Not even Howard Hughes could have bet on the enormity of modern-day Las Vegas.
This year, the Strip boasts 148,941 hotel rooms and counting, with giant Cosmopolitan targeted to open Dec. 15. Staying in these rooms are 37.5 million annual visitors, who let casinos take $8.8 billion in gaming revenue, according to the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.
"One of the most fascinating aspects of Las Vegas is that it's a city that's constantly changing," says Alicia Malone, LVCVA's leisure public relations manager. "The excitement of continuous reinvention and rapid growth has helped Las Vegas achieve the popularity it has today."
Bartender Janine Wendt swings from a tire, calling out to potential customers at the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
Yes, Sin City continues to swing from dawn to dusk. More star chefs stamp their names on restaurants here than anywhere else on the planet. Forget about the slot machines, I say, put your money where your mouth is - at the never-ending new lineup of stellar restaurants.
On a recent visit with my husband to attend an annual marine products show, we jumped in a taxi and headed to Lemongrass, the first Thai restaurant on the Strip. Situated in CityCenter's new Aria Resort & Casino, it features unmatchable cuisine by Executive Chef Krairit Krairavee from Bangkok's legendary Mandarin Oriental.
All of the bells and whistles went off in this contemporary ethnic utopia. The only thing missing was Vanna White cooing on the "Wheel of Fortune" machine. Do order from the satay bar with the freshest salmon, beef, poultry, pork and other seafood skewers. We also raved over the Thai crab omelet and the Panaeng red-duck curry, explosive with coconut, ground peanuts and fresh lychee.
FUN LAS VEGAS FACTS
* In 1941, the $425,000 western-themed El Rancho Vegas opened as the first hotel casino on parched Highway 91, now the Las Vegas Strip.
* Vegas Vic, the enormous cowboy that towers over the Fremont Experience, is the world's largest neon sign.
* Hawaii, along with Arizona, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, account for 14 percent of Vegas visitors.
While it's located off the Strip, the Palms has it all going on, with super hot spots such as N9NE Steakhouse, Nove Italiano, Simon (where you're invited to wear your pajamas to Sunday brunch), and, of course, the Playboy Club.
Nove Italiano was named the "No. 1 Italian Restaurant in Las Vegas" by Orbitz, and it boasts floor-to-ceiling windows with outrageous views of Sin City, along with an exhibition pasta kitchen, raw Italian seafood or "crudo," thin-crust pizzas and $7 happy hour wine and cocktails.
But another reason to go there is for people watching, and you will certainly get your fill of eye candy with local performers as patrons dressed to the nines.
Sommelier Anuhea Hawkins approached our table, and I said, "Anuhea," as I looked at her name tag. She said, "You're the first person to pronounce my name correctly in a long time!" As it turns out, she's from Hawaii, and her mother is a professor who teaches Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
Small world. Great sommelier. Fabulous restaurant.
But it wasn't in the cards to go to fine-dining restaurants each evening. In fact, we tried to link up casual meals to be convenient and in close proximity to shows. "Lion King" was playing at the Mandalay Bay Theatre, so we chose Hussong's Cantina in the nearby Mandalay Place.
If Hussong's sounds familiar, it is. Fashioned after the original landmark since the 1800s in Ensenada, Mexico, this first U.S. outpost lets you sing along to rock 'n' roll mariachi bands, sip original margaritas and savor authentic baja fare such as elote plazero (grilled white corn on the cob brushed with mayo butter and covered in cojito cheese); and huarache, grilled slices of steak tucked into a thick oval tortilla with picilla salsa, refried beans and pico de gallo.
"The people who are familiar with the original Hussong's will not be disappointed, and the masses that have yet to experience it will quickly become fans of our food and our daily party," says President Scott Frost, who opened this powerhouse of a Mexican restaurant earlier this year.
Craving Southern soul food? Another casual eatery that is fun and affordable is B.B. King's Blues Club at the Mirage. It's very much known for its ribs and barbecue along with catfish bites, gumbo and bourbon-glazed rib-eye steaks.
"We opened about a year ago," said the manager. "We are one of the few venues on the Strip featuring live music that's not in a major concert hall."
Seven nights a week, you'll find the B.B. King All-Star Band and other special guests performing there. The man himself just turned 85, and sometimes he pops in.
And, because Vegas is home to 10,000 weddings a month, the 600-seat B.B. King's does a brisk market on rehearsals and receptions.
In this city of excess, Hash House A Go Go takes it to a whole new level. Enormous portions of farm-fresh food are served with a funky, modern twist. If you lose all of your money gambling, this is the place to share one plate with all of your pals. It's been featured on the Food Network, "Martha Stewart," "Dr. Phil" and most recently, the Travel Channel's, "Man v. Food." You've got to see it to believe it. There are three locations in the Sahara, Imperial Palace and the new M Resort Spa Casino.
