Las Vegas through the eyes of a first-timer

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Laura Stassi Jeffrey

It feels like I’ve walked out of an icebox and into an oven as I exit the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, but I won’t let the summertime heat derail my exploration of the Las Vegas Strip on foot.

Adjacent to the golden-hued Mandalay Bay is the dark, imposing, pyramid-shaped Luxor hotel and casino, and beyond that stands the multi-turreted, castle-like property called Excalibur.

I haven’t even reached the halfway mark of my stroll before scoring my first Elvis sighting — a slightly built impersonator standing on the walkway that connects the Excalibur with the Big Apple-themed property named New York-New York, counting a wad of bills he’s pulled from the pocket of his white jumpsuit.

For me, February is fantasy month — the time to daydream about a vacation getaway and perhaps even put some plans into motion.

With live entertainment that ranges from bawdy to spectacularly breathtaking, lush exterior as well as interior landscaping that defies the desert locale, a ‘round-the-clock party scene in casinos, bars and spas, and over-the-top architectural re-creations of modern and historic wonders, it doesn’t get more fantastic than Las Vegas.

Giving in to temptation

More than 35 million people have visited Las Vegas every year for the past 10 years, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LCVA), but until last summer, I was a Vegas virgin — intrigued, yet worried I’d feel awkward and uncomfortable.

I decided it was time to give in to the temptations of Sin City when Derk, my husband, registered for a conference there. For help with planning, I turned to some trusty sources, who not only are upstanding citizens, spouses and parents, but also are highly experienced, shall we say, in Vegas ways.

They helped me shape a getaway that made my first time so special, I’m eager to do it again.

Las Vegas is “wild, wacky and sometimes bizarre,” said my friend Bob, a retired military officer and engineer who works for a large defense contractor in Northern Virginia, and who has visited Vegas at least 10 times for his job or to see family. “You will see all types there. But it’s also clean and friendly, and you will have a blast.”

Here are some tips for planning your own trip.

Lay of the land

“The Strip” refers to a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard more than four miles long that is dotted with a couple dozen hotel-casino properties and the relatively new mixed-use development called CityCenter, among other amenities.

Mandalay Bay anchors the south end of the Strip. The Sahara, which operated for almost 60 years before shutting down in mid-2011, anchors the north end. Generally, the properties toward the north end are older and less opulent, and thus room rates are cheaper.

Each hotel-casino property has its own personality and theme, and room rates can fluctuate widely. When mulling over the options, think about your budget as well as your tolerance for a high-energy atmosphere.

Keep in mind that anyone 21 years or older is welcome inside any Strip property for gambling, shopping, eating, attending a show or even limited wandering around. However, pools and other features may be available only for registered hotel guests.

Sidewalks and elevated walkways enable strolling along the Strip. Monorail and tram service are also available among some properties, or you can hop on a bus or hail a taxi.

For our stay, we booked a room at the impressive Four Seasons, which comprises the top five floors of the 39-story Mandalay Bay tower. This was the conference host site, so the rate discount was decent, but we also were mindful that the setting was blissfully removed from most of the hubbub.

While the Four Seasons rooms are in the $200 to $300 range, rooms in the rest of Mandalay Bay start at a more reasonable $90.

Bob, a methodical trip planner, grouped his hotel recommendations into three tiers before he gave them to me, and Mandalay Bay was in his top tier.

But the Bellagio is Bob’s first choice. This massive and elegant structure, modeled after the Lake Como resort in Italy, rose from the rubble of the Dunes hotel and casino.

Outside the Bellagio is a manmade lake — the water-fountain show, set to lights and music, is a must-see — and the interior features include a lush botanical garden, art galleries, and a candy shop complete with chocolate fountains.

Hotel rooms are well worth the splurge, according to Bob. Rates range from $159 to $349 in February.

My cousin Sam, technical director for a global marketing agency headquartered outside of Chicago, wholeheartedly agrees. Sam has visited Vegas about a dozen times for work or pleasure.

