A Las Vegas vacation without gambling? Does such a thing exist?
Well, for experienced card players, dice throwers and slot addicts, probably not. But given the widening appeal of Las Vegas as a general vacation destination, there are a lot of people coming down Las Vegas Blvd. that don't really care about gambling... Not anti-gambling, just indifferent towards it and certainly not the reason they are checking out Sin City.
The idea behind this guide is to highlight some of the interesting things for non-gamblers to check out. Some of these are obvious, others less so. Hopefully they are all useful.
Keep reading after the jump and if you disagree or think we missed something, add a comment!
There has been more money spent on creating gigantic buildings on Las Vegas Blvd. in the last 15 years than anywhere else on the planet. From The Mirage to MGM Grand to Bellagio to Wynn Las Vegas and everything in between, these structures dominate the area known as 'The Strip'.
Steve Wynn, Strip builder extraordinaire, has been quoted as calling what he does 'evoke-atecture' instead of architecture, a distinction that could be used for much of the Strip. In many cases, 'replicature' is also appropriate. There are knock offs of the Egyptian pyramids, Paris, Venice, Rome, New York and more.
While all (ok, most) of the hotels are interesting to see, if you have limited time and are interested in design, check out the following first:
Luxor - Built in the shape of a giant Egyptian pyramid, Luxor rises from the South Strip. The giant atrium inside the pyramid is said to be large enough to fit several 747 jets on top of each other and it certainly feels that way. Luxor is a very interesting building but anyone that looks closely will see many imperfections. It was built on a very tight budget and originally intended to service a lower end market segment than it does today. Because of these reasons you'll see some build properties that just don't measure up to the nicer joints. Still, from the street it is an amazing looking building and a true Las Vegas icon.
Bellagio - Opened in 1998 to much fanfare, designer Steve Wynn's intention was to eclipse previous creations The Mirage and Treasure Island. Did he succeed with Bellagio? You can decide for yourself. The buzzword on this place: details. That's what makes Bellagio interesting and fortunately management has kept most intact since the opening. You get the sense that no aspect of the design was left to chance, even down to the little things.
MGM Grand - Vegas regulars might be surprised to see me put this one on the list. Why did I? Well, as the world's largest hotel, that's something right there. The MGM Grand is a gigantic complex with 5,005 rooms and a huge sprawling casino. Granted, the design is fairly simplistic and won't be winning any awards anytime soon but it is still worth checking out for the sake of its massive scope.
Wynn Las Vegas - If you want to see where Las Vegas hotels are headed, you'll want to see Wynn Las Vegas. Opened in April 2005, it is the latest major resort on the Strip. Designer/builder Steve Wynn likes to talk about how this hotel was designed from the 'inside out', from the perspective of the guest instead of the perspective of the tourist walking the Strip. To accomplish this and to ensure that he alone controlled the environment and guest experience, Wynn built a 'mountain' between the resort and the Strip, blocking all outside influence. Along with this design feature, the increased use of natural light is a trend sure to continue.
Paris Las Vegas - As far as the copies go, I find Paris to be the most interesting. The Venetian is riddled with design and construction problems and Caesars Palace is a hodgepodge of different styles. Paris, built on a relatively small plot of land, is a great example of casino theming played out to the hilt. From the half size Eiffel Tower to the faux garden interior, Paris' designers really went all out to replicate the landmarks.
The Mirage - The hotel that kicked of two decades of building, the original Las Vegas mega-resort. Walk through The Mirage and imagine putting together a complex this bold in the face of a declining Las Vegas economy and you'll understand why people thought that builder Steve Wynn was insane. After all this time, it is still one of the Strip's most popular resorts. It's South Seas theme was ripped off by Mandalay Bay but this resort still outshines its younger sibling. Currently in the midst of a re-birth, worth a re-visit even if you've been there before.
The past 15 years have seriously turned up the heat on shopping in Las Vegas. These days I can't think of a major designer or boutique that isn't open or opening in Southern Nevada. Fortunately for the dedicated shopper, many of these places are clustered together - you can hit quite a few at once.
