Local visitors to Hawai‘i’s ninth island already know the routine: Stay at the California Hotel, eat oxtail soup at Market Street Cafe?, and gamble on Fremont Street. But if you haven’t visited Las Vegas lately, don’t write it off as the same old (sin) city. New developments and chic hotspots have been popping up all over town in recent years, transforming Vegas into a surprisingly sophisticated destination filled with eclectic, exciting attractions.
Consider Omega Mart, an otherworldly “supermarket” stocked with surreal custom products including “Who Told You This Was Butter?” air freshener, “nut-free salted peanuts” (an 8-ounce container of salt), and lavender and lemon sparkling water called Gender Fluid. Omega Mart is the latest immersive experience by renowned arts collective Meow Wolf, known for creating elaborate and often mind-bending interactive installations by international and local artists in Sante Fe, Denver, and now Vegas. Here, guests are welcome to simply soak up the imaginative artwork (Tattooed chicken! Dehydrated water!) or locate secret portals that lead to alien factories within Omega Mart and otherworldly spaces. When the advertisements say “you have no idea what’s in-store for you,” believe it.
Omega Mart is located inside AREA15, a 200,000-square-foot entertainment complex that also houses Oddwood, a neon bar lit up by a 25-foot-tall maple tree elaborately lined with LED lights; Wink World, a funhouse of psychedelic art and sound designed by Blue Man Group co-creator Chris Wink; and the Lost Spirits Distillery, which offers a guided tour through themed tasting rooms modeled after traveling carnivals and the steampunk alleys of 19th-century London. Like a cross between the Great Gatsby and Willy Wonka, Lost Spirits is a playground of submarines and speakeasies, where chandeliers sway in time to the sounds of Leonard Cohen crooning overhead as live magicians, holograms, circus performers and snake charmers perform for passersby.
As if not to be outdone, shiny Resorts World Las Vegas also opened its doors amid the pandemic, nearly a decade after first being announced in 2013. This 88-acre ultra-luxe resort and casino on the north end of the Strip is Hilton’s largest property worldwide; come for attractions like the 50-foot mirrored sphere projecting digital light shows on the main corridor but stay for tucked away attractions — such as the Here Kitty Kitty Vice Den, where the walls are adorned with faded Chinese advertisements and neon tigers. This den’s drinks are as playful as the decor, with cocktails such as the spicy Hui Kitty Kitty, a mix of shochu, white port, beef bone (you read that right), and serrano pepper slices. A pseudo-Vietnamese pho in cocktail form, why not?
For a more chill drinking experience, head further down the Strip to the minus5 ICEBAR at the LINQ Promenade to enjoy beverages in a bar built entirely from 100 tons of ice shipped in from Canada and Minnesota. At 23 degrees Fahrenheit, this is the only bar in Vegas where your beer or cocktail (served in an ice glass, naturally) gets colder over time; an impressive feat, considering you’re still in the middle of the Mojave Desert. See that desert for yourself nearby aboard LINQ’s High Roller, the tallest observation wheel in North America that climbs to 550 feet above the Strip over the course of a 30-minute spin. Those leery of heights who are looking to take the edge off may opt for the High Roller’s happy half hour package, where certain pods are fitted with a bartender serving unlimited drinks for a nominal upcharge. (Talk about raising the bar.)
Look no further for an example of how this “New” Vegas has evolved over the past few years than the Sahara Hotel and Ca- sino. The Sahara may be the second oldest hotel on the Strip the Flamingo takes the top spot) but step inside today — across the gleam- ing marble and mosaic lobby, through the sprawling casino floor backlit with vibrant red tones, and past the glass lounges and lobby bars that glow gold — and you’ll realize the old adage is true: This is not your father’s Sahara.
Actually, not your grandfather’s Sahara may be more accurate. This 70-year-old resort doesn’t look a day over three years old, which is when the Sahara returned to the Strip after first closing in 2011 before undergoing a $150 million renovation and, ultimately, be- coming the Sahara once more. “Las Vegas went through many years where it was just implosion after implosion,” says Rachel Hunt, Sahara’s vice president of marketing. “Too often, the idea is that older properties are never going to be as good as they once were, so why not start new? But there’s history here. The question for our design team was, how do we make things even better?”
At the Sahara, history is important. Originally built in 1952, this “Jewel of the Desert” helped usher in the Golden Era of Las Vegas, transforming the Strip from a scattering of mostly Western-themed roadside motels and gambling halls to a lavish vacation destination with multi-storied resorts and casinos. With its Olympic-size pool (the first in Vegas) and Moroccan resort atmosphere, the Sahara attracted Hollywood stars, such as Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, and musicians including Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles. The Sahara was one of the hotels that Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rest of the Rat Pack attempted to rob in the original Ocean’s 11; in reality, Sinatra and Dean Martin could often be found in the hotel’s Casbar Lounge, watching their pal Don Rickles perform.
Today, Casbar Lounge is still going strong, serving cocktails like the Mojave Margarita, made with Espolon Reposado tequila, Giffard apricot brandy, prickly pear purée, agave syrup and fresh lime juice, all smoked with mesquite. Call it a new twist on an old classic. But in Las Vegas, what isn’t?