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Viva less Vegas

Its lavish but quieter showplace at the new CityCenter offers art, food, spas, and shopping

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / March 28, 2010

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I’ve done some bad things in this city.

There was the time I meandered downtown to the old casinos and ate a deep-fried Twinkie. OK, I ate two.

It gets worse. There was the trip when I rented a car specifically to go to In-N-Out Burger and sat in the parking lot while I stuffed down a double with cheese.

I decided that if I was going to return to this city, I needed a different Las Vegas experience. Now that most of my wild oats are the consistency of oatmeal, I didn’t want to be off cavorting at the Liberace Museum or drinking strawberry daiquiris in foot-tall glasses while feeding dollar bills into “I Dream of Jeannie’’ slot machines all night.

Which is why I find myself in a mirrored room at 9 a.m. — the crack of dawn Vegas time — with a personal trainer named Sergio who is pushing me with a weight training regimen. “C’mon, only two more,’’ he says as I shakily hoist a pair of tiny dumbbells over my head while precariously balancing on a giant exercise ball.

To shake off my less-than-honorable Vegas past, I’m decamping for a weekend at CityCenter, the newly opened, 76-acre complex of hotels, a pair of leaning condominium towers (appropriately called Veer), a posh shopping center, plus multiple bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.

The $8.5 billion resort, which includes more than 4,500 rooms spread among Aria Hotel & Casino, Vdara Hotel & Spa, and the Mandarin Oriental, plus another hotel scheduled to open later this year, is unusual for the city in many ways. What’s most jarring when you enter Aria, the biggest casino and hotel of the complex, is the absence of a theme to the architecture. None of the CityCenter hotels replicate ancient Rome or feature a half-scale Coney Island. It is, by Vegas standards at least, quite tasteful.

The whole idea behind CityCenter is that it is not your parents’ Vegas, feathered and sequined of yore. Many times over the weekend, fellow guests and waitstaff explained, “It’s Vegas, but not.’’ An ad in the new issue of Esquire plays on that theme, asking, “So you’re not a Vegas person. Are you sure?’’

The other surprising fact about CityCenter is that its hotels and condominiums have earned Gold LEED certification, which means they were constructed in an environmentally friendly fashion. Only the casino at Aria missed this eco-friendly certification because it allows smoking.

I’m not thinking about any of this on my first morning as Sergio pushes me through lunges and crunches. After a strenuous hour of strength training, I wander upstairs to continue exploring the 80,000-square-foot spa at Aria and plant myself in one of many Jacuzzis. This is a Vegas first for me. Instead of planning a lunchtime visit to the creperie at Paris Las Vegas, I’m planning an afternoon lollygagging on Japanese stone beds, in therapeutic salt rooms and dry saunas. By the end of it, I’m ready to melt into bed and sleep.

Instead of napping, I’ve booked myself another first: a massage. I walk over to Vdara, a deluxe hotel inspired by a Manhattan boutique hotel, so there is not a casino in sight. (The only casino in the complex is at Aria.) The spa and fitness center at Vdara is less than a quarter the size of Aria’s and it’s much more tranquil. There are only a handful of people around, and the only sound I hear is gurgling water.

My masseuse, Jasmine, is a seasoned professional who doesn’t understand my modesty. So instead of trying to explain that I’m from New England and wouldn’t want my pasty white skin to blind her, I relent, take off my bathing suit, and scurry under the sheet. Next, I try out the spa. I settle into the meditation lounge with a cup of tea and lean back on a settee. It’s a nice change from the usual Vegas soundtrack of slot machines and inebriated people yelling at the craps table.

Up to this point, I am low-key with my dining choices. To avoid turning CityCenter into a sad Table-for-One Center, I wait until my partner, Patrick, arrives before trying one of the many white tablecloth restaurants. Because this is a non-Vegas Vegas vacation, we make a reservation at Sage, acclaimed chef Shawn McClain’s restaurant at Aria. It’s a massive space, decorated like a fine French restaurant on steroids that serves California-inspired cuisine. And despite my initial regrets that I am missing the Donny and Marie stage show, my Belgian ale braised short ribs and sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi quickly quiet me. Because I had spent the day at the gym — well, OK, the spa — I feel I deserve the milk chocolate dome dessert as well (sorry, Sergio).

The post-dinner plan calls for a cocktail at Eve, the club opened by “Desperate Housewives’’ star Eva Longoria Parker. We arrive shortly after midnight to find a bouncer who vaguely looks like a cast member from “Jersey Shore’’ dealing with an impossible line. Women squeezed into too-small dresses beg to be let in. Rather than wait in this sea of decolletage, hair gel, and spray-on tans, we walk over to Bar Vdara, which is wonderfully quiet and civilized in contrast.