First up, the giant malls:
The Forum Shops at Caesars - With over 160 choices, the Forum Shops is the original Las Vegas Strip mega-mall. They claim the highest gross per square foot of any retail establishment in North America. Based on the massive amount of people and high profile stores, this is believable. A recent expansion added even more shopping options. If you're looking to knock yourself out, this is the place to do it.
The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian - 'Hey, see that big mall across the street? We should do that too!' That basically describes the Grande Canal Shoppes. Very similar to the Forum Shops in terms of size and even vendors, it is another Las Vegas mega-mall. One brilliant move The Venetian guys made was to sell the mall off for a huge sum of cash, allowing them to pay down massive amounts of their debt.
Desert Passage at The Aladdin - Never having been as popular or successful as the malls above, Desert Passage may be renamed when the Aladdin changes its name to Planet Hollywood... We hope so because this is a promising space, wrapping around in a half circle around the casino portion of the resort. It's a little dark inside and some of the vendors are a little lower end than other places but balance is a good thing.
Mandalay Place at Mandalay Bay - I debated adding Mandalay Place to this list because I see it as a pretty boring entry... Really, it's a fairly small mall that connects Mandalay Bay and Luxor via a walkway. Originally intended to house a Nordstrom's as an anchor tenant, that never materialized. There are some different shops you won't find anywhere else, including a good wine outlet and the Burger Bar, home to some truly interesting hamburger options. If you're in the area, check it out but I wouldn't make a trip here just for this.
Fashion Show Mall (near Wynn Las Vegas) - More like a typical mall you might find in any major metro, this is anchored by Nordstrom, Saks, Macy's and Neiman Marcus among others. Recently expanded, it is now quite large and features some other interesting stores like Bose and Apple. It connects to Treasure Island and Wynn Las Vegas via over-Strip pedestrian bridges.
Beyond that, several hotels offer a notable string of upscale designer outlets.
Bellagio - Prada, Hermes, Tiffany, Giorgio Armani, Chanel, Dior, Fendi, Fred Leighton and more... This is some really high end stuff but the staff are quite friendly.
Wynn Las Vegas - Dior, Graff, Chanel, Manolo Blahnik, Louis Vuitton, Gaultier, Oscar de la Renta, Jo Malone, Ferrari/Maseratti and others. Similar to boutique shopping at Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas has some overlap and a few new outlets not previously in Las Vegas.
Disclaimer: I am not a golfer. Thus, I'm not really recommending specific courses based on my knowledge but more based on their reputation.
Most of the large Vegas casino conglomerates have their own exclusive golf courses and those that do not are happy to partner with another local course.
If golf is your primary reason for visiting, there are two courses that, while expensive, are unmatched: Shadow Creek and the course at Wynn Las Vegas.
Shadow Creek - Located in the Northern part of the valley, Shadow Creek was built by Steve Wynn and Tom Fazio for what was then Mirage Resorts, Inc. At the start it was reserved for only their best guests and celebrities but that has changed and if you want to pay the $500 greens fee, you too can play at Shadow Creek. If you visit the course, prepare to be blown away. You will not believe you are in the middle of a desert. Considered one of the best private courses in the country, it's quite a spectacle.
Wynn Golf Club - One of the most unique amenities at Wynn Las Vegas is the golf course that is literally right out the back door. Formerly the Desert Inn Golf Course, the course at Wynn has been totally re-designed by Steve Wynn and Tom Fazio in their second collaboration. While they had less space to work with here than at Shadow Creek, it is still a fantastic course to find in the middle of an urban environment like the Vegas Strip. For convenience, this course is tops.
Of course, there are many other courses out there. These are some that might be owned by the hotel you're staying at:
Cascata - This course was originally built for Caesars Entertainment but since the recent merger, it is now owned by Harrah's. Another course designed for high rollers, it is available to guests at Harrah's properties. Located about a 30 minute drive from the Strip, it's not as close as some of the other courses.
Rio Secco - Built for the Rio Hotel, Rio Secco is located in Henderson, a short drive from the Strip. Home to Butch Harmon's golf school, it is a popular place and open to the public. Harrah's also owns this course but will likely unload either it or Cascata at some point.