He stays at the Bellagio whenever he can and has even planned getaways during off-times, to take advantage of drastically slashed rates. “If you can take the heat, summer is the best bargain,” he said.

Off the Strip, Sam has stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn and utilized the free shuttle to and from the Strip’s south end. Two off-Strip properties Bob offers as word-of-mouth recommendations are the Rio — which Sam confirms has a terrific wine cellar and tasting room — and Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. 

Gambling for food, dollars

When I told Claire, my booking agent and a Vegas aficionado, about my upcoming trip, she was emphatic. “You must eat at a buffet,” she said.

I hesitated to follow her advice. Derk and I have long said that the day we found ourselves standing in line for an all-you-can-eat buffet was the day we officially became old. But after enjoying a huge breakfast buffet spread solo one day at Cravings in the Mirage (cost: $16.95), I talked Derk into joining me at the Bellagio buffet for the next day’s lunch.

Derk grumbled a bit as we — yep — stood in a long line, but he later agreed the wait had been worthwhile for the huge spread including Italian, Japanese, Chinese and American food, seafood and an incredible desert assortment. If you time it right, the lunch buffet ($19.95) can suffice as your meal for the day.

Buffet prices vary by season, but discount coupons are sometimes available, and room packages often include a meal or two at the hotel where you’re staying.

Craps, blackjack, poker, roulette — as first-timers, we were too intimidated to even try. We happily settled for feeding coins into a slot machine, and reveled in a $25 profit on our $5 investment.

Derk and I have already decided that on our return trip we’d like to be joined by companions who know their way around the tables and can guide us.

Spending a lot of money? You might want to join a “players club,” offered by one of the casinos you’ll be frequenting. You don’t have to be a high roller, and you’ll accumulate points toward promotions, including free meals and hotel rooms.

You can do this once you’re in a casino. Follow the signs pointing you to the players club or ask a casino employee where to go to apply for the card. You’ll be issued one on the spot.

Sam also usually sticks to spending money primarily at one property, and he charges everything to his room. “I don’t gamble a lot, but I do spend a lot of money in the restaurants, bars, shops and shows,” he said. “I am pretty sure the hotels track that info when sending offers.”

Beyond gambling

The live entertainment choices seem endless — concerts, comedy acts, stage plays, even a burlesque show featuring former Hugh Hefner girlfriend Holly Madison.

Bob gave high recommendations to ‘”Mystere,” the Cirque de Soleil show at Treasure Island. But we emboldened ourselves and bought tickets to the adult-themed “Zumanity.” The cabaret-style show is billed as the sensual side of Cirque de Soleil, and the acrobatics were incredible. Don’t take a front seat, though, unless you’re game to be included in some risqué antics with cast members.

You can also buy a ticket to the top of the Eiffel Tower replica at the Paris property and watch the Bellagio’s water-fountain show from there. For more faux-European fun, take a gondola ride at the Venetian.

If the artificiality of the Strip starts to wear on you, rent a car and head about 20 miles west to Red Rock Canyon to hike or jog amid the rugged beauty of the Mojave Desert. Hoover Dam, a National Historic Landmark, is about 25 miles southeast of Vegas.

Check out the hotel-casino property websites or go to www.LasVegas.com for a full list of promotional packages and discounts on hotel rooms, show tickets and other offerings. Don’t buy a package deal unless you’ve vetted all the different parts of it to ensure it really is a good deal.

You also may want to cross-reference rates with results from www.hotwire.com, which offers a compilation of the lowest published rates for airfare, hotel and ticket packages on discount travel sites such as Expedia and Orbitz.

The best roundtrip airfare deal to Las Vegas in mid-February starts at $288 on Frontier Airlines from Regan National, with one stop. Non-stop flights are considerably pricier. But check the travel websites that include airfare and hotel for potentially better deals. 

Laura Stassi Jeffrey is a freelance writer living in Chantilly, Va.