Three things you don't usually encounter in Las Vegas: 1) A cabbie who doesn't know his way on the Strip; 2) Artwork by a world-renowned artist in broad daylight; 3) Broad daylight (in a casino).
But all three happened in quick succession as I made my way to CityCenter, the megalopolis development on 67 prized acres between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo resorts. So new is this colossus of glass that my cabdriver had to roll down his window twice and ask how to negotiate the labyrinthine roads within the complex.
Once I arrived at Aria Resort & Casino, the largest hotel within the complex, I stepped into a lobby flooded with natural light, a rarity in casinos that are designed to trick visitors into a party mode of 24-hour nightlife. Squinting, I approached the check-in desk and made out the first of several pieces of fine art within CityCenter's public spaces -- Maya Lin's Silver River, an 84-foot-long snake of reclaimed silver, mapping the flow of the Colorado River, suspended behind the reception area. This is not a typical Vegas casino experience. But CityCenter is not a typical Vegas project. Here are three hotels now opened within CityCenter:
Aria Resort & Casino
The largest hotel within CityCenter with 4,004 rooms, Aria is a series of rippling arcs designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli. The focal point of CityCenter, it is the prettiest of the complex's buildings, packed with dramatic uses of stone, glass, wood and plants.
Guest rooms, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, are stocked with every technological convenience, all operated from a bedside remote control. Accidentally hit the wrong button and you could plunge your room into darkness, as I did several times. The standard room is well designed, with ample closet space and a pleasant brown and blue color scheme. Two bedside lamps plus headboard reading lamps offer good light. A fair-size work desk has every conceivable plug.
Aria's pleasures include a gorgeous spa, a sexy casino and a collection of fine dining that will dazzle foodies ($149 to $7,500; www.arialasvegas.com).
Discreet elegance is this chain's hallmark, and that pretty much sums up the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas. The 47-story hotel designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox looks important but unfussy from the outside; and even its public spaces inside show luxurious restraint. But once you slip into one of the hotel's 392 rooms, designed by Adam Tihany, the place oozes opulence.
When you enter your room, the lights and TV go on and the curtains dramatically slide back to reveal your view. State-of-the-art technology rules here. But it's the more sensual elements of the room design that enchant: the frosted glass-walled bathroom; the Frette robes, yoga mat and baby alpaca blanket inside the closet; the wardrobe foyer with its valet closet that allows you to retrieve the morning paper and your shined shoes without having to open your room door to the hallway.
The typical Vegas visitor might see the hotel's lack of a casino (it is deliberately nongaming) as a disadvantage, but the luxury-seeker is going to love the Mandarin Bar on the 23rd floor, which boasts the most stunning views of the Strip in the city, and Twist restaurant, which gives the hotel bragging rights in a competitive foodie city ($350-$15,000; www.mandarinoriental.com/ lasvegas).
Vdara Hotel & Spa
This nongaming hotel is the best-behaved student in a class of do-gooders. While CityCenter was built "green" and most of its properties have earned LEED Gold certification, Vdara takes it one step further: no smoking. If you're looking for a sedate, well-designed oasis of civility, this 57-story curved tower of glass designed by Rafael Viñoly might be up your alley.
Vdara's 1,495 suites are unusual by Strip standards in that each has a kitchen, equipped with sink, microwave oven, stove and refrigerator separate from the minibar. The bedroom/living room features a dining table with two chairs, couch, flat-screen TV and a fantastically comfortable bed. The bathroom is small by Vegas standards, with just a single sink and a magnifying mirror. But there's Aveda amenities and a separate closet. Another nicety: Most of the suites have washers and dryers.
From my bed I could make out the top of the Flamingo hotel wrapped by an advertisement for Donny and Marie Osmond's show. All night I looked at Donny and Marie's Chiclet smiles and couldn't help but think that Vdara is neither a little country nor a little bit rock 'n' roll. And what it needs is a little of either -- or both ($149-$2,000; www.vdara.com).