It’s (not) Vegas, baby … |

It’s (not) Vegas, baby …

Situated on a 320-acre man-made lake, the Lake Las Vegas Resort with its MonteLago Village, top, has it all " from lodging and dining to fishing and shopping. (Courtesy Lake Las Vegas Resort)

Las Vegas in August is hot. Triple-digit hot. Hot like the blast from an open oven, even at 10 o’clock at night.

As I walk back to my hotel room along the shore of Lake Las Vegas, I think I’m about to choke from the Mojave Desert heat ” until I realize that it’s not really the heat that’s suffocating me. Instead, it’s the overwhelming scent of rosemary.

Yes, rosemary ” what smells like acres and acres of the stuff.

I shouldn’t be surprised. According to the developers of Lake Las Vegas Resort, I’m supposed to feel like I’m in Tuscany.

In cities across America, urban themes of redevelopment, gentrification and sprawl are playing themselves out in similar ways, and Las Vegas is no exception.

Except to the extent that Vegas is always an exception.

In one sense Las Vegas is a typical large city of the intermountain West, with its sprawling cheap homes, broad middle-class and the environmental and social pressures that confront every desert boomtown.

Then there’s “Vegas,” aka “Sin City,” aka “The Entertainment Capital of the World.” It’s the kind of place where things happen; and what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. This city has charted its own urban course of decline, renewal and gentrification, having largely shifted its bets, in the past decade, from the piggy banks of Middle America to the bulging pockets of the super-rich.

New development in Vegas overwhelmingly targets the luxury traveler, or the would-be luxury traveler who vacations on credit. The penthouse suites that were once the exclusive preserve of high-rollers are now for sale to the public at $5,000 a night (the high-rollers having moved into private villas).

If the Las Vegas Strip is Sin City’s revitalized urban core, Lake Las Vegas is its suburbia. And it’s more or less the suburbia you’d expect for an urban core with an Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian pyramid and a temple to Roman excess.

Seventeen miles southeast of the Strip, Lake Las Vegas is a 320-acre man-made lake, the largest privately owned lake in southern Nevada. It is 2 miles long and 1 mile wide, and is contained behind an 18-story dam constructed between 1988 and 1991. Beneath it, pipes direct runoff and treated wastewater from the Las Vegas wash into Lake Mead, which itself is the largest man-made reservoir in the nation.

The 3,592 acres of hotels, housing developments and golf courses that surround this feat of engineering are known collectively as Lake Las Vegas Resort. They include a Tuscan-themed Ritz-Carlton, a Moroccan-themed Loews Resort (formerly a Hyatt Regency), and an outdoor walking mall of high-end shops and restaurants. The resort is consistently rated one of the top golf destinations in the country, thanks to two courses by Jack Nicklaus, one by Tom Weiskopf, and a fourth course, designed by Tom Fazio, under construction. Real estate and home prices range from the $400,000s to more than $34 million.

Lake Las Vegas Resort is the vision of Ronald F. Boeddeker, the president and chairman of Santa Barbara-based Transcontinental Corporation. In a promotional DVD titled “Out of the Blue,” Boeddeker explains that the idea for Lake Las Vegas came to him in 1986, as he was flying over the region in a helicopter. He was inspired, he says, by the blue water, precipitous mountains and picturesque villages of Italy’s Lake Como region, which he had first seen in the ’70s.

Here is the brilliant lunacy of Las Vegas: Someone can come up with a completely screwy idea like re-creating Lake Como in the Mojave, and, with enough chutzpah and capital, actually convince people to buy into it. Although Lake Las Vegas Resort was slow getting started ” the first custom home lot wasn’t sold until 1993, and it was another six years before the first hotel, the Hyatt Regency, opened its doors ” its current momentum is tremendous. The people spending millions of dollars to build on the shores of Lake Las Vegas either don’t notice or don’t care that their Tuscan-inspired homes are about as authentically Italian as the Olive Garden restaurant.

None of which is to discount the property’s considerable appeal as a tourist destination. In fact, Lake Las Vegas Resort may be the best value in Clark County. Let’s face it: If you’re visiting Las Vegas to begin with, you’ve already bought into the hustle. Put more generously, you’ve realized that within this wholly contrived playground is a genuine, uniquely American brand of culture.

