Vegas as a last-minute New Year's Eve destination isn't new, but Vegas as a destination to catch a hockey game as the new year rings in – that's taking the postgame party to epic levels.
Until recently, ice in Las Vegas was used to keep your drink cold, often blended into a margarita you bought on the Strip for 10 bucks. With the arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights, and the team's new 17,500-seat arena – complete with a nightclub in the rafters – the term "on ice" has new meaning.
The Toronto Maple Leafs play the Knights in Vegas on Dec. 31, and Leafs Nation is sure to turn out in droves.
Adding hockey to the city's mix of guilty pleasures is a welcome draw for a holiday spot currently coping with lower than usual visitor numbers. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reported a 4.2-per-cent drop in international visitor volume for the month of October, 2017. But short getaways are still encouraged: Hotel and entertainment deals can be found on Vegas.com, and hotels are e-mailing past guests with discounts and enticements to return. And they will. Las Vegas is no longer just about the gambling: It's renowned for top-notch restaurants, wild entertainments and big-brand shopping – and now there's hockey, too.
Thinking of heading south to see the most popular game in the north? Book a few extra days around the match; you're going to need it.
Where to eat
You've come to Vegas to indulge – make your meal one of those no-regrets splurges. A great meal, or three, is one of the best reasons to visit. Here are a few new restaurants to discover.
Lago, at the Bellagio
You've wandered through a dark, smoky casino only to emerge into the bright seafoam colours of Lago. Dazzling natural light flows in through floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the hotel's famous fountains. Book a table on the patio and you may be brushed with the spray when those fountains start up. Lago opened in April and the Italian-focused, small-plates menu by head chef Julian Serrano is decadent without feeling as though you've overindulged, including Iberico ham and heritage tomatoes, potato gnocchi with lobster knuckles, small pizzas and delicately structured desserts nearly too pretty to eat. The restaurant is a getaway within your getaway;
Chica, at the Venetian
Open since May, the vibe here is laid-back South American: Just about everyone speaks Spanish and the decor is both earth-toned soothing and startlingly vibrant with art. Chica doesn't blast pop music, but Latin tunes play in the background, where music should be at a restaurant. You really can't beat the atmosphere – Coca-Cola is even served in bottles from Mexico. Venezuelan chef Lorena Garcia oversees a menu of traditional dishes gone upscale – you've never had guacamole until you've had it here. Diners can watch a flaming churrasco grill along the back wall or sit at the ice bar as a chef prepares ceviche to order. Grilled corn lollipops slathered in chile pequin pepper, lime, butter and cotija cheese is a fun starter, but Chica's standout dish is the Meyer-lemon rotisserie chicken with purple potato salad and chimichurri; venetian.com.
Zuma, at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
Inside the hip, high-energy Japanese restaurant a party awaits. A robata grill, a sushi counter and a window to the main kitchen line a large room that vibrates with vivacious wait staff and diners in the mood for fun, or at least ready to try to share dozens of succulent small plates. Created by chef Rainer Becker in London, this outpost opened in January to rave reviews. A multipage cocktail menu (where you'll find everything from Fish in a Bag to a Dutch gin at $126 an ounce) is matched by a mind-boggling array of dishes – let your waiter steer you through it. Better yet, let them decide. Must try: Wagyu skirt steak, or really anything off the robata grill;
Pearl Ocean, at the Lucky Dragon
Head up to Vegas' newest boutique hotel, Lucky Dragon, to find true Asian cuisine cooked by chefs who specialize in regional delicacies. When Pearl Ocean opened late last year, its dim sum thrilled local foodies, and social-media posts trilled with colourful images of its Five Guys Xiao Long Bao dish. Kind servers guide you through the large dinner menu, or you can get the best-of feast by ordering the Qing Dynasty tasting menu ($50) – seven dishes that show off the kitchen's skills, from Taiwanese beef noodle soup to Hong Kong XO scallops and Canton pork belly. But bring a group – this is a lot of food you don't want to leave uneaten;
Aureole, at Mandalay Bay
Big changes at the Strip's perennially favourite wine bar do not disappoint. Aureole's wine angels – now dolled up in sparkling silver – still fly up and down the 15-metre-high wine wall on Mission: Impossible-style wires, but the menu has completely changed. Meals are divided into three categories: surf, root and ranch. Each seafood, vegetarian or meat dish comes with two numbered wine pairings from up to 48 wines sold by the glass. Whatever you order, ensure that you leave room for the delightful tangy/sweet combination of "cheesecake three ways" – three small slices made from a Brie, bleu or aged-cheddar base; mandalaybay.com.