If you've never been to a Las Vegas spa, I have one thing to say: Go! If you have been then you know what it is all about... Now, some guys might think the spa is just for the ladies. This is far from the truth. There's no better cure for a hangover than sitting in the sauna, steam room or getting a massage. Seriously, you'll feel MUCH better afterwards no matter your gender.
I've had the privilege to sample quite a few spas in town and there are some stunners. Now, most of these places will only accept guests from their respective hotels... The only exception that matters on that list is Canyon Ranch Spa Club at The Venetian. A great, first class facility for sure and great that they will accept non-Venetian guests. Besides Canyon Ranch, the following spas are also top notch:
Wynn Las Vegas - a spa filled with natural light coming in from skylights? Who would have thought? It's a very nice facility and since it is so new, it really feels great too. Nice folks, good spot.
Bellagio - The original spa at Bellagio was a bit on the small side but with the December 2004 opening of the Spa Tower, a new beast emerged. Now it is gigantic and offers all the familiar treatments plus a few unique options. A very nice spot these days, even if it is a trek from the main tower guest elevators.
THEHotel - When THEHotel was added to Mandalay Bay they included a new spa, the Bathhouse, to be available for suite tower guests. It's a very nice facility covered in dark stone and very relaxing. Much nicer than the standard Mandalay Bay spa offering.
A few hours at the spa can really turn your day around and since most Vegas visitors are cramming in as much action as possible, a little downtime can be a great thing.
This one is pretty obvious, especially to non-gamblers. Spend the day at the pool! Relax! Get some sun! Well, with the average hotel pool servicing thousands of guests, sometimes it can be a little tough to find a good place to sit/hang out.
Renting a cabana is an option at most hotel pools and the best way to guarantee you'll have a place to hang your hat. For those folks that don't want to lay down the bills for the cabana, getting up early and snagging a seat is just about your only option.
Now, some pools are more popular than others. Here's a few of the standouts... Remember, you can only use the pool at your own hotel!
Mandalay Bay - Probably the undisputed king of hotel pools due to the large wave pool, lazy river, and the pay-per-entry Moorea Beach Club. This is a gigantic complex and they are very strict about letting in only hotel guests.
Hard Rock - If you're under 30, the pool at the Hard Rock is the only thing you need. The nice thing is that they let non-guests in on Sunday if you want to pay the cover to their 'Rehab' pool party.
Bellagio - A touch more refined than what you'd find at Mandalay, Bellagio's guests tend to trend a little bit older and more mature. The pool deck is meant to look like the grounds of a European palace, made of up many different pools and landscaping.
Wynn Las Vegas - The newest kid on the block features two interconnected pools, another large single pool, an outdoor casino and if you're staying in the South Tower Suites, there are two other pools reserved just for your use. Two story cabanas (stacked on top of each other) are another interesting design feature.
The Mirage - The original Las Vegas super-pool, The Mirage still delivers. A tropical oasis, this place is packed all day.
The Flamingo - A hotel that caters to the mid-market with a fantastic pool? Rare but true. Sorta like The Mirage, the pool area at The Flamingo is tropically themed and always very popular. If you want a seat, get down there early.
Ah, the Las Vegas show experience... 20 years ago it was where entertainers went to die. These days Las Vegas has the best entertainment options the world has to offer. For the visitor, this is great - there are so many choices you can see almost anything in Las Vegas, from Broadway shows to comedy to amazing acrobatics and more. There are so many stand-out shows that it is hard to just pick a few but we've done just that... There are other gems out there, there are just some of our favorites:
Avenue Q (Wynn Las Vegas) - Tony Award winning Broadway musical featuring puppets can be seen in three places: New York, London and now, Las Vegas. This show is funnier than hell but beware, I wouldn't take my kids until they were at least teenagers (the theater tries to keep out folks under 12 anyway). There is profanity, puppet sex and more... Everything you've been waiting for. Seriously, a very fun show.
