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Nevada’s desert playground went dormant for a few months during the coronavirus lockdown, but behind the scenes and surgical masks, creatives and rainmakers went into overdrive. Their collective efforts resulted in a Las Vegas that dazzles brighter and bigger with more lights, new sights, greater heights, and a smattering of oddball delights.

6-Oct-22 – Not even a global pandemic could dim the Neon Capital of the World, otherwise known as Las Vegas. At least not for long.

It had been a few years since I visited Vegas, so I had to see for my quadruply-vaccinated self.

First, some general observations: While casinos and sportsbooks are key attractions, their allure is rivaled by wide-ranging entertainment values for all ages and interests, from ultra-glam to outdoor adventure. Works of art and inventive cuisine take center stage.

In response to the pandemic, health and wellness initiatives are mixed: Crowds are dense, and waits are long. Hand sanitizer dispensing stations abound, but face masks and housekeeping services do not. Smoking is allowed in most casino areas.

On the other hand, security is high, perhaps a response to the 2017 massacre that killed 60 and wounded hundreds at an open-air concert. My ID was checked over and over, including the time I exited my hotel, greeted the door guardian, walked across the street to take a photo while he watched, and checked again when I re-entered the hotel. I am fine with that.

Your table awaits

Nobu, a name revered in hospitality circles and a partnership with actor Robert DeNiro, has a growing presence. Within its portfolio are Japanese-inspired restaurants and a serene 180-room boutique hotel inside the 4,000-room Romanesque empire of Caesar’s Palace.

Photo by Steven Dahlman

Reality television goddess and ultra-hostess Lisa Vanderpump has opened two French-ish fantasy restaurants and cocktail lounges featuring liquid exotica like the French Poodle.

Photo by Steven Dahlman. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

It’s a concoction of gin, fruitiness, gold flakes, and cotton candy. Literally.

The swankiest new restaurant is Delilah in the Tower Suites enclave of the Wynn, where no extravagance is spared. A modern-day supper club with retro allusions to mid-century Las Vegas, the space is stylized with golden columns, velveteen seating, ornate chandeliers, and rich wood paneling. At first glance, the menu suggests comfort food but with a high-end twist: Pigs in a blanket, for instance, are concocted with wagyu beef franks. Steak fries are sided with smoked tomato bearnaise sauce. Caviar service, beef wellington, and king salmon are also featured.

A newcomer with a Chicago connection is ONE Steakhouse at the Virgin Hotel by brothers Michael Morton and David Morton. Their father is the late and legendary restaurateur Arnie Morton of Arnie’s, Morton’s, and other renowned establishments. The menu honors steakhouse traditions and Midwestern ranchers with tomahawks, bone-in filet, and surf and turf. The darkened lounge is crowned with a canopy of glass petals and spinners in revolving jewel color.

Immersion tactics

The art world in general is awash in immersive multimedia experiences, and some are superior to others. Las Vegas is hyping several, but two that I found remarkable are FlyOver Las Vegas on Las Vegas Boulevard AKA the Strip, and Illuminarium Experiences at Area 15.

Flyover Las Vegas, in a reimagined IMAX theater, had me feeling like a drone soaring above the majesty of mountains, plains, and waterways during the film The Real Wild West.

You’re strapped into a row of seats that rises into the air in front of a panoramic screen. While your feet dangle, the sets dip and swoop as the film reveals breathtaking video of landscapes and cityscapes across the American West.

Photo by In Color Studios

Photo by In Color Studios

Just as my adrenaline peaked for fear we would crash into a raging river, the scene morphed into the “safety” of a serene forest or snow-capped mountains.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Area 15 is a 15-acre art-centric entertainment and events complex with a mélange of mind-bending indoor and outdoor experiences, including a photogenic sculpture garden, vertical gondola ride, and Meow Wolf’s wacky Mega Mart.

(Left) Entrance to Area 15.

Illuminarium Experiences delivers cinematic floor-to-ceiling immersion while you walk about or perch atop a comfy ottoman. I caught O’Keefe: One Hundred Flowers, based upon the best-selling coffee table book by beloved landscape artist Georgia O’Keefe.

In timelapse fashion, delicate buds turn into blossoms and slowly expand to overpower the screen. Grassy fields spring into blooms of evolving hue, only to be absorbed by an army of Herculean poppies.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Further engaging your senses is a curated soundtrack that includes Georgia on My Mind performed by Annie Lennox and Rise Up performed by Andra Day. Even the air is infused with floral scents.

Other Illuminarium Experiences transport you to outer space or on safari in Africa.

