CityCenter: Over the top, even for Vegas

CityCenter lights up at dusk just hours before CityCenter lights up at dusk just hours before the 4,000-room Aria Hotel and Casino opens in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. Photo Credit: AP, 2009

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After just a day in Las Vegas' spanking new CityCenter, I was crystal clear about one thing: This was no place for anyone on a budget.

Strolling the promenade on a Friday night, I contemplated my dinner options. I thought there might be a good deal at the Buffet, but the $35.95 price tag gave me sticker shock. I studied the menu at a restaurant called American Fish. The bigeye tuna looked appealing; the price - $38 - not so much.

"It's a nice hotel, just don't eat here," said a man studying the menu beside me. "If you want something cheap, you have to go outside."

Outside, of course, the recession still reigns. The realities of the economy notwithstanding, Las Vegas tourism officials and MGM Mirage executives who spent five years planning and building this sprawling, 67-acre complex of hotels, restaurants, shops and nightclubs, are hoping it will pull the city out of its foreclosure funk.

Never mind that you can find cheaper hotels and meals all up and down the Strip.

ABOUT THE CENTER

The $8.5 billion CityCenter is said to be the largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history. MGM Mirage chief executive Jim Murren says the vision was to create a pedestrian-friendly resort that's not centered on gambling (there's only one casino), where people can shop, eat, drink, admire art, watch a show, even live (the two Veer Towers have 674 condos for sale).

You could easily spend your entire time in Vegas at CityCenter, never venturing beyond its borders.

All the buildings (minus the casino floor, where smoking is allowed) have earned the LEED Gold certification, making the development one of the largest built to "green" standards.

Another difference: The architects strayed from the Vegas norm of themed casino hotels. (Think New York New York, with its copy of the Statue of Liberty, or Paris Las Vegas with its Eiffel Tower.) CityCenter's architecture is sleek and modern, standing out amid the gaudy buildings that line the Strip.

LUXE TOUCHES

And then there's the sheer size and luxury of everything. Aria Resort has 4,004 rooms and a 150,000-square-foot casino. Vdara is described as a 1,500-suite "boutique" hotel. And the Mandarin Oriental, with its 400 rooms, is the most exclusive of the bunch. A fourth hotel, Harmon, is scheduled to open at some point with 400 rooms.

The 500,000-square-foot Crystals retail center is Madison Avenue in a mall, with stores by the likes of Tom Ford, Roberto Cavalli, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and Cartier (866-754-2489, crystalsatcity center.com). Actress Eva Longoria Parker has opened a restaurant, Beso, and a nightclub, Eve.

WHAT IT'S LIKE

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First impression: "This place is ridiculous."

The sharp edges, planes and curves of the six buildings caught the light off the Strip, making them sparkle in the night. A fountain outside Aria turned from neon green to purple. The two Veer Towers leaned away from each other. "It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie," one visitor said.

CityCenter boasts a $40 million collection of fine art, but its pieces are sprinkled in the most mundane places. The valet stand at Haze nightclub, for instance, is decorated with a 250-foot light installation by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, whose work can be found in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

If you're not a gambler and you can't afford Tom Ford, what is there to do in CityCenter? Eat.

It's been a recent trend for some of the most celebrated chefs to open restaurants in Vegas. Now, almost two dozen have opened venues in CityCenter, including Pierre Gagnaire, Julian Serrano and Michael Mina. And two more are on the way - Wolfgang Puck and Todd English are slated to open restaurants as well.

WHERE TO STAY

Aria Resort and Casino, 866-359-7757, arialasvegas.com

This 61-story hotel is the heart of CityCenter. Rooms are equipped with remote controls for lights, music and curtains. Spa, fitness center, four pools, 16 restaurants. Rates from $149.

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Vdara Hotel and Spa, 866-745-7111, vdara.com

All-suite, 57-story hotel with rooftop pool, spa, restaurant and lounge. Connected to the Bellagio Hotel. Rates from $139.

Mandarin Oriental, 702-590-8888, mandarinoriental.com/lasvegas

The 47-story hotel offers modern rooms with Asian decor. The 23rd-floor lobby overlooks the Strip. Spa, yoga studio, rooftop deck. Dining options include gourmet restaurants, tea lounge and patisserie. Rates from $350.

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WHAT TO DO

Aria Casino, 866-359-7757

This 150,000-square-foot casino is the only one within CityCenter.

Cirque du Soleil Viva Elvis, 877-25ELVIS, cirquedusoleil.com

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A tribute to Elvis Presley at the theater at the Aria Resort andCasino. Tickets start at $99.

INFORMATION: citycenter.com

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