We sit near a couple from Texas and a traveler from the United Kingdom. I order a cocktail made with St. Germain, complete with an edible hibiscus blossom sitting in the bottom of the glass. I’m challenged to eat the blossom, and bravely, or at least tipsily, I rise to the challenge.

The next morning I know this is a different kind of Vegas trip, because I’m not hung over, and I’m seeing art. Patrick and I have picked up a map from the concierge and we’re looking at nearly 20 pieces of fine art sprinkled around CityCenter. The $40 million collection is billed as the “first major permanent collection of art in Las Vegas to be integrated into a public space.’’ Some pieces were commissioned specifically for the development, such as Maya Lin’s “Silver River,’’ a huge re-creation of the Colorado River made of reclaimed silver, and Nancy Rubins’s “Big Edge,’’ a giant blossom created from hundreds of canoes and kayaks that are joined together.

Even if we are not hunting for art, it hits us no matter where we walk. There are galleries selling work from artists such as glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, and the architecture of Daniel Libeskind and Helmut Jahn certainly qualifies as art. It is refreshing to see buildings here that aren’t designed to look like pirate ships or second-rate medieval castles.

Looking at art is hard work — particularly when its spread over a few acres — so we treat ourselves to an overly indulgent lunch at Julian Serrano’s namesake restaurant in Aria. There is a line at the buffet upstairs, but the restaurant is quiet and comfortable, and true to my Vegas pledge, I eat healthy food, although I still eat too much.

Because this is Patrick’s first trip here, we decide to take a walk down Las Vegas Boulevard to see the casinos and hotels on the Strip. It is a mad tangle of college students on spring break, hollow-eyed gamblers, and people trying to hand you cards with the names and numbers of, uh, available women. The scene eerily resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

But soon we head back to the comfort of CityCenter, where we take in the Strip from 23 floors up — at the Mandarin Oriental. We’re not particularly hungry, but we still indulge in high tea. It feels like the complete antithesis of Vegas. I’m drinking green tea, eating tiny sandwiches, and there isn’t a slot machine or cigarette in sight. The wraparound view is breathtaking.

In addition to the spas, restaurants, bars, and hotels, there is the shopping center. It’s called Crystals, and it’s filled with recession-unfriendly shops such as Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, and Paul Smith. About half the stores were not open when I visited. Even if your wallet can’t handle luxury goods, the shopping center is worth walking through for the architecture. There is also a display of ice cylinders, a modern take on a treehouse that is home to a restaurant, and a water feature that looks like a series of tornadoes encased in plastic.

We decide to see the new Cirque du Soleil show “Viva Elvis,’’ which sets the King’s life to acrobatics, dance, and a lot of white jumpsuits. It seems a slightly more sophisticated take on the usual show I would see here (sorry, Charo).

Later I’m ready for another try at Vegas night life, so Patrick and I head off to Haze, the giant nightclub in Aria. From a balcony above the entrance, we spy the same gaggle of women in too-tight dresses and men with pecs puffed out like pigeons engaging in some kind of mating ritual.

After surveying the scene, we decide that cramming ourselves into a club with hundreds of hungry singles is no way to finish a very un-Vegas trip. Instead we head back to the 23d floor of the Mandarin Oriental to the Mandarin Bar. Overlooking the city instead of enmeshed in it, we toast the end of the first Vegas trip that I can recount without shame, and the first time I have successfully avoided the temptation of those “I Dream of Jeannie’’ slots.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

Related

If You Go

Where to go

CityCenter

3750 Las Vegas Blvd.

www.citycenter.com

Where to eat and drink

Jean-Georges Steakhouse

(at Aria Hotel & Casino)
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s pricey but wonderful steakhouse features seafood and steaks with an emphasis on inventive sauces. Entrees $25 and up.

Julian Serrano

(at Aria)

The tapas restaurant is a great option for lunch, particularly the chicken croquetas ($9) and the tuna-raspberry skewers ($14).

Jean-Philippe Patisserie

(at Aria)

An ideal spot to pick up a croissant or dulce de leche brioche for breakfast, or a sandwich for lunch. Breakfast pastry, $3.25-$3.50, sandwiches, $9.

Bar Vdara

(at Vdara Hotel & Spa)

A peaceful escape for a romantic evening drink. Outdoor seating. Specialty cocktails, $14.

Tea Lounge

(at Mandarin Oriental)

Afternoon tea, $40 per person.