IN THE MIDDLE of the night on a Tuesday in mid-November, just after a fireworks spectacular had spewed from its roof, the New Frontier Hotel-Casino, packed with explosives, imploded and crumbled to the ground. The destruction sent a mushroom cloud of dust rolling across the Strip—Las Vegas’s casino-lined main drag—and the throngs that had gathered to watch let out a collective woooo before breaking into a cacophony of hell yeahs and other expletives of joy.
Although it was the second casino to be built on the Strip (back in 1942) and the site of Elvis’s first Sin City appearance, God forbid that anyone should get all misty-eyed over the New Frontier’s demise. After all, Las Vegas didn’t become the single most visited city in the United States (39 million people in 2006) by nostalgically clinging to the past. Quite the opposite. Vegas’s charge always has been to anticipate our innermost hedonistic desires, and then exceed them in a display of marvelously vulgar American wealth.
And yet my own hedonistic desires, like those of many people I know, never quite synced up with the whole Las Vegas experience. For one, I typically don’t gamble; for another, casinos like Excalibur, New York New York, and the Luxor’s iconic pyramid of glass are just too Disney for my tastes. Cavorting with drunken hordes on the Strip just seemed icky, and for much of the 1990s, the food, though plentiful, was—excepting a few restaurants opened by pioneering chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse—plenty awful.
But now, at long last, I’m in the throes of a full-on Las Vegas love affair, because the hedonistic desires that Vegas currently fulfills match my own to a T. The glittering town plunked in the middle of the Mojave Desert is fast becoming the gastronomical epicenter of the United States, with scores of high-end chefs and hoteliers partnering to create dining experiences that are as memorable for the restaurants’ architecture as they are for the extravagance on the plate. (The city boasts 16 restaurants with Michelin ratings.) The paradisiacal pools and man-made beaches of Mandalay Bay set a new standard for catching rays, and hotels like the Wynn have managed to strike a more sophisticated balance between elegance and fantasy.
Best of all, more of this new version of Vegas is yet to come. That pile of New Frontier rubble? It’s slated to become a 3,500-room Plaza Hotel; nearby, the Trump International Hotel and Tower, a looming stack of gold coins glittering in the Nevada sun, will open this year; and the Encore, an annex to the Wynn, is slated to open in early 2009, and (rumor has it) will contain an indoor lake and waterfalls. All are places where opulence (albeit of a candy-colored ilk) manages to hold its own next to the city’s remnants of schmaltz.
And so, after arduously avoiding the city for so many years, I decided it was finally time to embrace it by embarking on one of those classic girls’ weekends. As a trio of thirtysomethings, our mission was to seek out and then luxuriate in Vegas’s more grown-up, sophisticated side. We would eat sumptuous meals, sip cocktails in fabulous bars, embrace any and all opportunities for decadence, and try not to feel guilty about any of it.
(Note that if, like us, you are stupid enough to try to drive up the Strip on a Saturday night en route from the airport, you will not see sophisticated Vegas, but rather the antics of street-cruising revelers chugalugging frozen drinks from yard-long plastic goblets. And you may wish that someone would put explosives in your head and implode it like the New Frontier, because it will take you more than an hour to go a mile.)