America’s best entertainment

I’ll admit I’m a huge follower of the America’s Got Talent television showcase on NBC. A plethora of winners and runners-up are star attractions up and down the Strip, including major goofball “Tape Face” at Harrah’s Las Vegas, and magicians extraordinaire Mat Franco at The LINQ and Shin Lim at The Mirage. In addition, America’s Got Talent Las Vegas Live is a variety show featuring a rotating roster of fan favorites at the Luxor Hotel & Casino.

One of my favorite all-time acts is iLuminate, a high-energy coagulation of music, dance, comedy, illusion, and technology at The STRAT. Landmarked by its 1,149-foot-high observation tower and formerly known as the Stratosphere, the property was rebranded in 2020 as The STRAT Hotel, Casino & SkyPod.

Fremont Street Diaries

In recent decades, Fremont Street in the city’s downtown has been overshadowed by the glitzy, often kitschy mega-hotels on the Strip a few miles to the south. But Fremont Street started it all. That’s where the first casinos were built after Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. It wasn’t until after World War II that developers with dollar signs in their eyes moved into the desert, taking the gamblers and tourists with them.

Fremont Street today has regained and even outdone its original luster.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Start with Circa Resort & Casino, the first new downtown hotel and gaming complex in decades. An adults-only property, Circa exudes a modern elegant vibe with references to Old Las Vegas style and an enormous marquee entrance canopy (left). Nary a flamingo or gladiator are in sight.

The 512-room Circa tower is loaded with amenities including a two-level casino, a dozen dining and drinking establishments, and an enormous sportsbook. Stadium Swim is a multi-level swimming pool and sports viewing complex with hundreds of chaise lounges and daybeds arranged theater-style in front of a 40-foot-tall video screen.

Mega Bar (right), at the back of the first-level gaming area, is 165 feet long and reputed to be the longest bar in Nevada.

Photo by Ryan Gobuty

Photo by Ryan Gobuty

Legacy Club on the 60th floor is a swanky rooftop bar with a dress code – “elegant casual” – and expansive views of the Strip and mountains.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Circa’s back door opens directly onto the Fremont Street Experience, a canopied pedestrian mall of excitement that stretches four blocks long. The canopy, which recently underwent a multi-million-dollar upgrade, doubles as a video screen running a free nonstop spectacle of color, sound, music, and imagery. I recall years ago when the graphics were cartoonish at best, but the latest high-resolution shows, accompanied by the music of pop legends, are mesmerizing.

Live music, also free, performs nightly on multiple stages, while a bevy of buskers beckons your wallet. Get a drone’s eye view of it all by zoom-lining, Superman-style, beneath the canopy.

Beyond Las Vegas

After drinking up, literally, the excitement of Fremont Street and the Strip, I was ready for a change of scenery. We headed to Boulder City, a 30-minute highway jaunt from downtown. Our destination was Rail Explorers, where we would pedal along regulation railroad tracks.

Rail Explorers, in conjunction with the Nevada State Railroad Museum, combines custom-built railbikes and Boulder City’s unique railroad history.

Each railbike seats two or four passengers. You have to pedal, and one person can brake, if need be, but no one has to steer. Top speed, they said, is 20 MPH.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Rail Explorers offers several tours, including sunrise and sunset. We took the Southwest Ramble, a thrilling four-mile excursion past the Railroad Pass Hotel & Casino and through the rugged desert landscape. The track is a portion of the Nevada Southern Railway known as the Boulder branch. The branch was constructed in the 1930s to service the building of Hoover Dam, and later donated to the state for recreation and education.

After a 20-minute rest at a cluster of Adirondack chairs, with umbrellas to shield us from the blazing sun, we boarded a historic train led by Locomotive Number 844 from the museum’s collection to return to the station. Some of the cars were enclosed and climate-controlled, and others were open-air. Volunteers costumed like old-time conductors roamed about to answer questions and share railroad lore.

Before or after your tour, you are welcome to meander among the restored and yet-to-be-restored locomotives and other rolling stock. Four of the locomotives, which date as far back as 1939, are operational, the rest of the collection is for display.

It was time for me to pack my experiences and make my way to the airport for the flight to Chicago. As I reflect, Las Vegas in the Summer of 2022 was by no means the pre-pandemic Las Vegas of my remembrances. The vibe remains brilliant, fun, and a little bit naughty but smoother around the edges (even though I lost $300 at the slot machines).

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The city is more sophisticated, inclusive, artsy, and delicious. I like this version a whole lot better.

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.