It was winter and I'd had enough of it. I needed a summer in Europe. I needed to walk in twilight past splashing fountains, to linger over a good meal at an outdoor cafe, to see flowers and statuary and experience the joy de vie and the wines of the French and Italians.
And so I went to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is the most European of all American cities. Oh certainly, it's in a desert, surround by stark treeless mountains. The city has 15 miles of neon lights and from space, Las Vegas is the brightest spot on Earth. For sheer tackiness, there's nothing in the world that can touch it. Or touch parts of it.
Because for every street of neon and lights, there is another in Las Vegas where you can walk around an Italian lake, stare at a fresco painted ceiling the size of a battleship, ride a gondola under canal bridges, or admire what appears to be centuries old architecture.
And food? The grand master chefs of Europe are all here. Chefs Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy of France, Gordon Ramsay from the U.K., Costas Spiliadis from Greece, and Jose Andres from Spain.
While every year there are fewer slot machines, there are more designers. Cartier, Versace, Oscar de la Renta, Gucci, Hermes, Dior, Channel, Louis Vuitton, Piaget, Yves Saint Laurent....they are all here, and what's more, they're all close together, on the easily walkable Strip.
Wines? Le Cirque has 900 French wines. The restaurant Aureole features an incredible wine tower that is four-stories high with 50,000 bottles. Acrobatic women in harnesses float from the ceiling to hover up and down the wine tower retrieving bottles.
If Las Vegas has created a homage to Europe's greatest hits, what a homage it is. And joy de vie? Nearly every hotel has a pool for "European" (i.e., topless) sunbathing. Is there any place else in America with the same European relaxed adult attitude toward drinking, nudity and fun?
No, Las Vegas seems mesmerized by Europe (or at least a fantasy version of it) and as a result, there are some easy ways to have a quick European weekend in the middle of the desert.
Here's a start:
No place on the Strip captures the ambiance of Europe better than this 2,600-room hotel. From dining al fresco at the authentic looking café Mon Ami Gabi to climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, it's all a bit touristy, but that's part of the appeal. The 541-foot tall Eiffel Tower is a 50 percent replica of its sister in Paris, except that the one here in the desert is made of steel rather than cast iron plates, which actually makes it stronger. All 2.5 million rivets on the Las Vegas model are fakes, just added to help create the illusion, which is continued with dozens of statues and Disney-quality re-creations of the Arc de Triomphe, Paris Opera House, the famous Hotel de Ville and the Alexandre III Bridge. The extravagance is so huge, the hotel actually wanted to build a full-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, but it would have interfered with flights arriving at the nearby airport.
Inside, it is always twilight in a quaint Parisian village setting as you walk down Le Boulevard, a cobblestone street under a painted sky that meanders past authentic looking storefronts selling French soaps and perfume, wines and cheeses, jewelry, art, and of course, French fashions.
You can dine with a 360-degree view from the top of the tower, or at Le Village Buffet, which offers traditional dishes from five French provinces, all in a wonderful French village setting. Live-action stations offer Brittany crepes made to order, tender rotisserie chicken from Burgundy, sauerkraut and sausages of Alsace or penne a la putanesca from Provence. From seafood bouillabaisse to braised pork belly and apples, it is all French (with some sushi thrown in for an appetizer). For dessert? Try the macaroons, fruit tarts, chocolate éclair or the acclaimed vanilla bean crème brulee. It is the only buffet in Las Vegas listed on OpenTable, which allows you to make reservations and avoid lines - a common problem at popular restaurants.
And of course, you must go to the top of the tower for the outdoor viewing deck. A good tip - go up at twilight so that you can watch all the lights of Las Vegas as they come on, and have a perfect view of the next stop - the dancing waters of Bellagio.
Inspired by the village of Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como in Northern Italy, this elegant $1.6 billion resort has 4,000 rooms - more rooms than there are residents in the real town of Bellagio. The highlight is a green-blue, 8-acre lake lined with a grand promenade of cypress, olive trees and pines. Marble circular viewpoints along the terrace are the perfect spot to watch the free evening spectacle of 1,200 fountains of water choreographed to music.
Perhaps it's best not to know that the 27 million gallon Lago di Bellagio is actually filled with "gray water," recycled water from the hotel's sinks, bathtubs and showers. No matter. With the lights on, and the far side of the lake lined with yellow Tuscan buildings, you could easily be in Italy's Lake District.
On the lovely grounds of Bellagio can be found an 8.5-acre Mediterranean-style garden filled with citrus trees and flowers and splashing hand-carved fountains. The marble-columned Via Bellagio is a one of the ritziest pedestrian shopping malls in town with Prada, Armani and Fendi.
Next door to Bellagio, Caesars opened in 1966 and through continued refurbishments has become the most opulent of the Euro-themed casinos. It is an over-the-top, indoor and outdoor monument to Ancient Rome. And to decadence. On the grounds, there are gorgeous fountains, manicured trees and hedges, tall Corinthian columns, and outdoor cafes sitting beneath a wall of Roman statues.
Inside, the Forum Shops have 160 stores and restaurants along a maze of winding Italian streets that open into dramatic piazzas filled with fountains and 20-foot high statues of Neptune, winged stallions, Venus, Apollo, and of course, Bacchus.
Every inch is designed to take your breath away. The three-story entrance has unique circular elevators that climb up past columns and statues of 30-foot women, all rising out of turquoise pools of water. Painted circular ceilings simulate a sky that changes from deep blue flecked with white clouds to a tranquil twilight of magentas and pinks. At every turn, there are grand archways, huge domes and marble pillars. It's easy to get lost, and even easier to be overwhelmed. Even more fun, watch the Roman statues closely. Many of them move.
The Roman theme is carried over to the pools, where waitresses dressed in togas serve frozen grapes in the Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis, while European-style topless sunbathing is the attraction in the adults-only Venus Pool Club.
The Venetian & Palazzo
Across the street from Caesars, the Italian fantasy continues with a re-creation of Venice, complete with a full size replica of St. Mark's Campanile (bell tower) surrounded by canals filled with gondolas, piazzas, bridges, a faux Doge's Palace and a mini-replica of the Rialto Bridge. There's nothing small about the gigantic Sistine Chapel-like fresco that fills the entire ceiling as you enter, or the labyrinth of indoor cobblestone streets that wind along canals to the "outdoor" cafes of Piazza San Marco.
Here, you can watch gondoliers in black-striped shirts and straw hats sing romantic Italian songs as they ferry lovers down the canals. Cheesy? Of course. Until you see the two-story waterfall and marble columns of Palazzo with Manolo Blahnik for shoes, Canali for fashionable Italian apparel, and direct from London, Chloe and Thomas Pink.
If the illusion is still not working for you, have another drink. The relaxed attitude of Las Vegas means you can take any drink with you. Any drink. From a can of beer purchased at a liquor store, to a 20-year old glass of wine from an elegant café, it's completely legal to go in or out of any resort or walk on any street carrying your drink with you. Even Europe is not that liberal!
If you go: Another tip: Las Vegas also allows gambling. For complete information on what to see, do, eat, and where to sleep (or at least store your luggage) go to: Las Vegas