Travel

Living luxe Vegas, for less

Marc glanced at his wristwatch and beamed. "Do you realize we've been in Las Vegas 11 hours and I haven't dropped anything into a slot machine yet?"

We were here earlier this month to indulge but not to overdo. And that meant cutting back in certain areas, like taking chances, to spend more in others--like resort-style pampering. So noon on a Saturday found us at the Strip, our pockets locked tight, our sights set on our favorite four-letter word: free.

We had spent the night at the Green Valley Ranch, a $300-million luxury-for-less resort that opened in December. Station Casinos' 201-room hotel, casino, spa, two bars and six restaurants--including Gustav Mauler's Bullshrimp and Susan Feniger's and Mary Sue Milliken's Border Grill--sit seven miles from the Strip.

All the standard rooms like the one we reserved on the Internet were occupied by the time we arrived on Friday, so the desk clerk checked us into a "petite suite" for the same price, $99 a night plus tax and an energy fee.

We dragged our tired selves past the noisy, smoky Whiskey Sky--the bar in which Cindy Crawford's mister, Rande Gerber, is a partner--and up to a fourth-floor room with French doors opening onto a tiled balcony. For a flash, the taller-than-average entertainment armoire, floral carpet and 10-foot ceiling reminded me of a room I once had in Geneva. We felt sure our luck was just beginning.

But maybe that luck wouldn't rub off on a slot machine. So we decided to save it and go for all that is gratis on the Strip. For starters, we parked in the free garage behind the Aladdin.

We wound through Desert Passage, a mall attached to the Aladdin casino, and popped out on Las Vegas Boulevard. From there we went a long block north to the Flamingo Hilton, nodding along the way to the Eiffel Tower at Paris.

The Flamingo promised free ogling of wildlife. Sure enough, in the central courtyard we found a spectacularly multihued pheasant, a little African penguin, ducks, a turtle, a goose, orange-and-white koi and 12 pink Chilean flamingos. This was nature as Las Vegas intended: cement ponds, fake streams and tropical landscaping traversed by tourist paths.

The '70s lived up the street at the Carnaval Court, Harrah's outdoor bar. A band called Love Train blasted "Disco Inferno," the four musicians hidden under sunglasses and Afro wigs. "Oh, man," Marc said blissfully, "this is great!" I thought he meant the music, but I followed his eyes to a bartender juggling bottles.

Two doors up we found the Venetian. In the Grand Canal Shoppes area, tourists took turns posing for photos with a boring, life-size wax Luciano Pavarotti. We hadn't yet come to the living statue, a man wearing white makeup and wrapped in white cloth to resemble a Renaissance cleric. The crowd stood four deep around him. We watched closely. Aha! He blinked.

At the Mirage, the advertised white "tigers" turned out to be one big male, a protégé of Siegfried and Roy in a white enclosure with a pool and a glass viewing wall. Each pace, jump, wade, lick, lap and sniff elicited oohs and aahs.

Our feet ached. We hobbled back to Desert Passage at the Aladdin, pausing along the route to the garage to watch acrobats form human pyramids and towers.

Back at Green Valley Ranch, Marc filled the tub in our mammoth bathroom and fired up the whirlpool jets. After my turn in the tub, we dolled up for dinner.

A word from the unwise: Make reservations before arriving in town. There was a four-hour wait to get into Bullshrimp, the steak-and-seafood restaurant opened by Mauler, the former Mirage Resorts food director. Il Fornaio, part of the upscale Italian chain, and the Border Grill, an offshoot of the Santa Monica original, were packed too. We had tried the buffet at Feast Around the World for brunch, and the Original Pancake House wasn't our style for a Las Vegas supper. Fado, an Irish pub and restaurant, opens next month. We wound up in Trophy's, part of the sports-restaurant chain.

Trophy's and the Feast still had new-restaurant issues to work out. At Trophy's my salmon was done to perfection, but Marc's Havana chicken was cold and served with only three thin slices of fried plantain, plus rice and beans. At Feast, dishes on the steam table were past their prime--though nobody could go wrong with made-to-order omelets, a fresh-fruit bar and display cases of beautiful pastries.

