From scuba diving to secret menus, Sin City boasts a jackpot of lesser-known diversions.

Hidden Las Vegas

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Travel Issue: October 2016
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Part Paradise Lost, part Esther Williams aqua muscial, Le Rêve at the Wynn Las Vegas resort casino is one of the city’s most spectacular stage shows, a baroque whirlwind of aerial acrobatics, death-defying high dives, multi-million-dollar lighting effects and toned, glistening musculature. It even has birds – upwards of 100 white homing pigeons, which are trucked in and out of the casino every day.

It’s all amazing to behold, even from backstage, where I watch with the crew – part of a little-known Wynn experience package called “Diver’s Dream.”

Why “Diver’s Dream”? Well, it has something to do with that fact I’m wearing scuba gear, and “backstage” is actually a massive, million-gallon, 30-foot pool filled with props, hydraulic lifts and set pieces. And the crew? Certified rescue divers who patrol the pool, ready to provide the show’s myriad performers and synchronized swimmers with oxygen, and taxi them to safety, after they disappear under the aquatic “stage.”

It’s an insane spectacle of logistics and coordination, and one of the world’s most unique diving experiences, by my reckoning – particularly for the fact it’s located in a casino.

But that’s Vegas. Despite how well the famed party spot promotes itself, it still keeps a little out of sight, a hidden stash of amenities and experiences, like a poker player sitting on a secret chip.
And a lot of them are there for the taking if you know where to look.

Rooms, Suites & Clubs

Seven years after the release and runaway success of The Hangover in 2009, people still ask the reservation desk about the “Hangover Room” at Caesars Palace (3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 866-227-5938, caesarspalace.com) where the film’s hapless trio began its drug-addled adventure.

Sadly, there is no actual “Hangover Room” – the ultra-luxe suite seen in the movie was built on a soundstage. (Caesars has a strict no-tigers policy, even for Hollywood film crews.) However, you can book the suite that inspired the one depicted in the movie: It’s called the Emperor’s Suite, or sometimes the “Rain Man Room,” for the Tom Cruise-Dustin Hoffman classic that was filmed there. (Contrary to a popular rumor, Caesars has updated the décor since the movie’s release in 1988.)

Having opened more recently, in 2008, the Palms Casino Resort (4321 W. Flamingo Rd., 866-942-7770, palms.com) doesn’t have quite the cinematic history of Caesar’s Palace, but it does have an arguably more impressive collection of high-concept themed suites. In the 10,000-square-foot, two-story Hardwood Suite, you can play pick-up basketball games on a regulation rim, and “hit the showers” in a restroom modeled after an NBA locker room. The resort’s Crib Suite is comparably pimp – it boasts a DJ booth, a saltwater fish tank and a, um, “dance” pole. You can throw strikes all night in the bowling-themed, two-lane Kingpin Suite, or dance on terrazzo bubble floors in the Hot Pink Suite, a girlfriend-getaway number done in chiffon that used to be known as “the Barbie suite.”

You don’t have to hop on the guest elevators to experience the secretive side of Vegas – many of the city’s best uncharted amenities are lobby-level. One of them is LAVO Casino Club (3325 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-791-1800, lavolv.com), a Bohemian-chic micro-casino designed to fuse table gaming with the lounge-y, cocktail-driven mystique of a modern nightclub. Located at the Palazzo (3325 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 877-444-5777, palazzo.com), the high-end, mid-Strip sister property to the Venetian, LAVO is done in Persian rugs and upcycled bookcases; it’s basically a sexy library, something nightclub impresario Rande Gerber might have started in his parents’ attic for college money.

Definitely a step up from the typical craps and blackjack setup.

 


Gondola University at The Venetian


LAVO Casino Club

Food & Drink

For food fans, Vegas is a never-ending labyrinth of unexpected delight, from the grungiest of greasy spoons to Joël Robuchon’s Michelin-starred flagship at MGM Grand (3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-891-1111, mgmgrand.com). You can get butterbeer lattes at the Harry Potter-inspired Bad Owl coffee shop (10575 S. Eastern Ave., Ste. 160, Henderson, 702-483-3331, badowlcoffee.com), an off-menu $7.77 steak and shrimp dinner at Hard Rock Casino (4455 Paradise Rd., 702-693-5000, hardrockhotel.com) and gourmet pizza at an unnamed, closet-like space at the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas (3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-698-7000, cosmopolitanlasvegas.com). Just sk for “secret pizza.”

