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Vegas' Coolest Pools

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Aside from the Regis Philbin slots, underdressed cocktail waitresses and overpriced room service, there's one thing that every hotel on or near the Las Vegas Strip has in common: a pool. Or, in the parlance of the resort business, a "water feature."But not all water features are created equal in Las Vegas. Some are inventive expanses with sandy beaches, waterfalls and bubbly hot tubs. Others are mundane, obligatory water-filled holes in the ground that reflect little of the kitschfor which Las Vegas is famous.

Despite the reams of type produced about a city that greets more than 30 million tourists annually, I've never read a comprehensive examination of the most important part of the daytime experience when visiting this city of 110-degree afternoons.

We decided it was time somebody compared them, and we were just the people for the job.

What you find here are the opinions of a 29-year-old pool aficionado and six-year resident of Vegas and my 12-year-old "little brother" Jamie Koch, whom I mentor through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program. It wasn't hard to hook Jamie on the project: He's so addicted to water features that his eyes sparkle when he sees a fountain at the mall.

Our one-month study, completed in August, spanned 20 pools on and near the Strip. We applied a set of criteria that included the tangible and intangible. Did this water feature display any innovations? Did it fit the hotel's theme? Was it any deeper than the typical 3 to 4 feet of most Strip pools? Did it meet the expectations of a new resort? Was it clean? Was the layout logical or clever? What were the lifeguards' attitudes? Did they look bored? Was the pool "swimmable"--meaning, did it invite us to jump in, and was the water temperate?

Almost all the pools topped out at 4 feet and not one had a diving board, presumably an insurance liability issue. (One lifeguard at Luxor confided that his most frequent reason for diving in was to rescue drunken guests.)

The resorts' pools are not typically open to locals or non-guests. In many cases, as at the ultra-exclusive Venetian, Bellagio, Four Seasons and Mandalay Bay resorts, we went with friends who were guests and who invited us. Other times we just walked in. In theory, at the pool's towel desk, guests are expected to show the staff a room key as proof that they belong, but in some cases we passed by with a smile and a nod.

Only two hotels--the Mirage and the Hard Rock--were so strict that there was no way to visit them, so we omitted them from our survey. Although we couldn't even glimpse the Mirage's pool from the entrance, we did get an eyeful of the sensational sandy beach-like spread at the Hard Rock (which issues wristbands to guests for entrance) and guessed it would have ranked high in our study.

We omitted other hotels on the Strip on mere whim, including Bally's because it always struck us as a dull hotel, and Circus Circus because the pool is tiny, crowded and not worth the ink.

Of course, there were thrills with the unexpected: The Flamingo, which bests all its new, billion-dollar neighbors with slides, waterfalls and live animals. The otherwise dull Tropicana, which overachieves with a swim-up blackjack bar. And Caesars Palace's topless Venus pool, which obviously offers its own specialist appeal.

* * *
Flamingo: A+

The scene: Who knew one of the oldest and least elaborate casino-resorts on the Strip would have a backyard so big, so lush and so much fun? The network of water slides would have been enough, but there is also a second pool with a pounding 14-foot waterfall and a third, more conventional and sedate pool for those seeking a calmer atmosphere. Even that last one is clever, with 10-foot-tall concrete pink flamingos elegantly and quietly spitting water out of their beaks. Live flamingos and African penguins are on display in the garden, a one-minute walk from the water area. Easy access for locals too, because there's no one checking IDs.

Jamie says: "We'll be back. Awesome."

Swimmability: 10. Is a flamingo pink? Dive in.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $4.50

* * *
Mandalay Bay: A+

The scene: As we treaded water in the 7-foot-deep pool waiting for the waves to start and sweep us to the sandy beach, we wondered: Why didn't anybody think of this before the Mandalay opened in 1999? There are also a lazy river, two more conventional pools and one that had only adults in it. Lifeguards seem happy, vigilant and alert, a rarity anywhere on the Strip. Wet 'n' wild it's not, but for a resort trying to live up to its South Pacific theme, this place makes a heck of a splash.

Jamie says: "Just three more waves, OK? Please?"

