Sin City doesn’t sit still. Even during a pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Virgin Hotels Las Vegas
If you’re planning a Las Vegas vacation, the question of “where to stay” will likely come up before you book flights, pool party cabanas, and restaurant reservations. Fortunately, the past year has been a boom period for hotels, with all-new builds and dramatic renovations that even a pandemic couldn’t slow down. Vegas has taken a sharp turn away from the one-dimensional exteriors of the Excalibur, Luxor, and other themed hotels; now preferring bold, contemporary spaces where guests are less likely to get lost in a casino and encouraged to explore a wider variety of attractions.
In the years ahead, the Atari Hotel hopes to reverse the trend with a theme that capitalizes on the growing wave of gaming culture and elements of virtual and augmented reality. The Majestic plans to take advantage of its proximity to the Las Vegas Convention Center, leaving out a casino in favor of a cleaner, brighter, non-smoking environment. The Dream Hotel could bring new excitement to the south end of the Strip, not only with a sleek rooftop pool, but an easy walking distance to Allegiant Stadium. And somebody eventually has to do something with the incomplete Fontainebleau eyesore… right?
But those resorts are years away from opening—if they ever open at all. This is Las Vegas, where sure things are few and far between. For now, get familiar with the latest additions to the Las Vegas hotel scene and learn why they’re already making an impression in the ever-evolving tourist corridor.
Let’s describe Resorts World in Vegas terms. The property is going “all in” as the first hotel built from the ground-up on the Strip in more than a decade. Everything—rooms, dining, shopping, nightlife, entertainment—is big, big, big. Resorts World doesn’t even open until June 24, but is already making an impression on the Vegas skyline with a Blade Runner-style digital screen that dominates the exterior of the hotel tower.
Owned and operated by the Genting Group, Resorts World has recruited Celine Dion, Carrie Underwood, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan for residencies inside a new high-tech theater (and when you have Celine, you’ve won the game we call Las Vegas). Zedd and Tiesto are the big-name DJs leading the party at Ayu, a dayclub on the rooftop pool deck that opens in July. The EDM megastars will also provide the entertainment at Zouk Nightclub, opening this fall.
Resorts World has more than 3,500 rooms, divided among Hilton, Conrad, and Crocksford brands. A few even have open-air balconies; a rarity for Strip hotels. Like the rest of the resort, the food-and-beverage scene promises to be indulgent, ranging from Viva for Mexican and Kusa Nori for Japanese to Wally’s Wine & Spirits and Gatsby’s cocktail lounge. One quirky concept, Sun’s Out Buns Out, promises to focus on egg dishes all day long. Yet the most anticipated openings involve two of the very best in the local culinary scene: James Trees, who will be part of Famous Food Street Eats (a food hall inspired by Asian hawker markets) and Nicole Brisson who’s leading the kitchen at Brezza, an upscale destination for Italian and seafood.
Cost: Resorts World has yet to announce specifics on resort fees or the possibility of parking charges, but the latest price information reveals room rates will begin around $120 per night.
Imagine a full-blown, skyscraping, Strip-style hotel and casino in the heart of Downtown on the Fremont Street Experience. That’s exactly what you get with Circa, a new 512-room resort that opened New Year’s Eve weekend. Unlike a few other new hotels, Circa has been operating at full speed from day one, with most of its amenities and attractions in place. Leave the kids at home. The property is strictly 21-and-over and yes, IDs are checked at the door.
The only exception is Barry’s Downtown Prime, a steakhouse in the basement level of the resort (although it’s rugged old-school style doesn’t exactly scream “bring the kids” either). If you prefer something less formal, try 8 East, a fantastic restaurant for Asian street food, Saginaw’s, a Jewish deli that serves breakfast around the clock, or Project BBQ, an outdoor food truck where large parties can order a whole-roasted pig. If you’re ready to booze it up, there’s a bar to match your level of party animal. Mega Bar stretches 165-feet long on the casino floor (making it the longest indoor bar in Nevada), Vegas Vickie’s serves cocktails next to a giant neon marquee that once hung above a Fremont Street strip club, and the Legacy Club has enough booze, views, and sophistication on the rooftop of the hotel to be one of the best places to bring a date in Las Vegas.
Yet the biggest attractions in size and scope are the two-level sports book, said to be the largest in the world (bring your own tape measure to confirm) and Stadium Swim, a rooftop pool deck with a DJ booth and 143-foot video wall that’s possibly the best way to watch a Golden Knights game without being inside the T-Mobile Arena itself.
Cost: Rooms begin at $149 per night with a $29.95 resort fee.
