As my taxi drives from the Las Vegas airport to my hotel—a blissfully short trip, since this is one of those rare destinations where the city is actually within eyeshot of the landing strip—the driver doesn’t even ask if I’m here for “business or pleasure.” Instead, it’s straight to the what-kind-of-pleasure talk. Even if a convention or meeting has brought you to the incredibly queer-friendly Vegas—or, in my case, grand opening weekend of the glossy two-level gay nightclub Share—indulgence is on the roster (even for locals), and today sees plenty of shiny, luxe delights for LGBT visitors.
Part of the architecturally striking City Center development, the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas brings the brand’s Asian-tinged luxury to the Strip. Scents by fashion brand Shanghai Tang permeate the lobby and hallways, and there’s a very chill vibe throughout thanks to a lack of on-property casinos. Rooms are modern with electronic shades, while amenities and service is thoroughly five-star (e.g. complimentary Fiji water and Aromatherapy Associates bath products). Having lorded over Michelin Star-awarded restaurants, French Chef Pierre Gagnaire selected the Mandarin as the site of his sole U.S. venture, Twist. With ceiling-to-floor views and interiors designed by Adam Tihany—dangling globes pepper the contemporary purple-and-wood-toned space—and an amazing menu (e.g. grappa-glazed sea bass served on parmesan cream and crispy garlic with creamy polenta and cep mushrooms), it’s a memorable splurge.
Just a few stairwells, passages and the angular, David Libeskind and David Rockwell-designed Crystals luxury shopping center away, The Cosmopolitan boasts a Las Vegas rarity—balconies! The story goes that this was originally purposed as condos, getting around the whole no-balconies-in-Las-Vegas-hotels rule. There’s a Silver Lake-y edge to the Cosmo, thanks to art installations and pop culture-minded shops (kidrobot, Monogram). Indeed, the hotel emphasizes contemporary art, hosting temporary exhibitions by names both established and new, plus the Artist-in-Residence program. During my visit, an installation by Leor Grady saw the artist folding piles upon piles of sheets behind a glass storefront, while a cigarette machine has been repurposed as an Art*o*mat, dispensing cigarette box-sized miniature works for $5 a pop.
To the strip’s northern end, the Wynn and its sibling Encore are energetic and gorgeous. Decked out in creamy latte tones, the rooms feature incredible views, via floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the entire city.
There are a lot of toxins going on out here (and stupid behavior—despite the adage, what happens in Vegas can actually follow you home to the STD clinic!). Fortunately, one can easily detox and get in world-class health maintenance to boot.
The Encore is home to one of Vegas’ best, most artfully designed spas. Its lobby wows from the get-go with Southeast Asia-inspired by way of 21st Century design. The expansive treatment menu is global in scope, from Thai Oil to Desert Stone massages. I selected the Wynn Signature Blended Fusion massage. My male therapist, Irish with a side order of Zen, applied a virtual sampler of styles from around the world to my body over the course of 100 amazing minutes. I’d be more specific and flowery with the description, but I was lulled to sleep throughout by relaxing bliss. The equally stunning men’s facilities include experience showers, a pair of hydrotherapy pools and lounging areas.
Winner of a Forbes Five Star Award, Mandarin Oriental’s 27,000-square-food spa is informed by 1930s Shanghai opulence. Its Vitality Pool overlooks the Strip, while a whole range of Tian Quan Thermal Experiences—experience showers with settings like arctic mist (freezing!!!), island storm and tropical rain; climate-controlled Tepidarium Chairs; and a 140-degree Laconium Room—and treatment menu are available.
The Canyon Ranch SpaClub, stretching between the Venetian and Palazzo resorts, is European-inspired, and offers a bevy of health, fitness and personal maintenance options in its massive 69,000-square-foot space, including exclusives like the chain’s first foot and leg wellness facility, Healthy Feet (which carries their own line of sneakers/shoes), a climbing wall, a café and sit-down restaurant with organic, locavore-minded spa cuisine and an Aquavana (which entails thermal spa cabins, a Crystal Steam Room, Experiential Rain Showers and more). A substantial treatment menu is offered, including the men’s Detail facial—much needed after dehydrating from the desert dryness (and drinking).
A visionary delight, The Sahra Spa & Hammam at The Cosmopolitan draws its look from Las Vegas’ own desert surroundings. The dramatic hallway leading into the facility is made to resemble snaking, natural pathways through canyons (it’s very 127 Hours, but no danger of getting trapped and hacking off your own arm with a dull knife). Some treatments and Hammam rituals are inspired by Turkish and Moroccan traditions, while the steam room contrasts the desert’s heat with a cooling mist. There are a lot of gays up in here!