Swimmability: 10. You can't enjoy a good tsunami without getting very wet.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $5.25

* * *
Palms: A

The scene: Here's a new hotel that understands the importance of a top-class water feature. Mostly the Palms triumphs by offering the most intriguing and diverse options for how to sit and relax. There are double-size bed-like lounge chairs, hammocks, tables and seats built into the shallow end of the pool, purple mattresses on a sandy beach and taupe canvas canopies. Even the normal lounge chairs have better vinyl cushioning than those at most other hotels.

They pay homage to that Vegas classic, the Glass Pool Inn, with a 3 1/2-foot-deep above-ground glass pool with windows in the side for taking funny pictures of friends underwater. The aim is clearly to attract a young, happening crowd, in part by calling the pool part of the hotel the Skin Pool, with a bikini top as a logo. You can even rent backgammon sets for $10 a day or shoot a round of pool on the deck.

Jamie says: "Very cool. Add a waterfall somewhere and this would be an A+."

Swimmability: 10. But lounging in a hammock has its appeal.

Price of a Coke: $2

Price of a rum and Coke: $6

* * *
Bellagio: A-

The scene: Elegance is the calling card of the MGM Mirage's most upscale destination, and the pool area does not disappoint. Several pools flank a lovely central walkway of ivy-covered arches, and each pool is surrounded by tall, well-groomed pines and bonsais. Three of the pools have mushroom-like fountains in the center for guests to sit under, proving that you can be classy and fun at the same time.

An extra perk: Free water aerobics classes at noon for guests. Our most significant concern, though, was that the water had a strangely unpleasant salty taste found at only one or two other pools in our survey.

Jamie says: "Pretty, but the hot tubs aren't very warm or bubbly."

Swimmability: 7. Nice to cool off, but not much more to do in the water than that.

Price of a Coke: $3

Price of a rum and Coke: $6.50

* * *
MGM Grand: A-

The scene: The city's largest hotel had to have a big water feature if only to accommodate its capacity of 10,000 guests. It does so with four pools sporting clever show-biz names like Talent Pool, and it goes the extra mile with a lengthy, lazy river that takes almost 10 minutes to float around. It was, however, oppressively crowded and noisy.

Jamie says: "The lazy river just goes on and on. This rocks."

Swimmability: 8.5. There's a long rectangular pool with lanes for folks who want a no-gimmicks place to do laps.

Price of a Coke: $3

Price of a rum and Coke: $4.50

* * *
Four Seasons: B+

The scene: The first thing we saw were pool attendants spraying cans of mist on women in lounge chairs as they relaxed around an earthworm-shaped pool. This hangout for the ultra-rich won't appeal to children, but it's not supposed to. It's intended to be a relaxing respite for wealthy travelers, and it does that especially well, considering that it borders Mandalay Bay's frenetic beach. Somehow, despite this, there's little noise.

Jamie says: "Boring, but the water was nice."

Swimmability: 5. This place is for luxuriating.

Price of a Coke: $3.75

Price of a rum and Coke: $7

* * *
Rio: B+

The scene: A very clever and elaborate effort. Four pools span a huge area, each with distinctive features. One is shaped like a clam and has a large concrete shell in the middle with a giant pearl at its center that spews water. Another is shaped like a fish and has orange and black tiling on its floor. The third has a Jacuzzi tucked behind a waterfall, a clever touch. The fourth has a sandy beach that leads to a deeper, sandless area, accented by a striking waterfall. The beach was an interesting try, but because the Rio uses coarse sand, it's uncomfortable to walk on and makes the pool dirty. The deep end is deeper, at 5 feet, than the Strip standard. One cool feature was the blackjack table under a canopy in the center.

Jamie says: "They need softer sand in the beach-pool thing, but that hot tub behind the waterfall was pretty cool."

Swimmability: 9. Deciding which part to swim in is the problem.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $5.25

* * *
Treasure Island: B+

The scene: This small, compact, lively pool area had one feature that pushed its grade higher, a slide. Its pitch is only about 10 degrees, but it is also the only hotel, aside from the Flamingo, to have one. The lifeguards were a bit bossy, but this was a welcome change from the disengaged ones at the other pools. The faux wood-plank look of the deck fit the hotel's pirate-ship theme.

Jamie says: "Go on the slide headfirst for best effect."

