The New Las Vegas

Article excerpt

Five-star dining, the Grand Canal, gardens to shame Versailles--all this and Elvis too

* THE LAS VEGAS STRIP IS THE CITY AS BUFFET TABLE: A 5-MILE-long sampler of original Picassos, velvet Elvises, foie gras, shrimp cocktails, the Eiffel Tower, and eyeful showgirls, all preening in anticipation of the 33 million visitors who come here annually.

Vegas aims to please all 33 million.

Vegas is about romance, bawdiness, naughtiness, and good clean fun, about dreams dashed and fantasies fulfilled. It is Venetian, Parisian, Dionysian, and Promethean, ever-changing, ever-ready

This new Las Vegas is spectacular, yes. But it offers more sustaining pleasures as well. The city has become a capital of fine dining. And the same passion (and ample cash) that has funded the lavish new hotels has been applied to gardens that give Versailles a run for its money.

Singing fountains. Grand canals. Edenic gardens. Angels who ascend skyward to retrieve your bottle of wine. It's all a bit overwhelming. But then, in Las Vegas, hasn't overwhelming always been the point?

Spectacle

In its latest incarnation, Las Vegas aspires to elegance. The 1998 opening of Bellagio, with its dancing fountains on an 8-acre lake, upped the ante for the rest of the town. Soon afterward rose the Venetian and Paris Las Vegas, both boasting themed architecture far beyond the miniature-golf-course-on-steroids design that had long prevailed here. On the other hand, some of the most enjoyable Las Vegas attractions are lesser-known and decidedly more offbeat. Here's Sunset's roster of you-just-gottasee-these. Area code is 702 unless noted.

Resorts

Bellagio Resort & Casino. When the fountains out front start dancing to the strains of "Singin' in the Rain," the synchronized cascades soaring 250 feet into the air, it's easy to believe in the promise of the New Las Vegas. The rest of the resort achieves the same lofty level: mosaic floors made of imported Italian tile, a glass-domed conservatory, and works by Monet and Degas. The fountains are best experienced at night, with performances every 15 minutes from 6 to midnight. 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (888) 987-6667 for hotel information, 693-7111 for attractions.

New York-New York Hotel & Casino. Give me your wired, your bored, your shuttled masses yearning to eat free? Who knows what Statue of Liberty poet Emma Lazarus would have come up with for this New York-themed mega hotel. Lots of New York noshes, as well as a Motown Cafe (which seems more appropriate for a hotel called Detroit-Detroit, but who are we to quibble?). 3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (800) 693-6763.

Paris Las Vegas Casino Resort. Its Eiffel Tower ($8 for the elevator ride; 946-7000) is only half the size of the original. But at 450 feet, you're both high enough for a panorama and low enough to take in the action down below, especially Bellagio's fountains. The hotel's street-level facade, which mimics Parisian landmarks such as the Louvre, feels oddly real. 3655 Las Vegas Blvd S.; (888) 266-5687.

Venetian Resort/Hotel/Casino. The least cartoonlike of the theme hotels that have opened in the last 10 years, the Venetian is best known for its Grand Canal and the plaza based on Piazza San Marco: One drink at the plaza restaurant, Canaletto, and you expect to see a grand doge wander by. Don't miss the frescoed corridor between the main lobby and the casino: It, too, is one of the grandest spaces in Las Vegas. 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (800) 494-3556

Other attractions

Casino Legends Hall of Fame. This is one of the few places in town where you can learn about the evolution of Las Vegas as a resort. The museum shows videos and displays memorabilia from historic hotels. The gift shop has a large collection of vintage gaming chips, which have become a hot collectible. 7 A.M.-9 P.M. daily; $4 but vouchers for free entry are available in the hotel. …