Odd or novel backstories can enhance a dining experience, and that’s certainly the case at Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads at Plaza Hotel and Casino (1 S. Main St., 702-386-7227, oscarslv.com) in Vegas’ on-the-rise Downtown area. Named after the city’s brash ex-mayor, Oscar B. Goodman, the place is an overflowing martini glass of backstory, from the origins of its sunken floor plan (it was once the hotel’s pool) to the hostess-like “broads” who stop by to chat before your meal. (Descendants of yesteryear showgirls, I’m told.) But the best story is that of Goodman himself, the Sin City bon vivant and alleged mob lackey who keeps an office behind the bar, thick with celebrity grip-and-grin photos and mementos from his brazen political career. (He turned a federal courthouse into a mob museum, famously.)

It’s a riotous concept, and the bone-in ribeye ain’t half bad, either.

At one of the city’s other top steakhouses, N9NE at the Palms, chef Barry S. Dakake keeps a secret stash of John Hancocks just out of view of the dining room. Dubbed the “Celebrity Shake Down Door,” the VIP wall of fame includes the autographs of such luminaries as Joe Montana, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Nicolas Cage, Vince Neil and Jerry Lewis. A gregarious fellow, Chef Dakake is known to take laps around the restaurant to check on diners – make friends, and he might take you to the back to ogle the celebrity scribblings.

Naturally, no “secret Vegas” round-up would be complete without a speakeasy or two – those cramped, Prohibition-style throwback bars, preferably in a converted janitor’s closet, usually underlit with some pretense of password-admission. Check, check and check at The Laundry Room in Downtown’s legendary Fremont Street district. Secreted in the back of a bar-restaurant called Commonwealth (525 E. Fremont St., 702-445-6400, commonwealthlv.com) behind a door plastered with 30-year-old newspaper clippings, the speakeasy is reservation-only, and reservations can only be made via text, using a number you can only procure at Commonwealth on the back of old wooden clothespins. When and if you score a seat in the 27-person bar, there’s plenty of entertainment, from the spot-on period décor to a menu of upcycled cocktail classics like that favorite balm of morning-after sufferers, the Corpse Reviver No. 2.

There’s a two-hour maximum stay at The Laundry Room, so if you feel like riding your craft cocktail momentum after getting 86-ed, head up the street to the Velveteen Rabbit (1218 S. Main St., 702-685-9645, velveteenrabbitlv.com), widely regarded as the city’s most innovative mixology haunt. Check out the trippy, mural-size light effects – the work of a local multimedia artist, they tell me – and get chummy with one of the bar’s snarky but spot-on drinks, like Oprah’s O-Face, an eye-opener made with bourbon, hemp milk and coffee. Shh. Don’t tell Stedman.



Check out these new and unheralded Vegas dining options.

Mr. Chow
“It’s a dream come true,” legendary go-go London stylist and restaurateur Michael Chow says of his newly opened, ultra-chic outpost at Caesars Palace, and after cruising his fabulous menu of laser-precise Shanghai classics – spicy XO beef, glazed walnut prawns, succulent roasted duck – you won’t want to wake up. Secret tip: that drink cart, serving Chow’s signature by-the-glass bubbly? It cost 100 grand. No joke. mrchow.com

Spring Mountain Road
Located five minutes west of the Strip, this Asian-food dining drag is a wellspring of hidden culinary brilliance. In the same unassuming strip mall, you can get a dreamy fried-mackerel curry at Japanese Curry Zen (curryzen.com), a simple and soulful “pillow chicken” at Big Wong and the city’s best non-bougie sushi at Kabuto (kabutolv.com). All are located at 5040 Spring Mountain Road.

Bazaar Meat/Bar Centro
If you don’t want to fork over the $540 for one of celebrity chef Jose Andres’ whole roasted suckling pigs at the SLS Las Vegas Hotel, tuck into the restaurant’s adjacent bar, where you can taste the same delicacy in the form of a suckling pig sandwich for a more doable $10. 2535 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-761-7610, slslasvegas.com

Things to Do

Long gone are the days when a Vegas vacation consisted solely of gambling, showgirls and martinis. In fact, gaming revenue is in decline as more visitors turn to alternative entertainments like day clubs, stage shows and sports.

