The Bellagio: A truly great Vegas hotel |

The Bellagio: A truly great Vegas hotel

What makes a great hotel?

Is it the service? The setting? The amenities? Is it character? Is it antique furniture, marble columns, mirrors with gilded rococo frames? Is it a butler on every floor? Or is it cutting-edge design and a concierge who can get you a seat at the hottest show or the hottest restaurant in town?

You may think this is a vital question. You may think it’s meaningless, irrelevant or decadent.

One thing for certain: It was a curious question to be pondering as I drove across the Mojave Desert, headed for Las Vegas ” because Vegas, whether you love the town or hate it, has never been a town for great hotels.

Staggering hotels, overwhelming hotels, amusing hotels, sleazy hotels … sure. Las Vegas has had all of those in profusion. But heading to Vegas in search of a great hotel would seem to be a fool’s errand. Not so.

Las Vegas has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. The town scraped off its coating of sleaze, banished the hookers from the street corners, built casino-hotels that were triumphs of theme-park architecture and invited America’s families to come and play.

And then, as changes begat more changes, Vegas developed some upscale aspirations, leading to a number of world-class restaurants and ” if travel magazines are to be believed ” at least one genuine great hotel.

The Bellagio.

I admit, I had dismissed the idea of a great hotel in Las Vegas with a snort of derision (I’m good at that) the first few times I saw the Bellagio on one of those lists. But I had to think again when I saw the list published by Departures, the magazine for people who hold the semi-exclusive American Express Platinum Card.

That, after all, seems like a magazine intended for people who might be assumed to have some experience and taste … at least some of them should. And not only was the Bellagio on that list, it was very near the top.

According to Departures’ Readers Poll, the Bellagio is one of the half-dozen best hotels in the world. It was ranked well ahead of any of the great hotels in New York. It was, with the exception of the George V and the Ritz in Paris, better than any hotel in Europe. Think of the great hotels of Rome, London, Venice, Madrid. Consider the grand hotels of the Orient. The Bellagio was better than any of them.

It was better than the Danieli or the Gritti Palace in Venice. Better than the Plaza Athenee or the Crillon in Paris. Better than Claridges in London or the Peninsula in Hong Kong.

This I had to see for myself.

And so I drove across the desert, at the end of a two-week road trip, pondering what makes a hotel great. Until, at last, there we were, my wife and I, tired and sweaty, pulling up to the Bellagio’s valet parking in a car filled with belongings that were, at this point in our travels, not so much packed as strewn.

We were immediately aware of the hotel’s biggest challenge in its pursuit of greatness ” its sheer size.

Most of the world’s truly great hotels have relatively few rooms ” some have fewer than a hundred rooms, very few have more than 200. Even New York’s great hulking Plaza Hotel has fewer than 900 rooms.

The Bellagio has more than 3,000 rooms.

If a great hotel should coddle you, cater to you and make you feel special ” and certainly, in some fashion, that is the case ” then the Bellagio has one heck of a challenge. It’s pretty hard to make 5,000 or so people all feel “special.”

The impact of the hotel’s size was inescapable. It was late afternoon ” prime check-in time ” and with a thousand or so people all arriving at once, the process had a certain military flavor. Phalanxes of parking attendants rushed to and fro. Fleets of rolling luggage carriers were dispatched in every direction. Crowds of guests, would-be guests and tourists from other hotels intent on visiting the classy Bellagio casino surged across the pavement and through the hotel doors.

I know many of the greatest hotels revel in the noisy vitality of the world’s great urban centers. But this was nothing like the throngs on the Champs-Elysees. This had a whiff of the industrial to it.

And, yet, they pulled it off. There was no fuss, no rush as we filled up a cart with what eventually mounted up to more than a dozen pieces of “luggage.” All around us, things flowed with snap and efficiency and, the moment we were ready, our cart was whisked away. All very nicely done. I was handed a tag and told that, if I called the number on that tag when we reached our room, our luggage would arrive in half an hour. I confess I felt a sharp pang as I watched the luggage disappear. I don’t like being separated from my dirty laundry outside a hotel.

But the check-in was flawlessly smooth and once we made the required phone call, our bags ” all 14 of them ” arrived in less than 10 minutes.

It was an impressive display.

Even more impressive was what happened when I got crosswise with the system. Not long after we had settled into the room, I realized that I had stupidly left my cell phone in my car. I called the front desk and explained what had happened. It was the kind of problem that can drive a big operation crazy. I didn’t want my car back, that would have been easy. Instead, I wanted someone to find my car, find my cell phone in the car and bring it to me.