Virgin Hotels Las Vegas officially opened in March, but has continued to feel like a work in progress—at least until now. The hotel finally welcomes the debut of its pool deck and Élia Beach Club on June 10, giving some much needed energy to its outdoor spaces; the heart of the property, both literally and figuratively. Many of the restaurants, including Casa Calvera, Kassi Beach House, and the upcoming incarnation of Todd English’s Olives (formerly a staple at the Bellagio) have patios framing an outdoor promenade with dishes available for poolside ordering. Money, Baby! is a bar and lounge with a club vibe for watching sports and placing bets on the second level above the pool deck.
Yet One Steakhouse and Night + Market (modern Thai with natural wines) are the hotel’s most compelling restaurants and found deep within the casino floor. The latter deserves a more engaging dining room to match the quality of its menu, yet still makes for an exceptional experience. The removal of Center Bar (a social spot from when the property was the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino) may be sacrilegious to locals, but declutters the gaming floor, opening up sightlines between the front door and pool entrance. And it’s not like you can’t find a good drink at the Bar at Commons Club or secluded Shag Room.
The biggest challenge for Virgin Hotels (aside from dropping the “s” in the name) is developing an identity. Yes, it looks sharp and the rooms sport a cool, contemporary feel, but the subtle desert theme and art-deco design feel tame compared to the snap and sizzle of the Hard Rock. Still, the hotel is off to a good start and should pick up business once conventions return to fill up the expo space and residencies are announced for the 4,000-seat theater formerly known as The Joint.
Cost: Rooms begin at $119 per night with free parking and no resort fee.
Everything old is new again. Despite being around since 1952, the Sahara has gone through a series of changes in recent years. The property was sold a few times, spent a brief period as the SLS Las Vegas, and recently fell under the ownership of the Meruelo Group, known for successfully revitalizing the Grand Sierra Resort up north in Reno. The name was changed back to the Sahara before the pandemic, but the hotel feels brand new following the latest wave of renovations.
All the changes are a plus. More than 1,600 rooms in three towers were redesigned to more effectively maximize space and the casino floor is much brighter with dramatic new decor and deep, dimensional ceilings. A pair of intimate rooftop pools pack in the wow factor while Azilo prepares a summer opening as the main ground-level pool deck, wrapped in LED video walls and Moroccan-inspired designs. The pending arrival of Magic Mike Live in a custom-designed theater is almost guaranteed to be a hit, especially with the Chippendales closing as competition at the Rio.
Jose Andres’ Bazaar Meat steakhouse is the most notable holdover from the SLS days, and remains a Las Vegas bucket-list dining experience under the direction of new executive chef Candace Ochoa. The most intriguing new restaurant opening this year is Ballo, featuring upscale coastal Italian by Shawn McClain. If you prefer something more casual, the Philly-style cheesesteaks of Chickie’s & Pete’s can’t arrive soon enough. Ready for a stiff drink? Try the inventive cocktails of Casbar Lounge or the whiskey program at the Tangier
Cost: Hotel rooms are as low as $44 with a $39.95 resort fee. Parking is free.
The hotel formerly known as the Lucky Dragon dropped its Asian theme and quietly reopened last year as the Ahern Hotel, under the ownership of the same family that once operated a gas station where the Stratosphere now stands right around the corner. The hotel is trying out a non-smoking, non-gaming format that’s totally different—but totally Las Vegas. It’s basically a glorified event space with hotel rooms attached. Buyouts (full or partial) are the primary drivers of business, but individual bookings will eventually fill in the gaps. Ahern has already hosted nearly 160 events over the past 12 months. Not bad for a pandemic. Moving forward, the hotel will only benefit from its proximity to the Convention Center, but is open for large-scale weddings, graduations, and other events.
Removing the Asian decor and sharp red and gold colors has been an ongoing challenge, but the Ahern Hotel is gradually adopting a lighter, brighter image. Booking a table at Trattoria, an Italian restaurant on the ground floor, is the easiest way for the general public to get familiar with the property. The Vegas chef behind it, Marc Sgrizzi, is leading the hotel’s culinary program, which includes the fall debut of Chef Marc’s, a second-floor steakhouse with floor-to-ceiling views of the Strip and recipes inspired by travels to Italy. The restaurant aims to be fully sustainable with produce, eggs, and honey sourced from a private local orchard and also boasts an in-house, dry-aging program and personalized touches that include the chef slicing steak on the dining room floor. Otherwise, grab a slice from Sgrizzi’s, a to-go pizza counter. A gourmet chocolate shop and European-style coffee café will open later this year.
The hotel’s red exterior shell gave rooms a pink-ish glow in the Lucky Dragon days, but that’s been eliminated with tinting that turns windows into a non-intrusive shade of purple. The swimming pool is small, but well suited for cocktail parties and other outdoor gatherings with a perimeter of cabanas and overhead bistro lights. Another intimate space with a bar, stage, and dramatic LED hallway-entrance remains under construction on the second level, but is expected to host comedy shows and other speaking events.
Cost: Call 725-214-4800 for prices and availability on booking. Ahern doesn’t charge a parking or resort fee.