The Strip at sunset
DESTINATION Las Vegas, Nevada
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 1,800 miles
OUR GUIDE James McManus, author
WHAT HE LOVES TO DO IN VEGAS Play competitive poker, bicycle through Red Rock Canyon
Las Vegas would go out of business if everyone who gambled there deployed the skill of Kenilworth’s James McManus, an acclaimed author whose best-selling books about poker include Cowboys Full and Positively Fifth Street. His story is legendary in card-playing circles: Assigned to write a piece for Harper’s Magazine about women competing in the World Series of Poker, he traveled to Las Vegas in 2000 with a $4,000 advance. Instead of using it for expenses, McManus bought into a tournament and played all the way to the main event, eventually placing fifth and winning $247,760.
McManus has returned to Las Vegas every year since 2000 to play in the World Series of Poker, usually staying from two to seven weeks a trip. He has made one major change since that initial fateful adventure: He no longer leaves the family at home. For at least part of his stay, his wife, Jennifer, and two daughters, ages 12 and 13, join him. “In 2000, I missed them terribly. It was awful,” McManus, 60, says. “Now when I go, I make sure the family is there for at least part of the time.”
Sin City has gyrated through a few makeovers since Steve Wynn opened his first luxury hotel on the strip in 1989—Family Vegas, Broadway-Annex Vegas, Luxury-Shopping Vegas, Star-Chef Vegas. But the double-dip recession has not gone easy on its tourism-dependent local economy, and hotels are dangling lower-than-usual rates to fill vacancies. In addition, now is the best time to visit weatherwise. The high season, from October through April, offers dry, warm days and comfortably cool nights. McManus warns against visiting during the World Series unless you’re in the tournament, which draws top players from across the globe during the dog days of summer. “August in the Mojave Desert isn’t just miserable,” he says. “It’s dangerous.”
Some of the McManuses’ most memorable times in Vegas have been a world away from the action. “Seventeen miles outside of the Strip is what I call Hiker/Biker Vegas, and it’s gorgeous,” McManus says. “It surprises me how many people don’t go there.”
Spectacular hiking awaits in Red Rock Canyon
He’s referring to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a rugged terrain of spectacular umber-hued cliffs and mountains that’s a haven for hikers and bicyclists of all skill levels. Some 38 million people visit Las Vegas every year; only 1 million go to Red Rock, where they find bighorn sheep, bobcats, and mountain lions, as well as 90 miles of trails. McManus recommends rising early, renting a bicycle, and spending the day pedaling through the ancient formations; Las Vegas Cyclery (8221 W. Charleston Blvd.; 702-596-2953) offers full- and half-day rentals ($45 to $74 per day). For those whose fitness level may peak at pulling the limbs of one-armed bandits, there’s a 13-mile scenic driving loop that circles the cliffs.
If Red Rock brings the McManus family together, Glitter Gulch sends them on their separate ways. James stays at Rio (3700 W. Flamingo Rd.; 866-746-7671), where all of the World Series of Poker games are played and the pool is more about hard-core socializing than swimming. His family, however, stays at Bellagio (3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-693-7111), an environment so tranquil it feels a universe removed from the Strip. Each of Bellagio’s five pools has its own cabana rentals, all in a landscape dominated by cypress trees. From this cozy base, Jennifer and the girls have made repeat visits to Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay (3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-632-7777); the 1.6- million-gallon enclosure is home to 15 species of sharks, a re-created shipwreck, and a floating parade of stingrays, turtles, and tropical fish. At the Mirage (3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-791-7111), they’re fans of Majestic and Mohan, the nearly two-year-old white tigers in residence.
Las Vegas can be the ultimate place to revel—just don’t let losing in the casinos ruin your good time, says McManus, who does not consider poker a form of gambling. “I don’t give Vegas casinos action,” he says flatly. “I’ll buy into a poker tournament and that’s it.” If you must indulge in what he calls games of luck—craps, roulette, blackjack, and slots—start by recognizing that the house will always win in the long run. In general, he says, the pass line at a craps table (the bet placed before the first roll of a round) offers the best odds in the pit, where the dealer-hosted table games are played. Blackjack, if you know the basic strategy, also offers slightly better odds. McManus’s parting shot: “Only suckers play roulette and slots.”
Roundtrip nonstop flights on Southwest from Midway start at around $500; from O’Hare on United or Continental, $378. Through January 8, don’t miss Bellagio’s Gallery of Fine Art, which is exhibiting landscapes by artists ranging from Claude Monet to Vik Muniz. If you’re a shopper, browse amid reproductions of classical Greco-Roman sculpture at the Forum Shops in Caesars Palace (3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 866-227-5938, caesarspalace.com), a vast indoor mall with luxury boutiques including Dior, Burberry, Versace, Tiffany, and Gucci. Theatre-goers can gorge themselves too: Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour is live at Mandalay Bay ($50 to $175; mandalaybay.com), and O, Cirque’s aquatic extravaganza, is still swinging at Bellagio ($98.50 to $180; cirquedusoleil.com).
WHERE TO STAY McManus likes Bellagio but also recommends Wynn (3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877-321-9966, wynnlasvegas.com), the 60-story property developed by hotelier Steve Wynn, for its floor-to-ceiling windows and sweeping views; rates start at $316 a night. Palace Station Hotel & Casino (2411 W. Sahara Ave.; 702-367-2411, palacestation.com) has online deals for rooms on weekends; $48 a night.
WHERE TO EAT Bellagio’s Picasso offers a $75 pretheatre menu that spotlights New Zealand snapper. For less expensive fare, McManus frequents Mon Ami Gabi inside Paris Las Vegas (3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-944-4224), a bistro where dinner entrées start at $12.95. He singles out the top-tier grazing at Aria (3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 866-359-7111, arialasvegas.com); its endless buffet of sushi, crab legs, and other luxe items costs $15.95 (breakfast), $19.95 (lunch), or $29.95 (dinner).
Photography: (Las Vegas) alina555/istockphoto; (Red Rock Canyon) rappensuncle/istockphoto