It took a few minutes on the phone and I had to talk to several people. It was evident that my request was not the kind of thing the system was set up to do. And yet, everyone I talked to made it very clear that they wanted to help me and that they were going to help me. And ” really, without much trouble ” they got the job done.

Once again, it was impressive.

From there on, it was smooth sailing.

Our room was extremely nice. It was reasonably large and well-appointed. No, it wasn’t opulent, like a room in one of the grand old hotels of Europe. But neither was it “fake opulent,” like so many rooms at so many hotels that fall so far short of greatness. The bathroom was large, marble and flawless. The towels, thick and absorbent.

I must note that the sheets were not of the high quality one would expect ” but, heck, this is Vegas, after all, and I bet they go through a lot of sheets. (Indeed, according to a hotel “fact sheet,” the Bellagio uses as many as 12,039 bedsheets a day.)

Still, the question remained: Does a smooth check-in, a recovered cell phone and a nifty bathroom make a great hotel? I wasn’t convinced.

Like any good Las Vegas visitors, we didn’t spend much time in the room. We headed back down to the lobby and, of course, the casino. I admit I don’t gamble, but I love watching other people as they do ” and, over the next two days, as we came and went, I got plenty of chances to do that.

As with any proper Las Vegas hotel, the Bellagio makes you walk through at least a small stretch of casino every time you enter or leave the building.

At first, I considered this a drawback. It made me inescapably aware, over and over again, that the Bellagio isn’t a hotel with a casino ” it’s a casino with a hotel. But, more than that, it is an enormous establishment ” with a hotel and a casino and 16 restaurants and an art museum and what feels like about a mile of luxury shopping outlets.

It is, all in all, a vast and efficient moneymaking machine.

This is not a case of the tail wagging the dog; in Las Vegas, money is the dog. The click of the chips as the dealers rake them in, the rattle of coins as the slot machines pay off ” always less, of course, than they take in ” that’s what it’s all about.

At the beginning of my stay, I felt as if this audible whirring of the gears in the money machine was Bellagio’s fatal flaw.

And then I realized I was very wrong. In fact, I was completely wrong.

One of the keys to a great hotel is the extent to which it partakes of the character of its community. A great hotel in New York has to be a New York hotel. A great hotel in Paris has to be a Paris hotel. A great hotel in the deepest woods or the highest mountains or the most idyllic South Seas island must somehow capture the spirit of its place.

So a great hotel in Las Vegas has got to revel in the slam-bang, moneymaking, chip-swallowing soul of the city. And the Bellagio does exactly that ” to a well-oiled curlicue of perfection.

Believe me, I don’t write that with a cynical sneer. I write it with a smile of deep appreciation and true enjoyment.

In the context of Las Vegas, Bellagio can point with unabashed pride to the fact that they spent $1.6 billion building the hotel.

That’s how we wound up having dinner in a restaurant called Picasso ” where the walls were liberally hung with genuine Picassos. It’s how we gazed out the window, as we ate, at the astonishing computerized “dancing fountains” that cavorted in time to the music that rang out across the 19 million gallons of water in the 8-acre artificial lake … in the middle of the desert. It’s how we enjoyed a truly excellent meal, with impeccable, attentive service, that was ” as we had requested ” somehow squeezed into the scant hour and half we had before the curtain went up on the Cirque du Soleil’s “O,” for which we had tickets.

So, yes, the Bellagio is about money. It’s all about making money ” but it is also about money spent lavishly and well.

The Cirque du Soleil performance ” in a theater within the Bellagio ” was beyond amazing. Truly. It has been several months since then and images from that show still linger in my mind.

But, as we walked out of the theater, the man in front of us was talking to his companion, not about the performance, but about how much money the hotel makes from Cirque du Soleil alone. He did a rapid-fire calculation, figuring so much per tickets for so many seats for so many shows per week for so many weeks per year.

“They must take in something like $90 million a year just from that!” he exclaimed.

I ran through the math in my mind. It seemed about right ” $90 million, just from that one part of their enormous operation. And instead of being upset by the extravagance, I was impressed. It was an amazing show, an amazing success.

I turned to my wife, “This place is great!” I spoke with vast enthusiasm and sincerity.

So … is a hotel that’s a “great place” the same as a “great hotel”? In truth, I don’t know and I don’t really care. When you go to Vegas, that kind of hairsplitting is specifically not the point. Vegas isn’t for splitting hairs. It’s for doubling your bets, rolling the dice and going for broke.

When you go to Las Vegas, if you’re looking for true Vegas greatness, the Bellagio is the place.

No doubt about it.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times and a longtime fan of fine and unique accommodations, from the Super 8 motel in Alamosa, Colo., to the Four Seasons in Istanbul.

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