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TRAVEL WATCH: DECEMBER 20, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 24

Where Asia Goes for Glitz (and Gambling)
By JENNIFER GAMPELL


Illustration for TIME by Gary Hallgren

Haven't been to Las Vegas yet? You're in a crowd that's getting smaller all the time. Last year 800,000 Asians made the pilgrimage to the neon Mecca in the Nevada desert. Led by the Japanese, Asian travelers make up Vegas's largest overseas market. To wit, JAL now runs five non-stop flights weekly from Tokyo; Northwest has three that go via Los Angeles. While there's no direct service from other Asian cities, remember that Vegas is less than an hour's flight from Los Angeles.

What makes Vegas such a draw for people from this part of the world? Perhaps residents of Asia's sprawling megacities appreciate its compactness: Vegas lets you combine gambling, flashy... umm, culture and theme-park fun in one heck of a holiday. And then there are those otherworldly hotels--you've seen the pictures, the buildings that look as if they've been transported to Vegas in a time machine. The latest in this long, gaudy line is the $760 million Paris, which includes a 50-story reproduction of the Eiffel Tower, a two-thirds scale replica of the Arc de Triomphe and cobble-stoned streets lined with fancy boutiques. The only things missing from the full Paris experience are surly waiters and overflowing gutters. Another new resort, Mandalay Bay, is built in the shape of upright bars of gold bullion and attempts to conjure up a semi-imaginary locale that is part Bali, all fantasy.

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Aside from the arresting architecture, what makes these hotels interesting is their affordability. "High season" here is every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so the best time to get a good price on a posh room is mid-week. At the deluxe Four Seasons, the only property in town without a casino, low-tide rates start at a modest $195 for a standard room, and the arty Bellagio can house you for as little as $139. At peak time, those prices can double.

What can you do in Vegas besides gamble? Plenty. In less than four hours you can be whisked from your hotel to the Grand Canyon via helicopter and enjoy a champagne picnic down on the canyon floor. Then there's world-class shopping: Vegas retailers rival anything offered by their counterparts on ritzy Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive. The 50,000 sq m of retail space--another 25,000 sq m will open next summer--under the vaulted ceiling of Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace includes Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Christian Dior, FAO Schwarz, Fendi, Emporio Armani and Virgin Megastore. Prices are slightly lower than elsewhere.

Dining in Vegas used to mean cheesy all-you-can-eat meals, but the city has moved beyond bulkfests in recent years. Wolfgang Puck runs a branch of his famous Spago eatery in the mall at Caesar's Palace: check it out for fabulous French fare. Order an impressive vintage at the restaurant Aureole at Mandalay Bay and an angel in a catsuit "flies" to the top of a 14 m wine tower to retrieve it. If you're hungry for home, many Vegas hotels have excellent Asian restaurants. Chinois in the Forum Shops serves up dim sum and potstickers with a Gallic flair. Culinary borders are delightfully trampled by the sushi bar, and a dessert of green tea ice cream will set you right. Oh, and if you're looking for one of the aforementioned all-you-can-eats, an informal poll of cabbies says the Rio's buffet is the best in town.

Okay, so you've had a feast of a lunch and are ready for some serious gambling. What to do with the kids? You could drop them off at the MGM Grand Youth Center, which is open to children 3-12 years old regardless of what hotel they are staying in. The center is professionally staffed, and your kids can enjoy themselves in a safe, fun environment--for $7 an hour per child. If you'd prefer to play with your children instead of the chips, there is a bounty of choices. Treasure Island Hotel is home to Buccaneer Bay, where every 90 minutes starting at 4 p.m. there is a spectacular pirate battle. Just down the boulevard in front of Excalibur Hotel another battle takes place, this one between Merlin the magician and a Dragon. Best of all, both shows are free. Excalibur's medieval dinner show is also a huge hit with the young. Just half an hour outside of town is Bonnie Springs, a Wild West theme park that offers horseback rides for $16.50 an hour. It's true what they say: Vegas is fun for everyone.

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