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Vegas virgins come of age

Sin City steals cautious Canadians' innocence

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The fountains at the Bellagio are a big attraction on the Vegas strip.

POSTMEDIA Enlarge Image

The fountains at the Bellagio are a big attraction on the Vegas strip.

LAS VEGAS -- Nice to know Sin City can be gentle when it's your first time.

A trip to this success-is-excess town had been avoided for years by a pair of non-gambling, non-glitzy Canadians, but the time had come to face the music... and the dancing... and the circus acts ... and the endless lineup of bars, gourmet restaurants and -- well, you can fill in the rest.

These Canadians may not be easy, as they used to say, but losing their innocence in Vegas certainly was. Going all the way (from Vancouver) took a little more than two hours by air and the cabbie turned on the charm as he pulled away from McCarran International Airport.

"Everyone comes here to win," he said with a broad smile. "But 98 per cent of you lose. Maybe 99 per cent."

Far from a turnoff, his patter was aimed at diverting attention to the host of Vegas strip attractions that don't involve gambling. And his first stop was a winner -- the Vdara Hotel.

Tucked behind big brother Aria in the strip's tony CityCenter complex, the Vdara represents the new Vegas. Sleek, modern, upscale; this hotel is casino-free, non-smoking and pet friendly.

A classy lobby bar, market/cafe and Starbucks provide the basics, while the tranquil rooms on the north side offer views of the famed Bellagio fountains -- as well as a multi-storey billboard of the menacing Penn & Teller at the Rio across the freeway. Far from the maddening crowd, as it were.

But first-timers can't hide in hotel rooms forever, so it was off to the massive casino/lobby at the luxurious Aria for... pizza.

Celebrity chefs are all the rage in Vegas these days and even a pizza joint has to have one. Shawn McClain joined the rush to casual dining by opening Five50 Pizza Bar. The atmosphere is upbeat, the decor lively, the pizzas superb and the service welcoming, courtesy of Elisa. This lovely young woman set the tone for service during the rest of the Vegas affair -- warm, genuine and non-predatory.

A post-nosh walk along the strip was a good way to introduce newcomers to the wilder side. The crowded sidewalks, however, were filled with stroller-toting families. And the skimpily clad dominatrix duo couldn't compete with the cute minion characters for photo-op dollars.

Voyeur voyage complete, it was back to the Aria to eat (this was to become a pattern.)

The Julian Serrano tapas restaurant in the hotel is a bright spot -- "orange you glad you came?" -- in colour and culinary terms. Yes, Vegas's casino buffets retain their legendary status, but this is seductive, selective dining. The heirloom tomato and bocconcini ice cream tapas and white-chocolate "doughnuts" were worth the trip alone.

While it's true the Cirque du Soleil has had its way with our travellers in the past, a performance of Zarkana quickly brought back the thrill of discovery.

Sexy O and Fab-ish Love get all the hype, but Zarkana delivers that original circusy excitement of dangerous acrobatics and physical comedy set to atmospheric live music. Who needs a backstory?

(Vegas Virgins take note: The red-couch experience is not to be missed.)

Vegas mornings are not for everyone, but a stagger out into the sun proved enlightening.

The Aria Fine Arts Collection is an impressive, and free, way to kick up the culture. More than a dozen dazzling art installations range about the grounds of the Aria and Vdara -- and it's accessed via a self-guided brochure obtained at the Aria concierge desk. The water feature at Aria's entrance may not match the Bellagio's big show for scale, but beats it for style and colour.

An immersive new James Turrell gallery was found indoors at The Shops at Crystals nearby. This massive mall of ultra-high-end merchandise threatened to deflower more than one credit card.

Still in the mood for visual stimulation, the virgins checked out the Gallery Row shops across the square (and earlier had visited the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art down the strip).

More carnal appetites now aroused, the newcomers hiked deep into the massive MGM Grand to sate themselves at Michael Mina's Pub 1842 (it's a numbers game in Vegas). A stop at this star chef's signature formal restaurant at the Bellagio didn't stir many passions, but this casual eatery had it all down. The peanut butter crunch burger and a host of fun twists on pub fare were just this crowd's cup of meat (and glass of beer). A flight of signature cocktails was a pleasant -- and intoxicating -- surprise.

As the sun went down -- who would know in Vegas? -- the virgins were lured into the dangerously exciting confines of the Monte Carlo's Hit Bar & Lounge, where two men who knew exactly what they were doing, and did so with passion, set out to educate the neophytes. Cocktails, people. Colourful, tasty cocktails. Lots of yummy ones.

But the intentions of Michael MacDonnell (director of beverage) and Philip Dow (assistant beverage manager) were as pure as the vodka and other spirits proudly displayed on the shelves behind them.

These alcohol alchemists regularly conduct two-hour M life Moment Mixology Classes, where the uninitiated learn the history and technique of fine cocktails -- and end up tending Vegas bar in a unique graduation ceremony. Education and intoxication blend in perfect harmony steps from the high-stakes tables. MacDonnell was blunt about the origins of these popular lessons.

"Since Macau opened up, the serious gamblers don't come here," MacDonnell said, explaining the art of fine drinking simply complements Vegas's new fascination with fine dining and shopping.

Attitudes properly adjusted, the virgins next wobbled over to the Blue Man Group show, where the mix of '80s-style rock, scary latex guys hitting things, weird visual critiques on social media and an over-the-top dance-party salute to the human posterior went down damn fine, thank you very much.

Regrets? There've been a few. But then again, too few to mention.

Well, except the Donny and Marie Osmond show at the Flamingo. Perfect retro-wholesome fare for our first-timers, but the clock ran out.

A D & M T-shirt was spotted in the casino, but sadly, never purchased.

Next trip.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 E1

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