May 5, 2011

Vegas vacation not just for gamblers

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Travel, Women at 6:59 pm by dinaheng

Las Vegas may be the gambling mecca of the United States, but for those of us who would rather not spend every minute (and dollar) on a casino floor, there are other attractions in town to explore.

My sister Linda and I recently decided to spend two days in Sin City, where we did our best to not constantly feed the slot machines. We chose to stay at the Paris Las Vegas, one of my favorite hotels in town, which is roughly in the middle of the Strip.

In the mornings, I love being able to grab juice and a croissant from JJ’s Boulangerie, or at the end of the day, stop in Cafe Belle Madeleine for a taste of something sweet. Linda, who loves crepes, was disappointed that La Creperie didn’t offer a chicken crepe, but settled for a seafood one instead. All three restaurants offer reasonably priced items that can make the tab under $10 for a quick bite.

On our first day, we spent a couple of hours at one of the city’s outlet malls, Las Vegas Premium Outlets-South. There’s also a Premium Outlet-North, but we only had time to walk through one, so choose the one on the south side of the Strip.

Like most outlet malls, this one is huge, filled with tourists and locals looking for a deal from brand name stores. A merry-go-round in the center draws parents and children looking for a reason to get off their feet. While an indoor outlet makes sense in a desert setting, it’s a shame that the design here creates a dark, dense environment for visitors, rather than a light and airy one.

Of the two of us, Linda is the shopper. She can look endlessly for bargains, find great buys, and return things without hesitation if she’s dissatisfied. Walking through malls is great fun for her. I, on the other hand, only set foot inside a mall if I have something specific I need to buy. Luckily, I did need to pick up some lingerie, and Linda found a great suit jacket on sale.

That evening, we headed to The Palazzo at the northern end of the Strip to catch a performance of “Jersey Boys,” a Broadway musical so popular that the show runs 2 hours, 15 minutes — with only 10 to 15 minutes cut from the Tony-winning original — rather than being the usual 95-minute Broadway-to-Vegas condensed version.  (For ticket info, check out http://www.jerseyboysinfo.com/vegas/tickets.html.)

Linda and I weren’t around when Frankie Valli began his professional singing career in 1951, rising from the blue-collar lounge circuit in New Jersey to be the frontman for The Four  Seasons with a powerful falsetto voice that propelled him and the group to rock and roll stardom in the 1960s.

But we loved every minute of the musical biography that showed why Valli and his friends are such icons today. From the sweetness of “My Eyes Adored You” to the sassy “Working My Way Back to You,” the cast delivered rousing renditions, song after song, with  a style that brought the audience to its feet at the end of the show.

So “Walk Like a Man” (or a woman) to the Jersey Boys Theatre at The Palazzo if you want to know what “Oh, What a Night” really means, and “Let’s Hang On” to some of the best music ever written.

Yes, it took a couple of hours for the lyrics to leave my mind. After a late dinner, we moved on to the Palazzo casino where we tried our hand at the slot machines. As you can imagine, the House won, and before we knew it, it was time to hit the sack.

The highlight of the second day was visiting the newest resort on the Strip, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Set between the Bellagio and CityCenter, this luxurious property creates a magical feel as soon as you step into the lobby.  Several columns turn into an innovative electronic art installation that changes images — and the look of the space — as you stand in place. Digital images range from blooming flowers to library bookshelves, inviting you to linger and watch.

Our destination was a short elevator ride up to the Sahra Spa & Hammam, designed to be an ode to the desert from its polished sandstone in the flooring to the dramatic sandstone slot walls reminiscent of an ancient canyon. As you approach the treatment areas, a two-story waterfall adds moisture to the air and the sound of a desert rain. (“Hammam,” for the curious, means Turkish bath.)

All guests have access to a steam room and cool mist room, heated pool, sauna, and fitness center.  Special spa suites are available, which include treatment areas, steam rooms and showers, soaking tubs, relaxation spaces, and personal vanity areas.

I love going to spas. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing better than spending time in a calm, peaceful space designed to rejuvenate the spirit, and getting a great massage. For Linda, this afternoon is a special treat because she’ll be getting her first massage.

“I love first-time spa-goers,” says Simon Ochoa, one of the spa’s managers. “Seeing the looks on their faces when they arrive and when they leave, you can see what they’ve received from the experience. I think people forget how much they need to really relax.”

After changing to spa robes and slippers in the dressing area, Linda and I sat in the quiet relaxation lounge, reading newspapers and sampling the snacks as we waited for our massage therapists.

I chose the AromaCouture Massage (a 50 minute session costs $150), which is an interesting blend of personality preferences and aromatherapy. Before seeing my massage therapist, I fill out a short personality quiz on an iPad, choosing a massage that will focus on muscle aches, stress and centering.

After filling out the survey, the iPad tells me, “Based on your state of being, personality, and desired outcomes, your personal essential oil blend includes birch, sweet, grapefruit, rose and damask.” The massage itself is wonderfully relaxing and over all too soon.

Linda had chosen the Essential Massage (also $150 for 50 minutes), which includes oils blended for rejuvenation, energy, balance, detox, or relaxation. She picked the Water blend for relaxation, and when we met after our treatments, I was happy to hear that she thoroughly enjoyed her first spa treatment.

“It wasn’t quite what I expected,” she says, as we dress to leave. “I thought she’d just massage my back, but she worked on all of my body, and it was so relaxing. I almost fell asleep.”

To wake ourselves up, we head downstairs to the casino, which is elegantly designed around The Chandelier, a three-story series of bars that beckon from behind hanging beads of crystal . The chandelier motif echoes across the gaming floor, and as we play various slot machines, the decor reminds Linda of Mardi Gras and me of weddings, both fun and joyous occasions.

For dinner, we make our way upstairs to Costas Spiliadis’ estiatorio Milos, a Greek restaurant famous for its Mediterranean seafood cuisine. A marketplace display of fish, flown in from the Mediterranean, and fresh produce, from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in California, make the mouth start to water.

Appetizers and salads here range from about $18 to $29. Plan on $40 and above for most entrees, and $10 for desserts.

We order two appetizers — the Kalamari, lightly fried with lemon, and the grilled mushrooms, a mixture of King Oyster, Royal Trumpet and Organic Shitake Mushrooms. Both are done perfectly, with just the right amount of seasoning.

Linda chooses the Colorado prime lamb chops, and asks to substitute Steamed Potatoes (Fingerling potatoes dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, Santorini capers and sea salt) for the potatoes that normally come with the entree. After a little haggling with the waiter, her wish is granted. I order the Lavraki, a Mediterranean Sea Bass that comes from the island of Kefalonia, with grilled vegetables.

We share a taste of each other’s meal, and everything is delicious. Linda doesn’t care for the Steamed Potatoes, which are served at room temperature, and I have to say I agree with her. Tepid potatoes just don’t go with an entree that’s perfectly done. When it comes time for dessert, we share a Galaktoboureko, semolina custard wrapped in crispy phyllo. The fare here is simple food, prepared really well.

Our last stop for the evening is at the Bellagio, where we roam the gaming floor, looking for that lucky machine. It wasn’t long before I lost my allotted gambling money for the day. Linda, fortunately, did better than I did, and offered to treat me to an eclair back at the Paris.

So we ran into Cafe Belle Madeleine, just as the patisserie was preparing to close. When I ordered an eclair, the saleswoman behind the counter was kind enough to give me two for the price of one.

Now that was a sweet way to end the trip.

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