Halfway into downward dog, I froze in an awkward lunge-meets-‘80s-aerobics position and stared at the bright and boisterous face of a dolphin. In a state of complete calm, we lingered on each other’s eyes. Willow, my yoga among the dolphins instructor, looked up with a half-smile and said, “dolphins dig yoga,” as I relished in my only-in-Vegas moment.
Once a gambling-centric empire beckoning high rollers from around the globe, Vegas is undergoing a personality evolution at the intersection of lifestyle and luxury. While “whales”—a gambling term for big spenders—still go to make a splash, the tides are shifting from roulette to relaxation, slots to shows, and craps to culture (and in case you pine for roll-the-dice Vegas, that’s all still there, too).
This lifestyle revolution has made me a Vegas enthusiast; a position I proudly have curated outside the casino in a jackpot mingling romance, spa, bachelorette party, and food-focused visits over the past few years. A recent jaunt, in late 2013, saw my husband and me on a jet, bound for this non-gaming version of Vegas. First stop: a trip down Vegas’ neon-lit memory lane.
Open to the public in October 2012, the Neon Museum is, quite literally, an electric boneyard humming a ballad to days gone by. Housing iconic neon artifacts such as Binion’s Horseshoe—the first casino to put a seat in front of the slot—to the Stardust Resort and Casino sign, which grew taller and taller with starbursts in an effort not to be outdone, the open-air museum offers a cultural and colorful lens into Sin City’s transformation. If you’re into vintage, it’s an all-aces experience.
Precisely at check-in o’clock, our museum tour came to and end and we hightailed it to the object of my hotel desire: the Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas. A major Mandarin fan since I visited the spa on a girls trip, I told my husband two nights at the non-gaming retreat were non-negotiable. The minute he reached the 23rd-floor Sky Lobby, he was all in.
Seeking an in-the-middle-of-it-all spot steeped in calm, we relaxed every time we stepped inside. In a nod to Vegas’ lifestyle visitor, rooms beg you to stay awhile with touches such as vases of fresh-cut flowers, a walk-in closet, and bath towels as thick as fur pelts. And don’t even get me started on the included exercise classes, complimentary in-style transfers in a Mercedes S550, or the zen pool scene with lounge chairs padded with mattress-thick cushions (pictured at the top).
Viewfinder Tip: Make restaurant and show ticket reservations immediately after you book your trip. On busy weekends, the best seats in the house(s) fill up quickly.
As lovers of the high-roller life minus the dice and dealers, we spent our evenings indulging in fine fare, and awestruck by Cirque du Soleil’s feats of acrobatic nirvana. Along with shows, spas, and shopping, Vegas’ fine dining scene has grown 100-fold during the lifestyle revolution, luring chefs like Costas Spiliadis, Julian Serrano, and Jean Georges Vongerichten. Having dined at all these namesake restaurants and many more, one of my most memorable meals was at Jean Georges Steakhouse in the ARIA Resort & Casino at CityCenter.
Under the canopy of a cowhide chandelier and the shadow of a 750-label wine wall, we started with cocktails and browsed the photo-forward iPad menu as if it was Bon Appetit Magazine. To ensure a personal touch, servers take your order. Once we learned ours was well-trained in the art of suggestion, we consulted him on what wine pairings should go with my slowly cooked salmon with truffle potato puree and my husband’s Australian Wagyu beef—the only region with a cut tender enough for Executive Chef Robert Moore’s open-flame grill. Three hours and multiple courses later, we realized we had very little time to get to O, our Cirque show, concluding that an evening with Jean Georges and his beef is an event unto itself.
Taking a quick self-timer photo before going into Jean Georges Steakhouse
Running on adrenalin, protein, and wine, we felt it would be almost offensive to Vegas’ late-night lights to turn in. In the mood for chic finish to an outstanding evening (where else in the world can you eat in a celebrity chef’s restaurant and attend a circus with aqua-bats?), we stopped by Restaurant Guy Savoy’s swish Cognac Lounge for a tipple.
Then, serendipity unfolded. Settling into the slate-colored couch opposite the intimate bar, I looked up and noticed the world-renowned, three-star Michelin Chef sitting three feet away. The writer and foodie in me wanted to waltz up and say, “bonjour,” but something told me to keep cool and follow his lead in a discreet I’ll-have-what-he’s-having type of way.
For the sake of a storied tale, I’d love to tell you I consumed cognac with Guy Savoy until 7 a.m. the next morning. Although anything is possible in Vegas, this was only our first night out, so we left a few chips on the table for future fortunes.
Where are your Vegas must-dos outside the casino?