of beef carpaccio arrives, and it’s large enough to feed three people. The main course, a sweet, creamy duck agnolotti, stuffs me to the brim, but my server, Bo, insists that I take a to-go serving of tiramisu to my next appointment. It’s all I can do to avoid tucking into the dessert on the docent-led tour of the new Claude Monet exhibition, “Impressions of Light,” running at Bellagio’s Gallery of Fine Art through early January.

Mark, a student at UNLV, leads a small group around the space, offering a fascinating tidbit about the derogatory origins of the term impressionism. (The established salon artists of the day reacted to the new school of painting by saying, “Oh, that’s not a complete painting, just an ‘impression.’”). Regardless of how conventional wisdom greeted the work, the way Monet rendered light is remarkable. In his Grainstack series, begun in Giverny in fall 1890, or in the painting of Charing Cross Bridge (overcast day), sketched from a fifth-floor balcony at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1900, pink and yellow brush strokes evoke opalescent rays of sun as they skim the river Thames.

Don’t miss the tiramisu at Todd English’s Olives at the Bellagio.

The watery pastels of Monet’s masterpieces contrast with the imperial reds, sunny yellows, and emerald greens dominating the décor of the Bellagio Conservatory, where a Chinese New Year display features all the requisite iconography—golden coins, fearsome dragons, bamboo, and joss sticks. Walking back to CityCenter, I stop to admire the ornate setup, a not-so-subtle sign of the impact Chinese tourists are having on Las Vegas.

At the ARIA Spa that afternoon, I bask in a Thai poultice massage with hot stones wrapped in a heady blend of eucalyptus, bergamot, and lemongrass. Later, in the coed Ganbanyoku hot stone meditation room, the sound of two men speaking Mandarin (or is it Cantonese?) only underscores what’s driving so much of the present-day luxury boom.

After your massage, you may want to take a dip in ARIA’s terrace-set outdoor therapy pool.

As opposed to the Vdara spa’s intimate, feminine vibe, the ARIA facility is bigger and manlier, a testament to the array of specialties offered here, including tanning, hydrotherapy, a red cedar sauna, and a eucalyptus steam room, not to mention an outside therapy pool overlooking ARIA’s Liquid Therapy Lounge.

The final leg of my magical Vegas luxury tour begins at barMASA, the stylish Japanese restaurant at ARIA helmed by Michelin-starred chef Masa Takayama. This evening, I have my friend Jen joining me; she and a posse of four other L.A. friends have flown here to crash the tail end of our adventure. Jen arrives straight from the airport, just in time to sample TJ the sommelier’s selection, a dry sake from the Niigata prefecture.

Japanese cuisine is on the menu at ARIA’s barMASA.

Small plates of wagyu beef ceviche, toro tartare with caviar, white miso cod fillet, and akamutsu (fatty deep-sea snapper sushi) follow, washed down by super-strong cucumber shiso martinis and apple ginger bourbon cocktails. Jen and I almost float to MGM Grand, where we’re seeing , the Cirque show in which acrobats infiltrate the theater like monkeys.

When we return to ARIA to reunite with our entourage, the corner suite is the perfect staging ground for a night that literally does not end for me—from bottle service at the nightclub Haze to the battle of attrition at the blackjack tables, I barely have time to recuperate before climbing into a limo fueled by compressed natural gas at 8 a.m., for the brief journey back to the airport. Blessedly, my friend Saul is here to accompany me.

In the end, I leave Las Vegas the same way I came into it: upgraded to business class, with the added bonus of scoring Saul a “courtesy upgrade” so he can sit next to me. It’s a sign. I’m sure of it.

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