I arrive at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas late on a Wednesday afternoon, exhausted from a 10-hour drive from San Francisco (I’m on my way home to New Mexico from a summer job in Washington state). I’m hungry, short-tempered and more than a little skeptical. Five years earlier, when I visited the old Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas, the Ritz-Carlton was under construction. So was the outdoor mall, MonteLago Village. I remember feeling trapped, isolated from the action of the Strip, forced to pay too much for food that wasn’t too good.

But I warm to the Ritz immediately. Having just come from the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, I reluctantly admit that suburbia has its attractions, cheap land among them. No, there’s no Ferry Plaza down the street, but the Five Diamond-rated resort has a sprawling graciousness to it that a city hotel can’t match, and my guest room ” which is, in

fact, one of the resort’s lower-tier offerings ” is larger than most executive suites. Decorated in shades of pale yellow and mint green, it has the shiny, still-in-plastic feel of an interior designer’s showroom. In a hotel setting, where grit and authenticity are not qualities to be prized, this is a very good thing.

Let’s talk numbers. My room fee was $169 per night, plus an obligatory $25 resort fee. That’s still almost $100 cheaper than the rate I was quoted for a smaller room at the MGM Grand on the Strip. When I compared rates on a random Saturday night, the Ritz was about $115 cheaper than the MGM Grand. No, you’re not on the Strip, but you can pay for the gas into town and a nice bottle of wine with the savings.

Or you can buy that nice bottle of wine without driving anywhere. The night of my arrival, I have dinner reservations at Como’s, a restaurant in MonteLago Village within walking distance of the Ritz. Despite its peculiar menu ” an awkward marriage of classic steakhouse and classic French ” Como’s turns out some great food. My sea bass, a nightly special, is excellent. So is the short but thoughtful wine list.

There are now about a dozen restaurants and cafes in MonteLago Village, in addition to the restaurants in the token Casino MonteLago and the hotels. (Medici Cafe and Terrace, the flagship restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, was named one of Esquire’s 20 Best New Restaurants in 2003.) Lake Las Vegas Resort can’t compete with the parade of celebrity chefs on the

Strip, but I’m a lot happier with my options here than I was in the past.

Leaving the restaurant after dark, I can’t shake the surreal feeling that I’m walking through a movie set, or a dream. MonteLago Village doesn’t convince me for a moment that I’m in a Mediterranean fishing town, yet the elaborate fiction of its architecture doesn’t quite feel like a mall, either. In fact, it feels a lot like Vegas.

Thanks to the steady stream of visitors wanting tours of the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas is one of the major helicopter markets in the United States. One of my main reasons for detouring through Nevada is to visit my friends at Papillon Helicopters, including Dave Bales, with whom I shared an office as a flight instructor.

Although some sightseeing flights depart from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Papillon shuttles most of its passengers to the airport in Boulder City, 25 miles southeast. From Lake Las Vegas, the drive to Boulder City is around 20 minutes. I wake up early to catch Dave’s first flight of the day, which departs at 7 a.m. (It’s possible to schedule tours directly from the Lake Las Vegas helipad, but not, I suspect, on a helicopter pilot’s wages.)

It’s about three hours by car from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon West, that part of the Canyon owned and administered by the Hualapai Indian Tribe. By air, it’s 30 minutes. Our route takes us over Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, then into the spectacular western reaches of the Grand Canyon. Dave does this flight every day, but says he still enjoys the awestruck look on his passengers’ faces as they drop over the rim.

Unlike Grand Canyon National Park, the Hualapai Tribe allows helicopters to land on the bottom of the Canyon. We touch down next to an open-air ramada on the banks of the Colorado River, where Dave sets out breakfast. The air is cool, and the morning sunlight plays up the pastel colors of the Canyon walls. It’s a good time to be drinking a mimosa.

On the flight home, we pass over the forlorn grid of an abandoned subdivision on the perimeter of Lake Mead; Dave narrates the story of its failure as part of his guided tour. But, looking out the window, I find it hard to believe that Las Vegas’ inexorable sprawl won’t eventually reach, and resurrect, this ghostly infrastructure. Down there ” in the dust and the rocks and the weeds ” are the cosmopolitan streets of Paris, slopes of the Swiss Alps, and the shores of Portugal, just waiting for a superior vision to bring them to life.

Hey, it’s Vegas. Why not?

Elan Head, who has family in Aspen, is the Melbourne-based editor of HeliNews Magazine. She is a helicopter pilot and instructor, whose work has been published in Phoenix and Stratos magazines.

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