From the high-end City Center to a lowbrow country singer, here's what stood out.
1. Their pain might be your gain. Vegas is a relative deal -- no doubt thanks to its downturned fiscal state. Sun Country practically gave me my refurbished room at the Tropicana in a package deal ($317 with two nights' hotel, vs. $280 airfare alone). Once there, many hotels are also doling out coupon books offering 2-for-1 and other deals on event tickets, meals, spa treatments, etc. There seemed to be a general boost in politeness and quality of service, too.
And then there's the gambling. I'm not sure if hard times produce looser slots or vice versa, but I don't think it's a coincidence that among four travelers, one of us won a substantial amount, two won enough to brag about, and the fourth person pretty nearly broke even. I might yet come out ahead, too, if my ticket on the Twins winning the Series (18-1 odds) turns out better than did my bet on the Jets for the Super Bowl.
2. Bubba culture is in, period. While Elvis' presence has been a constant, there seems to be a new influx of an even greater Southern/country/good-ol'-boy flavor. Garth Brooks' engagement at the Wynn is as hot a ticket right now as Cher's stand at Caesars'. Treasure Island now boasts its own Texas-sized version of the Houston rodeo bar Gilley's, made famous by John Travolta's "Urban Cowboy." Other recent additions include the Coyote Ugly bar in New York New York and both NASCAR- and Harley-themed restaurants along the Strip. Yee-haw!
3. The new visual wow is City Center. Step aside, Bellagio's fountain show and Wynn's Lake of Dreams. A stroll through the $8.5 billion City Center mall/city-within-a-city and its hotels -- the Aria, Mandarin Oriental and Vdara -- is now Vegas' must-see eye-popping experience. That's if you can figure out where the entrance is (the layout is a bit maze-like). Funded by MGM Grand and Dubai World, its silvery design and grandiose architecture are a marvel throughout, albeit in a Frank Gehry-wannabe way. The art alone reportedly cost $40 million.
4. Nope, not for families. A few hotels haven't given up completely on the '80s-bred idea of Vegas as a family-friendly destination (including Mandalay Bay, New York New York and Circus Circus), but I certainly have. Even if you aren't discomfited by the sight of young children walking through smoky, boozy casinos to get to hotel rooms -- and even if you have the perfectly made-up explanation for all those magazine/pamphlet racks with nude women on them -- you're still not likely to find much kid-friendly comfort amid the city's mayhem.
5. The fun really never stops. Every time I've gone to Las Vegas over the past 15 years, it has been through coincidence or circumstance and never because I said, "Let's go to Vegas!" And yet every time I go there, I have a blast. Mind you, it's best enjoyed with a laid-back attitude and in short, two- or three-day doses, but you can and should cram a lot into those days besides gambling and eating. My side trips this past time included an excellent hike in Red Rock Canyon and a wacky visit to the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, featured in the hit History Channel series "Pawn Stars." Point is, you never know what to expect.