(This article was originally published on 06/03/09)

The recent fortunes of Las Vegas have dipped up and down with the same volatility as winning on slots. What began in the 1950s as a low-cost, faraway city of forbidden pleasures has turned, in the last 15 years, to a glitzy, pricey vacation. All-you-can-eat $1.99 buffets,  $29.99-a-night rooms, free shows and cheap cocktails became, by the 1990s, an upscale, over-the-top playland of world-famous chefs, $200 dinners, $500 rooms and $10 appletinis. Life was good as developer after developer gleefully indulged childhood fantasies out-lavishing the hotel next door by constructing pyramids, an Eiffel Tower, the glories of Rome and Venice. Nothing was too much or too costly – the luxe prices were simply divvied up among the business, family and pleasure travelers who flocked to the city.

But the recession has hit Las Vegas hard. Cab drivers practically hug deplaning tourists. Low-cost  rooms complete with meals, spa treatments, show tickets and gambling money routinely are touted on the Internet.

Fortune is now smiling on the traveler. If you go to Vegas, and now is an excellent time to go, treat yourself to a stay at the Encore. Las Vegas icon Steve Wynn, who plopped down $2.3 billion (yes, billion) to open the fantastic Wynn four years ago, threw open the doors in late December  to his  phantasmagoric, luxury-to-the-bone,  sensuously delectable Encore Hotel.  The Wynn and Encore are sister properties, joined by a tunnel featuring some of the world’s most expensive retailers.

Unforgettable, and nearly indescribable, the Encore took more than two years for construction and the efforts of a devoted team of people laboriously pouring over every detail for a year before that.

Wynn, with the help of his wife, Elaine, has created  a signature of elegance and impeccable service in the hotel business. He built the Mirage, Treasure Isle and the Bellagio. Outdoing himself with each new property has propelled him to the status of Las Vegas king. (Unfortunately, the ‘King’ has found a younger woman and filed for divorce in early March from his college sweetheart.)

Upsides: The room. The spa. Switch. The staff.  The colors and decorations. Being in the coolest spot in Vegas.

Negatives – No one playing the slots.  Lots of anxious/bored casino employees searching our faces to see if we would get something started. Ridiculous restaurant prices and uneven wait staff  – soliticious and fawning at the Society and Switch; absent and amnesiac at Sinatra and Wazuzu.

 

In mid-December, Southwest Airlines kindly put Vegas airfare 50 percent off; we flew round trip for $150 each. The hotel sent a limousine to pick us up and we chatted with Richard on the 15-minute drive to the hotel. We were curious as to the effects of the recession on each other’s towns.  Based on his report, Houston is the winner, by far, of economic vitality. Las Vegas, he said, has seen tourism drop significantly.  As we entered the Tower Suites entrance, I gasped at the luxurious emerald green and gold decor. Floral and filled with butterflies, it was a gilded garden. We floated to our king suite. Like a child, I was entranced with the two sets of electronically-controlled draperies, the rotating flat screen TV in the center of the room and the expansive, marble hallway and bath (with a second flatscreen TV.)

We met Brian Gullbrants, senior vice president and general manager, who greeted us and offered a quick tour. “Our goal was to bring the outdoors inside,” he explained as we walked under a stunning atrium filled to the brim with trees and thousands of blooming annuals. The Encore boasts the only casino in Vegas filled with natural light.  Wide, red-carpeted walkways are filled with flowers and chandeliers. We spotted two swimming pools as we walked. The European bathing pool (i.e. topless) has an age limit – you must be 21- and it becomes an extension of XS, one of the hotel’s nightclubs, after dark.

Before assuming control of the Encore, Gullbrants spent  20 years as a top executive in the Ritz Carlton hotel company and didn’t want to leave. He did, however.

“Mr. Wynn can be very influential,” he smiled.

Elaine Wynn chose a butterfly motif for the Encore and the lovely creatures are everywhere. They are embroidered into silk paneling in the elevators, carved into the floors created by artisan mosaics, on the ceilings and chandeliers, dappling in the custom-made, vibrant red carpeting, gracing the linens and  inlaid into the marble. The hotel is ensconced with  more shades of red, green and gold than I thought possible.

Seventy full-time employees work on the fresh floral designs – and we aren’t including the gardening staff.  The budget for fresh flowers? $1.2 million annually.

As we walked across the white marble floors inlaid with jewel-like butterflies, Gullbrants said goodbye.

The next two days were packed with sensory overload. Lunch at Wazuzu was memorable for the 800-pound, 27-foot long crystal dragon, imported from China and hanging from the ceiling  gazing on the diners who gaze upon the casino.

We gambled; we lost money. We people watched; we walked through the tunnel connecting the two properties and admired the world-famous shops offering the finest of the fine. We spotted a somewhat livelier crowd in the Wynn’s casino and spun the slot machines a while. Later, we shared a tasty appetizer pizza at Stratta.

After a nap, we headed to the restaurant Switch. Steve Wynn is famous for creating the extraordinary–an indoor lake at the Bellagio, a real pirate ship and production outdoors of Treasure Isle, the  Tree of Prosperity  at the Macau. Switch is another addition to the opulence. The steakhouse walls and ceiling actually move, or ‘switch,’ three times every hour. Walls disappear as others rise;  the ceiling changes from golden satin filled with lights to breathtaking crystal chandeliers. We, along with our fellow open-mouthed diners, were impressed. Our dinner was fabulous and I doubt celebrities and glitterati could have received a more hospitable service. Particularly incredible was the Seafood Tower for Two. Once it was placed in the center of our table, all eyes in the restaurant looked our way. The tower features a three-foot tall mystical dragon crowned with dry ice;  a smoking wisp created by the ice was definitely a showstopper.  Our dinner the next day at Sinatra paled in comparison. Sinatra was a friend of Wynn’s; his songs fill the air. Sinatra’s family lent never-before-assembled mementos which are on display. Despite the fabulous décor, service and food were forgettable.

Society is the most casual restaurant, but only by comparison. A dark green, black and crisp white color scheme is accented with lively shades of pink. The service and food were very good but two can easily spend $100 on breakfast if you like mimosas!

 

Our final indulgence was the spa. I have been to spas, some of them great. The Encore Spa is a visual stunner. From the gorgeous check-in, where golds, creams and oranges swirl to the treatment room walkway, the spa is beyond compare. A lighted pathway is marked with six-foot vases softly spilling with water. A larger-than-life golden Buddha waits at the end, holding a single fuscia flower. I chose the Good Luck Ritual massage, based on the five elements of Feng Shui, followed by a pedicure in the salon. If you do nothing else, visit the spa. There are 37 treatment rooms and no detail is spared. We loved it. The staff treats everyone like royalty. Beautiful beyond words. 

The Encore was a delight. Opulent touches range from the sweeping multi tiered Venetian red glass chandeliers lighting the casino chambers to the glass peacocks guarding high-roller rooms. A recent Web search found rooms for as little as $129 a night.  For all the information, visit  and have an excellent trip!

Cynthia Calvert
Author: Cynthia CalvertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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A trained journalist with a masters degree from Lamar University, a masters from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, as well as extensive coursework toward a masters of science in psychology from the University of New Orleans, Calvert founded the Tribune Newspapers in 2007. Her experiences as an investigative, award winning reporter (She won Journalist of the Year from the Houston Press Club among many other awards for reporting and writing), professor and chair of the journalism department for Lone Star College-Kingwood and vice president of editorial for a large group of community weeklies provides her with a triple dose of bankable skills that cover every aspect of the journalism field. Solid reporting. Careful interviews. Respect and curiosity for people and places.