Las Vegas is like an insect that sheds its skin every now and then, to become a shiny new creature.
Granted, it doesn’t lose everything it had before, but when it embarks on a significant new direction sometimes even the recent past can seem dated.
CITYCENTER TRAM – ARIA IN THE BACKGROUND, VDARA ON THE RIGHT
I hadn’t been to Las Vegas since Sept. 11th – yes, that September 11th – so I thought it was time for a visit. Since my business is about booking hotels for business travelers, I wanted to take a look at the CityCenter project that opened in December ’09. Its scope and audacity captured my imagination. So my partner Keith and I spent three nights in Las Vegas recently, nearly all in and around CityCenter.
CityCenter is an $8 billion roll of the dice for the MGM Mirage Corporation, one of the biggest players in gambling and hotels in Las Vegas, and elsewhere. Conceived and built during better times, three of the four hotels at CityCenter opened during what has been one of the worst periods in decades for Las Vegas. (The fourth, the Harmon Hotel, will open later this year.)
Briefly, CityCenter consists of three enormous upscale hotel properties, Aria, Vdara, and the Mandarin Oriental, and the Crystals shopping mall. Two leaning 37-story condo towers, Veer Towers, are the final elements of the project.
For those of you familiar with Las Vegas, it is in the mid-Strip area, with Monte Carlo to the south and Bellagio to the north. Both of these properties are also part of MGM Mirage’s empire so you can walk all the way from Monte Carlo to Bellagio via CityCenter without having to actually tread on the Strip. An elevated tram also connects Monte Carlo, Aria, Crystals, and Bellagio. Across the street is Planet Hollywood, and then to its south a string of small shops anchored by the Hawaiian Village center.
Another colossal two-tower hotel-casino resort project, the Cosmopolitan, is in the final stages of construction immediate to the north of CityCenter. The Cosmopolitan is not part of MGM Mirage.
Before I give you a closer look at CityCenter, I’d like to digress briefly to mention a couple of enjoyable experiences we had with “the natives”. Above all, the staff we encountered in the hotels, restaurants, taxis, and so on, were uniformly pleasant and engaged.
Our first memorable encounter began in the taxi from the airport to the hotel. Miguel, our Yellow Cab driver, and a recent transplant from Phoenix to Las Vegas, gave us an entertaining ride. Unfortunately, Keith inadvertently left a book bag in the taxi’s trunk, which he remembered shortly after we got out at Vdara. Keith called Yellow Cab and happily was reunited with his belongings a few hours later. Miguel absolutely refused any tip for returning the bag.
In one of Aria’s lounges we enjoyed a cocktail early on a Sunday evening when there was initially not a single other customer. Our waitress, Daniella, asked if she could join us for a conversation. She turned out to be originally from Croatia, three weeks into the waitressing gig, a senior at UNLV in psychology, with a goal of becoming a school psychologist. We heard some funny stories about what she sees when the bar gets hopping late at night.
Back to our main story.
From this trip I learned two lessons in how to approach Las Vegas in future visits.
Lesson one: Go to one nice place and stay there. For me, walking along the Strip is unpleasant and an exercise in avoiding the people handing out x-rated handbills.
Lesson two: Bring lots of money.
Large latt: $6. Pint of good beer: $9. Cocktail: $15. Iced tea: $4.50. While the 99-cent shrimp cocktail might still live at some of the older properties on the Strip and in downtown Las Vegas’ Fremont Street, the high-end properties charge resort prices for everything.
Unlike the food and drink, the rooms themselves are less expensive than what you would pay for a comparable property in any other large city.
We stayed midweek at Vdara and paid about $130 per night (including the $15 resort fee) for a large, beautiful room on the 51st floor (out of 56). (Rooms at Aria cost roughly the same; at the Mandarin Oriental they cost significantly more.)
Each of the three properties has a different feeling.
Vdara was originally intended to be a condominium, so all of the regular rooms have a small kitchen, dining area, living area/bedroom, and bathroom. But well before CityCenter opened, the economy went south so plans changed; it is now operated as a hotel although a few units have been sold. Vdara has an attractive pool area with bar, a lobby bar, and the Silk Road restaurant open only for breakfast and lunch. Overall, Vdara is very quiet even though it was full during part of our stay.
VDARA AT NIGHT
The Mandarin Oriental was conceived as a hotel from the start, although it also has a residential component. Like Vdara, it is 100% nonsmoking and does not have a casino, but unlike Vdara it has a number of restaurants largely with an Asian theme. Interestingly, guest reception (and the location of most of the restaurants and bars) is on the 23rd floor.
Aria is the largest of the hotels and the center of the action at CityCenter. (Vdara is a very short walk to Aria’s rear entrance while the Mandarin Oriental is a somewhat longer walk to Aria’s main entrance.) It has many restaurants and bars, a huge casino, and is home to the newest of Cirque du Soleil’s productions in Las Vegas: Viva Elvis. The resort has a nicely landscaped pool environment, including “Liquid”, an adults only pool and bar. About 85% of Aria’s rooms are nonsmoking.
ARIA, REAR ENTRANCE AT NIGHT
The buildings of CityCenter, especially Vdara and Aria are striking, modern designs with more than a hint of the currently popular throwback to mid-century modern. They’re magnificent inside and out. Throughout the development, you’ll see a number of works by very famous artists including Maya Lin, Frank Stella, and Henry Moore.
You can hate Las Vegas and hate gambling, but it would be hard to be unmoved by the grandness of these structures or the size of the wager that MGM Mirage made. MGM Mirage’s vision (besides making piles of money, of course) was to give Las Vegas the urban center it has lacked.
Did they achieve the goal of giving Las Vegas such a center? I’m not sure, and in any case it’s too soon to tell. But when the economy recovers it will be interesting to see whether CityCenter does indeed become the hub of the city and the Strip, or just the largest single development in the city’s history thus far.