Cirque de Soleil (Various) - The Canadian invasion continues! With shows at Treasure Island (Mystere), Bellagio (O), NYNY (Zumanity) and MGM Grand (Ka), you'd think Cirque might take a break. Nope, a new show opens at The Mirage this year. In general, it is easy to recommend a Cirque show for your Vegas vacation - but are they all the same? Not even close. In my opinion, the top choices are the original two shows, Mystere and O. Even those two are very different... You could argue that Mystere focuses more on the abilities of the performers and while the performers in O are fantastic, the theater itself is an actor that isn't to be scoffed at. The nice thing is that after 10+ years, tickets for Mystere are easier to get than tickets for O, which can be sold out for months at a time. Zumanity at NYNY is a very different kind of Cirque show, heavily relying on sexuality to tell its story. Ka at MGM Grand has an amazing amount of staging but left us a bit flat.
Danny Gans (The Mirage) - Yes, he cancels a lot of his shows, much to the dismay of ticket holders. Yes, getting tickets can be very difficult. Yes, there are other impersonators/comedians/singing folks on the Strip for less money. That doesn't change the best thing about this show: Danny Gans is VERY good at what he does. You will laugh. You will be entertained. You will be happy and you will feel good when you leave. This is a great show.
Special Attractions and Roller Coasters
Fortunately for non-gamblers passing the time, there are quite a few free attractions in Las Vegas that are worth spending the time to seek out.
Fountains of Bellagio - The number one free attraction is so good that a lot of people would pay to see it. If you've never stood in front of Bellagio and witnessed these, do not leave Las Vegas until you do. You not only see and hear the fountains, you FEEL them. For those that live under a rock and don't know what these are, the Fountains of Bellagio sit in front of the hotel on an eight acre lake. The shows run afternoons and evenings, on various schedules depending on weekend or weekday. Over 1,200 water-shooting nozzles and 4,500 lights create a water ballet like no other. While music varies from classical to show tunes to more recent chart toppers, the most interesting shows are certainly 'Rondine al Nido', 'Simple Gifts' and 'Luck Be A Lady'. The other great thing about the fountains is that day or night is a different experience - make sure you see both - you won't regret it.
Mirage Volcano - Erupting nightly every 15 minutes, the volcano at The Mirage has been a popular attraction since 1989. This year it is getting its second facelift since its debut, this time by Wet Design, creators of the Fountains of Bellagio. Admittedly, you're probably not going to need to see this more than once, but make sure you see it at least that one time.
Sirens of TI - Long ago in a galaxy far away, Steve Wynn created Treasure Island as a slightly less expensive compliment to The Mirage. Come 2000, Wynn was on his own and MGM MIRAGE was plotting to make major changes to the resort. The 'TI' concept is born, bringing new exterior paint (goodbye salmon!), a new marquee (goodbye skull and crossbones!) and a new outside show (goodbye British!). Anyway, the old show was fairly Disney-esque, sorta like something you might see on 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. The new show, 'The Sirens of TI', is aimed at a hip 21-35 year old crowd. It features pirates and singing Sirens exchanging some of the worst dialogue I have ever heard. Still, there are pyrotechnics and boats sinking, etc... This free show always draws a big crowd, even if the newer version is hard to watch, many Las Vegas visitors consider it a don't miss.
Bellagio Conservatory - Flowers inside a casino? You'd better believe it. This display changes semi-quarterly and really shows off what the horticulturists at Bellagio can do. Make sure you take a stroll through - it's a nice display.
Penske/Wynn Ferrari - Ok, maybe you're not actually shopping for a $1.4 million Ferrari but if you'd like, you can see what one looks like up close. This is a fully qualified dealership located right in the hotel, along with a gift shop where you can pick up hats and other mementos. This 'attraction' should be free. At times, Wynn Las Vegas has charged $10 for entry (you get a hat) but that policy should no longer be in effect.
Roller Coasters - Ok, these guys aren't free but they aren't all that expensive either and you have some choices... The 'Manhattan Express' at New York New York takes you out and above the casino, overlooking the Strip. At the Sahara you have 'Speed: The Ride', which while pretty short IS quite fast. Circus Circus has a theme park aimed mostly at the younger set but the 'Canyon Blaster' can be a good time. The Stratosphere has several rides at the top of the tower. Most famous is the 'Big Shot', catapulting riders up to the very top of the building. Their two newest rides, 'X Scream' and 'Insanity' are variations on the same idea: that hanging off the side of the building will terrify and excite you.
So, that's the roundup of some ideas to make your non-gambling Vegas vacation a success. As always, we welcome comments from readers. Leave them below.