x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Saviour of the Strip?

CityCenter is a sparkling mixed-use complex that Las Vegas hopes will attract more tourists.

The 1.6-million-square-metre CityCenter in Las Vegas is a development of hotels, condominiums and shops. At US$8.5 million (Dh31.2 bn), it is the most expensive privately funded construction project in US history.
The 1.6-million-square-metre CityCenter in Las Vegas is a development of hotels, condominiums and shops. At US$8.5 million (Dh31.2 bn), it is the most expensive privately funded construction project in US history.

I have never been a gambler so what on earth would I do in Las Vegas, my friends asked? Their puzzled looks only show how out of date they are: the city is no longer just for those turning cards or rolling dice amid the lingering glamour left behind by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

Immortalised in countless films, songs and books, Vegas stands as the epitome of the American Dream. But in recent years, the city has staked a claim to hipness to compete with New York, Miami and Los Angeles, with an abundance of new designer hotels, shops, spas and Michelin-starred restaurants to lure the beautiful crowd.

This new layer of modernity sits side by side with the garishness. I'm sure I was not the only first-time visitor whose jaw dropped at the surreal view as my plane descended in parallel to the Las Vegas Boulevard or "the Strip".

I see the Eiffel Tower, a pyramid and the Brooklyn Bridge - all fake of course - nestled among glitzy hotels and world-famous names, such as MGM, Wynn and Planet Hollywood.

On the ground, during the 10-minute taxi ride from the airport to the Strip, my sense of scale is baffled still further. The hotels reach high into the sky and even the faux Empire State Building does not look so mini anymore. Crowds stroll along the pavements, stopping to gawp. I see sari-clad women, stylishly dressed Japanese ladies, turbaned Sikh men and suited businessmen rushing to a convention. Comparisons with Dubai are obvious - both cities developed rapidly in the middle of the desert and draw in people from all over the globe.

Most ubiquitous of all, however, are the American tourists from the US heartland. In Vegas you can experience the very real friendliness of ordinary Americans without setting foot in a middle American town and fearing the resentment of locals. I'll soon get used to waitresses calling me "honey" and inquiring where I am from.

Just ahead of me are two sleek, glass towers that appear to be falling towards each other. These are the residential Veer Towers and my first sight of the CityCenter complex designed by seven of the world's leading architects or "starchitects", including Norman Foster, Cesar Pelli and Rafael Vinoly. Developed by Dubai World and MGM Mirage, the $8.5 billion (Dh31.2bn) complex opened in December 2009 and includes hotels, restaurants, residences and the obligatory shopping centre. Conceived during the boom years in the early 2000s, some 78,000 tonnes of steel were used in CityCenter's construction, enough to build 10 Eiffel Towers.

Las Vegas hopes to attract many more long-distance visitors with CityCenter, which was once called "City Saviour" by locals hit hard by the global economic crisis. The city's two million residents have suffered some of the worst rates of job losses and foreclosures in the United States. Read the local papers, the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the news is a microcosm of what is happening across the country - budget cuts to schools and hospitals along with a growing conservative movement.

The recession has made the city try harder to attract guests, who can find bargains if they look. There were about 36.3 million visitors to the city in 2009, down from 2007's record 39.2 million, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Tranquillity and tea are to be found at the Mandarin Oriental, a non-gaming hotel, which is to be my Las Vegas haven. It stands firmly apart from what some might call the vulgarity, others the magnetism, of the larger-than-life, 24-hour libertarian culture of the city, whose motto is: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas". If you have travelled long-haul, you might want to forget about tackling the Strip and head straight to its high-rise spa for some purification in the hammam. As I relax, I can see the desert and mountains through the wall of windows. The neon craziness of the glaring, bleating city feels far away from the serenity I am surprised to find within CityCenter's glass towers.

Thanks mostly to CityCenter's new hotels, there were an extra 8,100 rooms available in Vegas last year. But city-wide, demand has yet to meet supply and in 2009 the average daily room rate fell to $95.2 (Dh350) a night. It is worth haggling over advertised room rates, which start at $353 (Dh1,296) at the Mandarin Oriental. The boutique Vdara, another hotel within CityCenter, is also a smoke-free and non-gaming experience. Stunningly displayed outside the hotel is a 23-metre installation of rowboats and canoes by the artist Nancy Rubins.

I take a walk around the complex's pedestrian pathways, an activity encouraged by the strategic placing of some world-class art works, including a sculpture by Henry Moore. I later find out that a straight stroll on the Strip is much harder because walkers are herded on to footbridges at regular intervals. After visiting Crystals, the upmarket shopping centre designed by Daniel Libeskind with Tiffany and Louis Vuitton stores, I soon feel hungry. Deciding where to eat is possibly one of the most complicated decisions to be made in Vegas because Michelin, the famed French restaurant guide, launched its first guide to the city a couple of years ago, when it awarded three stars to Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand.

I ignore the sights of the casino floor and, thankfully, once you are inside Joel Robuchon's haven, the outside clamour is cut off. A large party of Lebanese diners next to my table livens up the hushed atmosphere.

The food is incredible, as it should be, with the Kobe beef ribeye simply melting in the mouth. Should you find it impossible to choose what to order - Robuchon makes new creations for each season - there is a 16-course tasting menu at $385 (Dh1,414).

Stomach full, I decide to take a walk in the older downtown neighbourhood of Las Vegas. Part of Fremont Street is a covered pedestrian walkway and at dusk there is a regular light-and-neon show to watch while sitting back in an ordinary Starbucks.

Las Vegas is completely safe to walk around and the days when the Mob dominated the city are long gone. Children are seen almost everywhere, particularly at the fountains outside the Bellagio hotel where a massive water display is choreographed to music.

At the end of the day, I retreat to the Mandarin Oriental's Tea Lounge to watch the sun set over the sparkling neon in the Strip below and watch the desert turn pink. I realise I never saw a single Elvis Presley-lookalike and it all feels pretty cool.