See and do
"New York is crazy with a purpose. Las Vegas is just reckless abandon." So said one of my drivers, a local who'd spent many years in both cities. Truer words were likely never spoken, I thought, as I looked out the window and pondered my options. Where else can you wander, slack-jawed by the neon and the excess, sucking on a 40-ounce, $19 daiquiri with Patron tequila "floater" from Fat Tuesday? Or wonder if the Erotic Heritage Museum is worth a look-see? Or maybe it's finally time to act on that dream of crushing a car with a tank (just $2,500 at Battlefield Vegas)?
Work on your swing at Las Vegas's Topgolf, which opened in May, and can only be described as a driving range on steroids: 107 open-air bays over four storeys. Golfers hit microchipped balls in a green that stretches out behind the MGM Grand casino. Choose what type of practice you need (distance? direction?) and the touchscreen tech guides players through the scoring – complete with snarky commentary if you miss the mark. Non-golfers might head up to one of two adult-only pools or five bars to watch one of dozens of enormous-screen TVs or play a giant bean-bag toss. The British-founded company recently announced it's opening in Canada – just don't expect it to be on this supersized level. Hourly rates start at $30; topgolf.com.
Take a walk
Just outside the Knights'
T-Mobile Arena is a large mosaic-stone plaza known as the Park. More than just a throughway to the rink, the Park can be a lovely, quiet spot to relax just off the Strip, or go on game days when it becomes a pulsing block party. Visitors are encouraged to stop and stay a while – real trees and tree structures offer shade to public café tables, water features and bubbling fountains. An arresting 12-metre-tall symbol of female strength and power anchors it all. Bliss Dance, by artist Marco Cochrane, was rescued from a Burning Man exhibit and stands guard over this new gathering place. A strip of casual restaurants here is worth exploring, notably Beerhaus, with dozens of local beers on tap and seriously good pub fare, which has already hosted a few Golden Knights parties. A pregame drink here might be just the ticket. Must try: the IPA cheddarwurst covered in smoked-bacon and onion jam, paired with Nevada beer.
When you're sick of the Strip, or just want to take your party old school, grab a ride up to the city's original downtown core in the
Fremont East district. Not long ago, you wouldn't dare, but that changed five years ago when entrepreneur and multimillionaire Tony Hsieh started buying up the neighbourhood as part of his Downtown Project renewal. This is where you'll find vegan restaurants, street murals and public art, hip shops housed in a shipping-container mall park and original Vegas bars and hotels with a new lease on life – the locals say the smaller casinos up here even give you better odds. And that's what makes this hood different – it's where younger Las Vegans head for a night out. Must see: Atomic Liquors, first built in 1945, and named for the distant view customers had of nuclear blasts from the Nevada Test Site.
Where to stay
Two mammoth, older casino hotels are close to the new arena: Monte Carlo and New York, New York. But weigh the convenience of their proximity with long check-in lines and the crazy-busy of the Strip. Monte Carlo is also in the midst of a hotelwide renovation (good news) but it is remaining open while it does so – upper-floor rooms will be finished first.
I chose to stay in the quieter, northern end of the Strip, where two new hotels have launched.
The W officially opened its 289 rooms, most designed by Philippe Starck with two suites by Lenny Kravitz, in March. The W tower stands behind its sleek, equally quirky sister property, the SLS hotel, but plays up the brand's cheeky whatever/whenever service with a "toptional" rooftop pool and hip design aesthetic – clever nods to gaming are everywhere. The W and the SLS sit at East Sahara Avenue and Paradise Road, right at the end of the monorail service, making it a quick and cheap trip to the busier end of the Strip and T-Mobile rink. The W/SLS hotels are perched between the old town and the ever-expanding sprawl of the Strip, making it a 10-minute drive or 20-minute cycle (a bike-share station is just a city block away) up Las Vegas Boulevard to reach the old downtown of East Fremont. Right behind the W/SLS sits an Instagram-worthy retro McDonald's, complete with '55 Chevy, original arches and pre-Ronald McDonald mascot; wlasvegas.com.
A few blocks west on Sahara Avenue, the newly built Lucky Dragon Casino and Hotel is a 203-room, small-for-Vegas hotel that's a quiet alternative to busier properties. Lucky Dragon was built to cater to Asian visitors (so you know the feng shui is good and the complimentary tea in the room is top-shelf). Formal tea ceremonies, with a menu offering dozens of blends, are offered in the sunny lobby overlooking a small pool. Red appears often in the decor – it's a symbol of good fortune, and even the windows are tinted pink. A fantastic golden glass dragon hangs over the small casino; luckydragonlv.com.
The writer was a guest of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority; it did not review or approve this story.