The question isn’t whether to see a Cirque du Soleil show, but which one(s) of the seven running. I saw three. Kà is ka-razy. Like, amazing-holy-f*ck-coolest-thing you’ve ever seen crazy. While a story purportedly binds it together—seriously, it doesn’t matter—Kà is a spectacular feast of visuals, costumes, martial arts-inspired choreography and an elaborate hydraulic stage that spins every which way. People and things pop out of it, and it basically does everything but grow hydroponic tomatoes—or does it?. Showstoppers include a Hong Kong action film-style battle that takes place vertically as if watched from above, a teepee that transforms into a flying contraption that soars over the audience and a bonkers wheel-of-death act. This is like Julie Taymor before she went Spider-Man.
Staged in the round, The Beatles LOVE has its share of memorable visuals and feats of derring-do, plus an all-Beatles soundtrack. Cirque’s burlesque production, Zumanity, currently features former Frontiers cover boy Brandon Pereyda, who rocks the show with an aerial stunt involving a chain and molests a lucky (female) audience member. Emceed by drag queen Edie, aka Christopher Kenney, Zumanity’s a bit trite by our big city standards, especially in the “saucy” patter department (“What a sexy audience! Who’s horny?”), but packs a few inspired skits, a big juicy gay kiss and a couple of genuinely impressive stunts.
While there’s a lot more to Vegas than the Strip (such as downtown’s Mob Museum, occupying the former federal courthouse where a major organized crime hearing took place in 1950), many of the best restaurants and cocktail spots are within the big hotels.
The Cosmopolitan’s are amongst the newest, also some of my favorites. Blue Ribbon serves fantastic sushi and Japanese fusion dishes like fried chicken with wasabi and honey. Winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding chef, Jose Andres’ China Poblano ingeniously pairs Chinese and Mexican cuisine, plus a superb cocktail menu (the China Paloma—high-end tequila, housemade grapefruit lavender syrup, soda). Chandelier bar—yes, it’s actually inside a ginormous chandelier!—features several levels, each with different cocktail menus created by mixologist Mariena Mercer. Some libations are prepared tableside.
The cocktails are pretty darned transcendent at Hyde Bellagio, a super-chic Miami-meets-Hollywood space overlooking the Bellagio fountains. This is where savvy locals take their friends. As with Chandelier, some concoctions are prepared tableside, like a molecular frozen creation incorporating fruit juices and liquid nitrogen, and the must-try Love Unit (bell pepper juice, vanilla vodka, pressed lime, grapefruit and Thai basil).
While steakhouses are a dime a dozen, Wynn’s Lakeside is amongst the best and most creative, and adds a gorgeous waterfall to the mix: every 20 or so minutes, some kind of multimedia musical number takes place in and around it. One interlude involved a giant animatronic turtle lip-syncing to a country song… I’m not sure what else to say about that.
One of those under-the-radar gems hidden just off the strip, The Barrymore is from Chef Anthony Meidenbauer and Block 16’s Billy Richardson. Film reels cover the ceiling of this nouveau-meets-classical-designed 1,400-square-foot space, while the menu encompasses flawless, upscale preparations of American and international favorites like the Grilled Chicken Club and Maine Lobster Roll.
Formerly a strip club and still holding the license, the two-level Share features a large dance floor, plenty of performance space and a lounge level with cubicles for private time with the hunky Share Shot Boys. The grand opening on March 3 saw a flurry of “gaylebrities” work the bottle service (and tuck a few bucks in the go-go boys’ thongs), including Carson Kressley, Alec Mapa, Ronnie Kroell and Million Dollar Listing’s Madison Hildebrand and Josh Flagg.
The following night, it was off to the iconic Mirage for Closet Sundays at Revolution Lounge, a crowded weekly gay party that sees oodles of adorable Las Vegas locals and guest performers. The space is pretty cool, too—inspired by the Beatles, it was created by Cirque.
While club Krave continues to be popular with tourists and is located smack dab on the Strip opposite City Center (it’s sort of like Sin City’s Rage), the locals I met preferred The Garage and Charlie’s. Most gay nightlife is found in what’s known as the Fruit Loop, but rumor has it that a bona fide, fully fledged “gayborhood” will be developed downtown in the next few years, no doubt with even more extravagant indulgences.