They deal in the faux and fantastical on the frenetic Las Vegas Strip, where reality exists merely in air quotes, where you can stumble and sway from the “Empire State Building” to the “Eiffel Tower” and over to the “Egyptian Pyramids” while your bank account dwindles and your blood-alcohol level rises, where you will desperately need a vacation after surviving this vacation.
Just such a respite lies 20 miles east, in an altogether different, more chill faux environment, a world away from the Strip’s bustle and hustle.
It’s called Lake Las Vegas, not to be confused with nearby Lake Mead of Hoover Dam fame. This is “Lake” Las Vegas, as in a man-made 320-acre body of water ringed by a 3,600-acre swath of luxury hotels, condos, retail shopping, restaurants, golf course and marina carved into the red-brown foothills. A decade old, it was built to resemble a tranquil, sprawling Old World Italian villa, from its earth-toned Mediterranean architecture to its lovely knockoff of Florence’s famed Ponte Vecchio Bridge that spans the water.
Here, you will find a paradisiacal hush, a meticulously well-manicured site to regain your equanimity. Here, you can dig your toes into a gleaming white sand “beach” wrapping around a sparkling “lagoon” fed by a roaring “waterfall.” Here, you can rent a stand-up paddle – or, if that’s too taxing, a sit-down pedal boat – and let the gentle current lower your pulse and increase your serotonin secretion.
And, here, you also will find an absence of people. An alarming absence, a “Twilight Zone”-esque absence, if you happen to arrive on a weekday or when the corporate retreats that are the lifeblood of the place have decamped.
Getting away from it all is one thing, but roaming the cavernous hallways of the 349-room Hilton and hardly seeing a soul, walking through the nearly boarded-up MonteLago shopping area, meant to evoke a Tuscan village but looking more like Pompeii after the eruption, can feel a little eerie. No one tees off at the development’s closed Reflection Bay Golf Course, no bets are placed at the boarded-up Casino MonteLago, the shelves of the shuttered Casamar Village Market are bare.
Wander down to the Hilton’s Olympic-sized pool, where the cabanas all bear “reserved” cards but nary a party is raging, and you startle a couple in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.
“Gabe, someone else does exist!” exclaims Alice Froelich to husband Gabe, whose “Asbury Jukes” T-shirt betrays him as a native New Yorker.
You look around. She means you.
“I literally was sitting at the pool for three hours and saw one lady with kids by the lagoon and one other man at the pool,” Alice adds. “It’s like we’ve been sucked up in another world.”
Gabe, who’s in the food and beverage supply business, comes to Las Vegas four times a year and always stays off the Strip and its attendant craziness. He said he likes the tranquility of Lake Las Vegas, but admits being taken aback by the notable absence of tourists.
“Hell,” he says, “somebody’s floating a lot of money hoping something’s going to happen here, know what I mean?” he says. “Honestly, it’s a great facility. I’d like to see it succeed. But, look around. I don’t know.”
Eleven years after its splashy opening, and eight years after tenor Andrea Bocelli performed a sold-out taped televised concert for PBS on the marina’s floating stage, Lake Las Vegas is struggling to stay afloat.
The casino, owned by the Hilton, was shut down a year ago; a golf course has gone dark for almost four years, and both the development’s anchor hotels (now the Hilton and Westin) have gone through several corporate incarnations. One started out as a Ritz-Carlton, then became the Ravella and now is part of the massive Hilton hotel chain. The Westin, a 493-room resort at the eastern end of Lake Las Vegas, started life as a Hyatt, then became a Lowes. Even more than the Hilton, it’s counting on a strong corporate-retreat showing, with 50,000 square feet of meeting space.
The master-planned community itself, managed by the Atalon Group, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2008, dug its way out by early 2011 and has been battling ever since for its share of the tourist dollar.
Hopes are high that the casino and golf course will re-open now that home prices in the development have rebounded and, according to a Las Vegas Sun story, an investment firm owned by Wall Street billionaire John Paulson has purchased 1,100 acres of land to be sold to developers.
Such precarious economic concerns, of course, should not dissuade travelers from making Lake Las Vegas their home base while visiting the Las Vegas area.
A spacious room at the Hilton can be had for $149 a night, not counting a $19.37 occupancy tax and $22 resort fee. Parking is free, dinner reservations at any of the four white-table-cloth restaurants not necessary, and the hotels even offer shuttle buses to the Strip should you get the itch to gamble.
“The Strip’s a close-enough commute,” Gabe Froelich says. “You don’t have to put up with the crap here. It’s annoying having to go through a casino to get to your room.”
“And all that smoke,” Alice adds, “cigarettes everywhere.”
Indeed, at Lake Las Vegas, you can exhale without fear of ingesting known carcinogenics. Out at the lagoon, traveler Martin Loyche, of Los Angeles, taps away on his laptop like a man stuck on a deserted island. You approach tentatively, apologetic for breaking his reverie. Turns out, he welcomes the company.
