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Bette Midler does Sin City

In the opening to her new show, Bette Midler is buffeted into Las Vegas atop a tornado. Of course, twisters in the Mojave Desert are rare. Yet as soon as "Miss M" hits the stage, the curtain-raiser makes perfect sense: At age 63, Midler's still a whirlwind.

"I stand here before you sucked and silicone-free. And in Las Vegas, that's really saying something!" she tells the audience inside the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, where Midler now performs about 100 days a year, in rotation with Cher and Elton John.

"The Showgirl Must Go On" intertwines the songs that made Midler famous with an homage to the productions that used to grace showrooms up and down the Strip.

"People like spectacle, and they come for the glitter and the glitz," she explains. "They want to be knocked out."

Now that she's spending more than three months a year here, Midler's getting to know Sin City all over again. She sat down recently to discuss some of her favorite Vegas spots, past and present.

Midler noted that the huge, cheering crowds she receives today are a big change from the receptions she got nearly 40 years ago, when she opened for Johnny Carson at the Sahara Hotel & Casino to tourists who often sat impatiently through her routine, waiting for the headliner -- and wondering why they hadn't stayed in the casino a while longer.

The Sahara is one of the few hotels still standing that was around in the early 1970s. It tops Midler's list of Las Vegas favorites.

"In an era where so many casinos are so gigantic -- and very beautiful but vast -- that little casino is as cute as it ever was. It's just adorable," she says. "I'm old school [so] I like the idea that the old is thriving along with the new. You know, I'm glad they didn't tear everything down."

Just a few blocks to the south, Wynn Las Vegas now soars on the site of the Desert Inn, one of many hotels that have been, well, torn down. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the Sahara, the Wynn is also on Midler's must-see list for Vegas visitors.

"It is possibly the most beautiful [resort] in the world," she says. "It's kind of a whacked-out Jean-Michel Frank-kind of crazy, constructivist, wacky, folksy something or other. . . . . Everywhere you go, you have something to look at, some beautiful picture to look at."

The city's vibrant selection of restaurants gets a good bit of Midler's attention, because she and her husband, Martin von Haselberg, are what she calls "foodies."

"I have made it my mission to eat really good food, 'cause there's so much good food here," she says, adding that when she opened for Carson in the '70s, the Vegas dining scene was almost nonexistent.

"You would go to the 24-hour cafe and you'd have a bowl of split pea soup and that was about the size of it," she says.

Being based at Caesars, Midler is a regular at three of the resort's upscale restaurants: Bradley Ogden ("kind of like our commissary"), Rao's and Guy Savoy.

"He [Savoy] is an old friend and he's absolutely fabulous," she says. "They taught bread-baking to me and my musical director the last time we were here."

Still, it's not only high-end fare that suits Miss M's palate. Not far from the Strip, she has discovered some inexpensive gems.

"We like to eat cheap," she says, enthusiastically. "So we go to the , which is a tapas bar with sensational food."

Midler has also discovered Las Vegas' Chinatown, along Spring Mountain Road about a mile west of Las Vegas Boulevard. Tucked into several modern strip malls, dozens of restaurants feature various cuisines, including Korean, Thai and Vietnamese.

"There's a huge amount of Asian food here. Huge, huge, huge!" she says. "I highly recommend it. . . . We've had wonderful meals there."

When it's time to go shopping, Midler heads for the Barneys New York store inside the Palazzo.

That Barneys "is the most beautiful Barneys, I think, in America. [And] I've been to a lot," she says.

For entertainment, "O," the Cirque du Soleil show at Bellagio is a sure bet, one Midler calls "the best show I've ever seen in my life."

"To me, it was the greatest triumph of the human spirit that I've ever seen on a stage," she says. "We work in this [industry] and what they did is so hard to do, so monumental. We were just in awe."

To cap off a night out - whether it's after her show or "O" - Midler suggests a visit to Forty Deuce at Mandalay Bay. It's the Vegas version of Ivan Kane's Hollywood club, and just as popular.

"It's hard to get into, but it's a really good show," Midler says. "It's a tiny little club [and] very old school . . . with the most amazing strip [show] you've ever seen."

For a fun time at no cost, the entertainer suggests heading downtown, where the Fremont Street Experience is the biggest and brightest, but not the only light show.

Several old, restored neon signs -- including the horse-and-rider from the Hacienda and the genie's lamp from the first Aladdin -- glow brightly along Fremont Street.

"I'm a big neon fan," she says of her attraction to the older part of town.

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