After dinner, we assessed our feet. Maybe, we said, we'll drop by the Whiskey Sky. Earlier in the day, we had peeked into the bar. It's furnished much like a living room, with a few cushy-looking seats around the edges and a pile of floor pillows heaped on a jumbo hassock in the middle. With a view of the pool and the Strip, it feels casual yet urban. But it is a standing person's bar, and soon we were back in our room, where the pillows looked mighty inviting.

We shelved plans for a free night out. No pirate battle at Treasure Island, no volcanic eruption at the Mirage, no dragon fight at Excalibur, no dueling pianists at New York-New York. No masquerade parade at the Rio, no Fremont Street Experience light show, not even a free key ring or deck of cards from the Lady Luck. Instead, zzzzz. With a long week behind us and a lovely room before us, we treated ourselves to a little relaxation.

At 6:45 a.m., Kenny G awakened me. His recording of "Stranger on the Shore," coming from loudspeakers in the parking lot, wafted over the balcony's balusters and tapped gently at the French door.

The previous afternoon I had made reservations at the resort's Dolphin Court Salon & Day Spa for a Swedish massage for both of us and a "citrus salt glow" for me. As Marc and I walked to the spa, we tested the facilities: jumping onto the mattress of one of the sheltered outdoor daybeds; poking our noses into the 12 poolside cabanas to see couches, TVs and VCRs; inspecting a gas-powered campfire area; leaving footprints across the carefully raked sand beach at one end of the pool to dip a finger in the heated water.

The spa is in a small building next to the pool. After a short wait in rattan lounges by the whirlpool--bathing suits required--a masseur led Marc away, and I went for my salt glow treatment.

As I waited to be rubbed all over with a paste of salt and grapefruit essence, I wondered what that might taste like on a pork roast. The salt stung, but its roughness felt invigorating. After several minutes of gentle rinsing, I was as relaxed as a well-done noodle.

The massage, done in another room, started with lying on a hot-water bag to loosen back muscles. Neck, shoulders, arms, fingers. I looked at water from the lap pool dancing above the translucent ceiling. Legs, feet, toes. The New Age music was putting me to sleep.

When it was finished, I couldn't think of a single worry. On the way back to the room, I stopped at the casino. The 80,000-square-foot room with flagstone pillars was far from crowded, so I had my pick of 25-cent slot machines. It's a quiet room, too, because most of the machines are the ticket-paying kind; winners cashing out get tickets to exchange for money at the cashier's window.

I chose a Double Diamond, put in a dollar a friend had given me to play, and promptly lost four times. I fed the machine another dollar and it ate 25 cents. Poker, I thought while pushing the "spin" button, might have better odds.

Bells went off. The machine began making ping-ping noises, the electronic version of coins hitting the pan. When it was finished, I cashed my ticket for $40.75. It will probably be the best return all year on a $1.50 investment.

Marc and I checked out and, like moths to a flame, headed back to the Strip. This time we parked for free behind New York-New York. It was 1 p.m., hours before the pianists would begin dueling in the Times Square Bar, so we walked outside to Las Vegas Boulevard.

Reality rarely dances among the lights on the Strip. This makes more striking the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard--the corner of New York-New York with its Statue of Liberty flanked by two fireboats.

On the iron fence rounding this corner, visitors have placed ribbons, photos and T-shirts from firefighting companies as far away as Japan to remember the World Trade Center tragedy.

We paused, then hustled up the street to the Bellagio's dancing fountain. Every half-hour, loudspeakers come to life for one song, and so does the oversize pond in front of the hotel-casino. Hundreds of water jets twist and spout in a kind of chorus line; the music varies from "The Star-Spangled Banner" to "Luck Be a Lady."

The show put Marc in the mood to find a Frank Sinatra slot machine in New York-New York. He settled in at a $1 machine while I found another Double Diamond across the aisle. In a blink, he ran through $10. I heard him sigh.

Then I heard plunk-plunk-plunk. After 39 hours of resisting the temptation to drop a coin, he had hit for $30.

Holly Ocasio Rizzo is a freelance writer in Orange County.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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