“You know the feeling of you being in a tuxedo all dressed up and you going to this big gala dinner, and you’re the first one there, before anyone arrives, and you feel something’s off?” Loyche asks. “It’s like that. It’s depressing. … I remember the first time I ever heard about (Lake Las Vegas), years ago, they had Bocelli concert. It was a big deal. I watched it on TV. I was like, ‘I want to go there one day.’ I’m a little disappointed. But it’s still better than the Strip.”
Others relish the quiet, though. The next day, you spot another rare set of faces by the pool. It’s Seattle tourists Tyler Manuel, who works for Coast Guard search and rescue, and Pauline Tetangco, who works in high tech.
“We were clued in that this would be quieter,” Manuel says, “a good way to extend our summer. Everything’s close, the restaurants and little shops, the lake. No crowds.”
Idyllic, for those of a certain mindset.
Soul-crushing, for retail merchants, restauranteurs and marina businesses.
A noon-time stroll down one of MonteLago Village’s main retail corridors, Via Brianza, is bracing. The bells in the tower atop the shuttered casino chime every hour and the sound reverberates off the empty store fronts and shakes the leaves of the lone olive tree and the jasmine vines hanging in tendrils off one facade.
Ten of the 13 suites between the “Celebration Plaza” fountain and the casino bear “For Lease” signs. During more than an hour of al fresco dining at Via Brianza’s anchor, an upscale Mexican restaurant named Sonrisa Grill, the only other party to make an appearance was a young couple bellying up to the bar to watch the Giants playoff game on the flat-screen TV.
One other open store on that stretch of the village is the Turquoise Door, an art and jewelry store. Don Saunders, co-owner with wife Karen, leaps to his feet and gently tries to get you to purchase some valuable turquoise accoutrements for your wife, and nods knowingly when you asks how business is going.
“It’s an event-driven village,” Saunders says. “They have wine walks and they have entertainment (on the floating stage) on Saturday nights, so it picks up a little. We had a 400-person conference just leave yesterday. It was active in the store.”
He concedes that times are tough, but has faith better days are coming.
“We have powerful spiritual energy in this store,” he says. “The Native Americans that we get our jewelry from put a lot of powerful spiritual energy into their jewelry. We believe – and you have to believe in this life – that that helps us stay open.”
Tony Rogis, at Cathay Las Vegas, a leather bags and accessories boutique a few alleys over, puts his faith in something more tangible.
“The golf course will re-open again shortly across the lake after four years, and that’s going to really help us,” he says. “I bet that the casino will open again within six months to a year after they get that golf course going again. It’ll fill up those rooms. Golf and spa packages and (corporate) retreats. That’s what works here.”
What – or rather, who – isn’t working much these days is Bali Kovary, who runs the kayak, stand-up paddle and pedal boat business in the marina. With no one on the water, Kovary has expanded his options. He now offers cross-fit classes that include a paddle session.
“We’re trying to draw people out of the local gyms,” he says. “We’re not counting on the tourists. Definitely, weekends are better. That’s what keeps us in business. But once it gets below 90 degrees out(side), to local people, that’s too cold.”
Not to tourists such as Manuel and Tetangco, the couple in their 30s from Seattle.
“The lake is great,” Tetangco says. “We wanted to take off work and extend the summer a little bit. We’re both not partial to the Strip. Maybe in our early 20s we were, but we’ve kind of outgrown it.”
The couple had a variety of options – no waiting – at their disposal: dinner at Luna Rosa Fine Italian Cuisine or Bernard’s Bistro (French), a yacht rental, a two-seat canoe rental, or a gondola ride followed by a gelato. Or they could stay at the Hilton and stroll the lovely and well-manicured Florentine Gardens, where the crushed-granite paths to the fire pit are raked daily, and maybe make a wish by throwing a coin off the faux Ponte Vecchio Bridge.
A lot more than mere pennies have been dropped into the Lake Las Vegas development. Gabe Froelich, the blunt New Yorker, worries that on his next business trip to Las Vegas, he might not have the serenity of Lake Las Vegas to soothe his Strip-jangled nerves.
“If only they could just find a way to get people out here to look at the place, see how beautiful it is, it might get them off the Strip,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind having it be a little more crowded.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
LAKE LAS VEGAS
Location: A 320-acre artificial lake and the 3,592-acre developed area in Henderson, Nev., 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas.
Lodging: Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa: 1610 Lake Las Vegas Parkway, Henderson, Nev. (www3.hilton.com); The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa: 101 MonteLago Blvd., Henderson (www.starwoodhotels.com); Aston MonteLago Village Resort, 30 Strada di Villaggio, Henderson, Nev. (www.montelagovillage.com)
Water sports at Lake Las Vegas Marina: Watercraft Rentals (kayak, canoe, stand-up paddle, pedal boat or yacht rentals (702-818-0808)