TAKE A CHANCE You're on a roll, your heart is racing, and despite an impending Cirque du Soleil curtain call, time is the last thing on your mind. Roll 2, 3, or 12 and your friends buy you another cosmo. Roll a combined 7 or 11 and the entire entourage is upgraded to the Skyloft supersuites. A hushed crowd gathers around the craps table. Even the slot machines seem to quiet their manic bleeping long enough for you to catch your breath ... and roll again.
You know the cliches. Everybody does. And they're not entirely false. Standing at night on the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Strip at Tropicana Avenue, Las Vegas's gleaming, incessant energy overwhelms: the Space Needle ripoff the Stratosphere, the flags atop the $95 million Colosseum that Celine Dion calls home, the taxis sporting ads of Frank Marino in Joan Rivers drag, and an ersatz Statue of Liberty, which countless travelers took as virtually legit when they left thousands of mementos at her feet in the months after 9/11.
But there's more to Vegas than meets the overstimulated eye. Look closer and you'll find same-sex partners at the MGM Grand enjoying a "couples massage." Amid the schlock of Crazy Girls and Jubilee! you'll find Tony-winning musicals like Avenue Q and Hairspray, starring out actors direct from the Great White Way. Indeed, Sin City's gay-welcoming wave extends all the way to the rowdy casino floor--on a recent visit to the Venetian I saw a craps dealer chase a pair of drunken frat boys out of the casino for mercilessly mocking a flamboyant queer patron. You may start to wonder: When did Vegas become such a gay travelers' paradise?
There comes a point in the life of any city aspiring to greatness when it consciously decides to move beyond its traditional comfort Zone to court people of all types. For decades Las Vegas was an old boys' club of topless revues, reckless gambling, and cheap surf and turf. What passed for being of queer interest was largely unintentionally so--showgirls in feather headdresses, garish neon glitter, Siegfried and Roy.
That stigma persisted until hotel visionary Steve Wynn unveiled Bellagio in 1998, ushering in the new standard for a Vegas resort. Bellagio offered tasteful rooms, an art gallery with real Monets, a fleet of award-winning restaurants, and dancing fountains that have become as iconic as Elvis impersonators. Threatened by the spread of legalized gambling, Vegas figured the way to stay vibrant was to expand the market and compete not with Orlando, Fla., and Branson, Mo., but with Paris and New York Cia. On a tour of the new Wynn Las Vegas in August, the most expensive casino-hotel ever built, Wynn exclaimed: "We don't worry about the gambling anymore. We just want people to come here. The gambling takes care of itself."
Seven years post-Bellagio, Vegas is a changed city--as my partner, Miles, and I discovered when we checked into the retooled MGM Grand. In 2005 MGM unveiled 51 bi-level suites called Skylofts located on the top two floors of the hotel. Adorned like urban apartments, each Skyloft includes at least five flat-screen TVs, a convertible shower-steam room, and so much Bang and Olufsen technowizardry that an attendant has to explain how it all works. We returned from dinner to find the "champagne bubbles" massage tub already filled and a menu left by the "dream butler" asking which of nine pillow styles of we desired. (Miles picked the "NASA memory foam"; I went with "natural buckwheat hull.")
In food and shopping, too, this former waste-land of cheap buffets and tacky T-shirt stands now rivals the great cities. Such renowned chefs as Jod Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, and Charlie Palmer have invested millions in visually stunning restaurants, while Saks, Tiffany, Manolo Blahnik, and Carolina Herrera have all opened outposts.
What's more, Vegas's sex appeal is now more evenhanded. Hot male models dance on a platform above the casino floor at the Rio as well as at the Centrifuge bar in the middle of the MGM casino. …