Swimmability: 10. Too frenetic to do anything else, least of all relax.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $5

* * *
Tropicana: B+

The scene: A terrific surprise from one of the oldest and least-noticed resorts located at a prominent corner, the Strip and Tropicana Boulevard. The Tropicana has a large pool with curves and caverns, which is topped off by a fountain cascading dramatically from 15 feet above. There's a bar in the pool with swim-up blackjack tables. The landscaping is great too, with many palms and other trees that fit the jungle theme. The downside of that, though, is lots of tree bits in the water, especially in the unappealing hot tub. A plus: The pool is 5 feet deep.

Jamie says: "That waterfall is the best!"

Swimmability: 10. All the action's in the pool, from socializing to gambling.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $4.50

* * *
Caesars Palace: B

The scene: Lifeguards at the Luxor and MGM Grand said Caesars' was their favorite pool on the Strip. But once we saw it, we could only figure they liked the prospect of glimpsing topless women. This is the only Strip hotel we found that allows what they call "European-style topless sunbathing" at the appropriately named Venus pool. Fortunately, that area is blocked from children's view. The central pool, with a soaring rotunda in its center and fountains shooting water 15 feet high, is a sight to behold and frolic beneath. And there's something to be said for the elegance of the marble designs in the pool floor. Still, that's all there was. The water was uncomfortably cold, and the deck is made of some material that gets so hot that walking barefoot is almost dangerous.

Jamie says: "It's nice, but not really that great."

Swimmability: 6. It was really chilly.

Price of a Coke: $2.25

Price of a rum and Coke: $5.50

* * *
Luxor: B-

The scene: It has a cool layout of four pools at the base of the pyramid, one of which has 20-foot Egyptian pillars topped by busts of goats that spit water from their mouths. The other three pools surround a central structure that should have been a waterfall that spills out into each. But the waterfall is in disrepair, and instead swimmers look at a puzzling dry ramp of cracked blue tiles. Lifeguards looked bitterly bored: One dozed, and another wasn't even wearing a swimsuit. Fix the decrepit fountain and the lifeguards' attitudes and the hotel could easily earn a B+ for variety and excellent use of its theme.

Jamie says: "Is that bird poop on the broken waterfall?"

Swimmability: 6. The pool with the pillars was fun, but visions of avian feces at the other ones were a turnoff.

Price of a Coke: $2

Price of a rum and Coke: $4.25

* * *
Paris: B-

The scene: This underwhelming and ordinary spread on a third-floor deck is nevertheless fun because of the scenery. A leg of the Eiffel Tower juts into the side of the plaza, and visitors can walk beneath it after a dunk in the star-shaped pool to grab a bite from the snack bar.

Another touch befitting the theme was the quaint open-air Parisian cafe on the plaza.

Jamie says: "Cool scenery, cold water."

Swimmability: 5. They had to try hard to be this frigid in 110-degree weather.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $4.25

* * *
Orleans: C+

The scene: This ordinary pool hardly reflects the resort's theme, but it has a spacious tranquillity and a cute baby pool. Mostly, it's average. We gave Orleans an extra half-grade for its terrific hot tub, which is circular, with a big palm tree in the center, with fountains and strong jets.

Capriciously, we awarded another half-grade for the sound system's Paul Simon music.

Jamie says: "For another half-grade, play some Eminem."

Swimmability: 7. The rare Vegas pool where you can swim laps, and it's never crowded.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $3

* * *
Excalibur: C

The scene: For a resort that prides itself on being kid-friendly, it's peculiar that the only interesting water feature--a small waterfall--is accompanied by a do-not-touch sign. The mushroom-shaped pool is surrounded by some theme-appropriate and cute castle facades on the terrace. The water was too cold.

Jamie says: "Why can't we touch the waterfall?"

Swimmability: 5. A take-it-or-leave-it place.

Price of a Coke: $2.25

Price of a rum and Coke: $3.75

* * *
Harrah's Las Vegas: C

The scene: This rectangular pool on a second-floor deck is average. With the building's motel-like facade towering over it and no view of the Strip, you could just as well be at a Days Inn in Boise, Idaho. One oddity was that the walls and floor of the pool are made of metal: Bounce on the floor and you'll feel vibrations. Two nice features included a chair massage for a reasonable $20 for 15 minutes, and misters that effectively distributed cool puffs of moisture on nearby loungers.