Rock legend and part-time Maui resident Sammy Hagar has opened his world-famous Cabo Wabo Cantina inside the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood.
Situated in the former Trader Vics spot, Cabo Wabo features indoor and outdoor seating with loud, live music, coastal Mexican fare and a cocktail menu with an obvious heavy emphasis on - what else? -various types of tequila!
Another Mexican-themed hot spot is Dos Caminos Las Vegas in the Palazzo Resort Hotel & Casino. A candle-lit serpentine chandelier leads you to a stone Mayan temple of fire in the massive restaurant. You will also find hand-hammered gates and snake-skin booths, some with flat-screen TVs and billowy curtains for privacy. Do try the guacamole and the prickly pear or blueberry and pomegranate margaritas. As for the food, the Chilean sea bass Veracruzano was out of this world.
Looking for a "Cheers"-type atmosphere? FIRST Food & Bar in Shoppes at the Palazzo brings a neighborhood bar and restaurant concept to life with cushy booths, lounge area and TV screens.
"FIRST caters to those who stagger in to feed their late-night cravings as well as to those looking for a midday business lunch or casual dinner,"?says publicist Alissa Kelly.
Chef Sam DeMarco tempts you with new autumn meals such as braised lamb shanks and grilled mahimahi tostada with lime crema.
Foodies will know acclaimed Bay Area Chef Bradley Ogden. Now, his son, Bryan Ogden, is winning kudos at Munchbar in Caesar's Palace. It's got casual, gourmet cuisine and it's been awarded the "best late-night eats on the Strip" by Las Vegas Weekly.
Perfect for sharing, the menu items include crunchy popcorn rock shrimp, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, and mini cheese bites with creamy tomato sauce for dipping.
Kahunaville at Treasure Island lets you spend small, party big with its half-priced happy hour and island kitsch. And, Carnegie Deli is the place for a BIG sandwich.
Sometimes, you just crave a quiet, tasty meal. Casa Nicola at the Las Vegas Hilton will let you enjoy an old-school style feast and you can actually hear your dining companions as well as see them.
Savor dishes from Italy and the Mediterranean coast in a warm and inviting atmosphere with the colors of Tuscany. Let your taste buds savor familiar ingredients such as fresh garlic, herbs and tomatoes prepared in pastas and fresh seafood. Do check out the open display of desserts such as tiramisu to go with your espresso.
Coming to Vegas soon with a group of friends? Wolfgang Puck says "happy holidays to all, and to all a good bite," with 20 percent off food at Spago, CUT, Lupo and Postrio Bar &?Grill Las Vegas restaurant this holiday season. His new The Pods by Wolfgang Puck and Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina also join Eva Longoria Parker's Beso at ultra-modern, Crystals shopping center with 500,000 square feet of retail space and restaurants.
Chef Mark LoRusso is the mastermind behind Botero at the Encore and the Columbian artist Fernando Botero inspires the ambience with his paintings and sculptures. If you want to splurge, this is the place for top steaks, truffle macaroni and cheese, whole European loup de mer (sea bass) and playful desserts with a spin on classics as well as mixology cocktails you could never duplicate at home.
Another place for a prime steak is the Strip House in the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. It was the second time I'd dined there, and I'll be back again. Rose lighting and colors along with vintage photos of sexy movie stars make it an ambience to remember.
Meats are perfectly charred and come with such sides as creamed corn with pancetta, goose-fat potatoes and black truffle creamed spinach. The huge seafood tower appetizer is packed with lobster, shrimp and oysters and a meal enough to share for $50.
The Golden Nugget dazzles Downtown with its new $150 million Rush Tower, housing 500 guest rooms and suites, and the new Chart House with a 50,000-gallon aquarium.
With so many new hotels, restaurants, malls and shows, Las Vegas is more fun than ever. Plus, it's easier to get to now that Hawaiian Airlines is running nonstop flights from Maui to Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport.
Departing Kahului at 8 a.m. Mondays and Thursdays, the flights arrive at 4:35 p.m. Return flights are Sundays and Wednesdays at 6:25 p.m. with landings on Maui at 9:25 p.m. According to The Maui News article that ran when the new service launched in October, the flights "allow vacationers to have enough time to enjoy a full evening in Las Vegas their first day as well as a full day before their departure."
"It's the best thing to ever happen," says Kanani Kealoha, who recently took the nonstop with her husband, George. "The flight there runs like a daytime work shift. You get there and it's pau hana and time for drink and party!"
"I love Las Vegas," Kealoha continues.?"I love to gamble. I love the food, to walk through the hotels. I love the fact that it never closes. Like last year, we went there five times! Our kids are all grown up. Why not play and be naughty?"
* Contact Carla Tracy at email@example.com.