Most visitors don’t realize Vegas now has a 20,000-seat sports facility, T-Mobile Arena (3780 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-692-1600, t-mobilearena.com) right on the Strip – a fact that will only fly under the radar until the city’s promised NHL expansion team debuts there next fall. Filling the thing in the interim won’t be a problem. The arena will host a pair of NBA games (nba.com) in October, along with big-ticket music acts like the Rolling Stones (October 19) and Kanye West (October 29).  

The launch of Rehab at the Hard Rock Casino in 2003 is largely credited with triggering the “day life” pool-party trend. Today, one of the city’s top pools, DAYLIGHT Beach Club at Mandalay Bay (3950 Las Vegas Blvd., 702-632-4700, daylightvegas.com), has a hidden amenity if you happen to be traveling with a closet exhibitionist: couches on the DJ stage, situated next to a raised dancing platform. So tempting, just to hop on up and do a spirited Beyoncé impression. Your attention-loving friend will own the place.

Most day club enthusiasts are familiar with the Venetian’s TAO party pool, but a more exclusive, genteel experience is often overlooked in Azure (3325 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-767-3724, palazzo.com/azure) – also a day club, located a five-minute walk from TAO in the same sprawling pool complex. Officially affixed to the Palazzo, Azure is ideal for couples, girlfriend groups and incognito celebrities.

Speaking of the Venetian: You might have glimpsed one of the resort’s hand-crafted gondolas slide through the canal that encircles the palatial property and thought: “Are those things legit?” Indeed they are, a fact you can learn for yourself by enrolling in the resort’s 90-minute Gondola University ($190, 3355 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 888-283-6423, venetian.com). Taught by a friendly Italian expat, the curriculum includes a tour of the resort’s gondola workshop, hands-on instruction in the fine art of steering and propelling the barracuda-shaped craft – a “circle-eight motion,” teacher tells us – and, of course, a silly striped T-shirt for you to keep.

Do you have to be Italian to get a job as a gondolier at the Venetian? “Of course,” he says. “Or have the right accent.”

One of the city’s less well-kept secrets concerns its popular stage shows. Unlike most narrative-driven theater plays, these are not rigid productions – they are tweaked and overhauled constantly. At Love, the Beatles-themed Cirque du Soleil fixture at The Mirage (3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-791-7111, cirquedusoleil.com), the directors made some enhancements this past summer to celebrate its 10th anniversary, including a new dance duet between a live actress and an animated suitor, set to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It’s lovely and captivating, and the reason Love remains perhaps Vegas’ most beloved modern stage show.

From my point of view, the best “hidden” Vegas experiences entail seeing one of these shows unspool from the inside. For example, you can swim with the dolphins at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat (mirage.com), and tour the famed Fountains of Bellagio (3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-693-7111, bellagio.com) with the engineer who oversees the water show from a control booth on high.

And, of course, there’s the Diver’s Dream at Le Rêve (call for pricing; 3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-770-7946, wynnlasvegas.com) – a true bucket list experience for any scuba enthusiast. It starts with tickets to a performance of the $80 million show, followed by a fascinating dry-side, backstage tour the next morning. You’ll be fitted with gear at the show’s onsite scuba shop and led into the pool itself via a hidden entrance under the theater seats for an pre-show swim – the continuously filtered water is “almost potable,” a diver tells me – while the cast rehearses upside.

This orientation part of the experience is almost worth the price tag by itself. It’s like diving in the hull of a ruined ocean liner, intensely claustrophobic, with odd, surreal set pieces situated throughout. Later that night, when you return for the show itself, the sensations and tensions are amped up tenfold by the urgency of performance – it’s like the ghost ship has magically come alive. The indelible sights and images are almost too many to count, but here’s my favorite: gazing upward at a dozen synchronized swimmers, the “nymphs” of Le Rêve, while they twist and prance in perfect unison on the surface of the water. Upside down. With long, octopus-style breathing tubes trailing out of their mouths.

That was my first “so that’s how they did that” moment. There would be many more.