Jamie says: "I liked the paintings of the parrots, but why are they there?"

Swimmability: 7. Decent for swimming laps because it's rectangular.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $5

* * *
Stratosphere: C

The scene: As with everything else at this hotel, the view's the thing. In this case, it's not much: From the eighth-floor deck you look at the smog-shrouded mountains to the west or the Sahara's neon billboard to the south. Oddly, to the east is a mural of a beach and sky that's out of place and cheesy. The pool is adequate, although it had the worst-tasting water. The basketball nets and blue-and-white balls in the pool were a cool feature, unless you're the guy sitting behind the nets who has to kick missed shots back into the water every few minutes.

In its water feature the Stratosphere fails to take advantage of its status as the tallest structure west of the Mississippi.

Jamie says: "Pool basketball is a fun idea."

Swimmability: 4. Something's not right with that water.

Price of a Coke: $2.29

Price of a rum and Coke: $3

* * *
Monte Carlo: D+

The scene: Much like its cousin at New York New York, this pool is small and ugly, although it does shake mildly as a wave pool and there's a short, lazy river too. This was the only Strip pool we saw that allowed non-guests in for a fee--a laughable $15 per person. The Monte Carlo tried to enhance its pool's allure by calling it the Monte Carlo Beach Club, but it's still merely a hole with water in it.

Jamie says: "Can we go now?"

Swimmability: 4. Yawn.

Price of a Pepsi: $2.75

Price of a rum and Pepsi: $5.50

* * *
Aladdin: D

The scene: You know you're in trouble when you get off the elevator on the sixth floor and walk out to the pool area only to have your sidekick ask, "Where's the pool?" The dominant element here is a concrete plain with lounge chairs and tables and two small, unremarkable pools on raised landings. I could put a lounge chair on my driveway for the same effect. The zigzag-shaped pools are poorly conceived as well, with room for only one row of chairs crammed next to one another. Annoyed guests stood around as if waiting for someone to vacate a parking space.

We expect more from a new hotel. The water feature here was clearly an afterthought.

Jamie says: "This is stupid."

Swimmability: 2. Too crowded. Miserable.

Price of a Coke: $2

Price of a rum and Coke: $5

* * *
New York New York: D

The scene: Whoever decided to place this skimpy pool directly below the peak of the roller coaster deserves to be fired. Imagine spending $150 a night to sit poolside and listen to the thunderous racket of the cars rising to their crescendo followed by the charming screams of riders as they plummet--every 2 1/2 minutes. The view, too, is miserable: the parking garage and a sign for Interstate 15. An occasionally erected volleyball net in the middle would have been a nice touch if it didn't inconveniently split the pool in two. Also, because of too much chlorine in the pool, it was uncomfortable to open our eyes underwater.

The only thing that saved this place from an F was the fact that the Venetian was so disappointing that it deserved to be alone in that distinction.

Jamie says: "Boring, but the hot tub was hot and bubbly."

Swimmability: 2. Not worth going blind for--maybe they should put a little water in the chlorine.

Price of a Coke: $2.25

Price of a rum and Coke: $4.75

* * *
Venetian: F

The scene: You would think that a resort based on a city of canals would offer a second-to-none water feature. You would be so, so wrong. Our venom for this particular pool arises from the shock that this $1.5-billion casino, which in so many other ways is sensational--elaborate paintings, enormous and elegant suites and innovative gondola rides--would offer a pool area that's not only unimpressive but also downright hideous.

Finding the two pools is a game of wandering through a confusing maze of planters and walkways. Once you do make it through, you find two ordinary pools in a big, shadeless expanse. There's no view to speak of, except of the mustard walls, and even there is evidence of neglect: Black streaks are emerging on the paint.

Remember, this is one of the newest properties on the Strip, and its pool area is a great big failure.

Jamie says: "Do we have to actually go in the water to rate this one?"

Swimmability: 2. Not much else to do. The good news is that if you stay here, you probably don't know what you're missing at the other hotels anyway.

Price of a Coke: $2.50

Price of a rum and Coke: $6.50

Steve Friess is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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