Ringing in Chinese New Year in the Entertainment Capital of the World

Ringing in Chinese New Year in the Entertainment Capital of the World

Las Vegas celebrations of the Chinese or Lunar New Year are like the bountiful buffets of its resorts and casinos— a sight to behold, mouth-watering and there’s definitely something for everyone in the family.

Hotel lobbies were transformed into extravagant displays celebrating the new year. Each hotel we visited was dressed to the nines with their festive decors, going all out in their offerings of events, activities and culinary experiences to commemorate the arrival of the Year of the Yang, honoring the Goat/Sheep/Ram. This year’s Chinese zodiac sign is believed to bring peace and harmony, and it is also known for bringing good fortune.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority invited us to spend a few days in Sin City to witness how the city is transformed to celebrate this annual festivity. Chris Meyer, Vice President of Global Business Sales officially welcomed us at the Chinese New Year in the Desert and Las Vegas Spring Festival at The LINQ Promenade.

The entire experience was exhilarating, breathtaking and eye-opening as my colleagues and I saw the various cultural celebrations. We made one eclectic group - a combination of Canadian and Asian-American journalists and a couple of PR executives. While waiting for our group one time, I overheard a couple of Europeans who – like me – were quite surprised with the amount of festivities there were in the city. Then one hotel staff interjected and said that the traditional new year’s eve events happen only in one night; the spring festival celebrating the lunar new year stretches for up to two weeks!

We were billeted at the beautiful Aria, which became our home for the next five days. The lobby displays in the hotel were so pleasing to the eyes— hanging from the lobby ceiling was a 229-foot dragon surrounded by 140 red lanterns and located behind ARIA Resort & Casino’s front desk were three 5-foot-tall Chinese Deities personifying happiness, wealth and longevity.

They say Las Vegas is only for gamblers, but from what we witnessed, that is definitely farthest from the truth. City officials and the private corporations have worked hard through the years to make sure that there are other things people can do aside from playing cards and slot machines. These other things? Dining, shopping and entertainment.

Sumptuous Dining

We tried a wide array of restaurants—from upscale casual to fine dining, from tapas to burgers—and we ended up as winners.

For our Chinese fix, our hosts brought us to Blossom at Aria, Hakkasan at MGM, Beijing Noodle No. 9 at Caesars Palace, China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan – all purveyors of great-tasting Chinese fare. Each of the restaurants offered signature and tasting menus for the holidays and we found our favorites.

To celebrate Chinese New Year, Hakkasan honored the Chinese “Wishing Tree” tradition by collecting wishes from around the world as well as offering an eight-course festive feast perfect for family and friends during this celebratory time. The wish collection and special  menu will  be available to guests from Sunday, February 8 to Sunday, March 1.

Known for its modern approach to traditional Cantonese cuisine, Hakkasan Las Vegas’ limited edition menu created by Michelin-starred International Executive Chef Ho Chee Boon will include a  selection  of  its  acclaimed  signature  dishes  as  well  as  a  contemporary  interpretation  on authentic Chinese New Year fare.

I’m still having dreams about their menu, particularly the spicy lamb lupin wrap, the beautifully-presented dim sum platter (It was dim sum like we never had before) and the grilled Chilean seabass in honey. And to finish, we enjoyed the Kumquat Wishing Tree, an enchanting dessert complete with chocolate, caramelized macadamia and cocoa rocks, made to sweeten the New Year.  To cleanse the palate, we had the Kumquatcha, a specialty cocktail representing good fortune, prosperity and happiness.

Over at Chef Jose Andres’ China Poblano, my personal favorites were the wok-roasted Manila clams with Chinese sausage, oat noodles and black bean sauce, Ocean’s Nest with fresh diver scallop, head-on prawn, pan fried egg noodles with whole lobster tail and their version of Siu mai with poached quail egg, crispy shallots and mushroom. The Palmitos, a salad made of Hawaiian hearts of palm, grapefruit, tamarind dressing was delightfully refreshing. To cap this meal, we had Lu Yang, a special cocktail they made for Chinese New Year, deftly mixing bourbon, orange liqueur, green tea, ginger star anise syrup, lemon and green tea air.

At Beijing Noodle No. 9, we were treated to a noodle demonstration by a chef along with traditional Northern Chinese dishes. The highlight of this meal was the whole suckling pig that the chef deftly chopped into pieces for us.

Our welcome dinner at Blossom was yet another culinary experience.

Blossom boasts a 100-dish line-up that spans every preference, from the comfortably classic to the cutting-edge.  Between its two meticulously fashioned menus, the restaurant offers the best of China’s culinary wisdom tailored for the western palate and a more contemporary Chinese collection brimming with trend-forward dishes fresh from Beijing and Hong Kong.

Bursting with exotic ingredients, intoxicating aromas and welcome surprises, Blossom invites to its tables fans of both classic and modern Chinese dishes that are elevated and refined.

My personal favorites for this feast were the goose liver with a touch of black pepper sauce, braised sliced fresh abalone with sea cucumber, Peking Duck and the crispy fried goby fish.  The sommelier suggested wine pairing with the major dishes and all his choices were spot on, from the champagne and the appetizers to the Riesling and the goose liver and finally the Napa Valley red wine that perfectly complemented the lobster dish.

We were also able to sample other restaurants during this trip: Gordon Ramsay’s BURGR at Planet Hollywood, Yardbird at The Venetian, libations and appetizers at Andrea’s and more food at La Cave at Wynn.

My personal favorites for each one? The Euro Burger (with truffle aioli, goat cheese, arugula and oven-roasted tomato) and the Truffle Parmesan Fries at BURGR; the frog’s legs dish and the fried chicken at Yardbird; the shishito peppers, sushi selection and oysters from Andrea’s and the tapas-style pizzas from La Cave.

Indeed, one needs to just look around if he has a particular craving. Chances are, it’s within ten minutes away.

Ultimate in Shopping

In between meals, we went shopping, or to be more precise window shopping.

Our hosts showed us the numerous shopping destinations that this city has to offer.

From The LINQ Promenade—an open-air retail, dining and entertainment district, anchored by the world’s tallest observation wheel, the High Roller—to The Grand Canal Shoppes and its 500,000 square feet of unique retail space within The Venetian Las Vegas and The Forum Shops at Caesars, which opened in 1992 with more than 250,000 square feet of retail space – one will never run out of places to shop.

Cobblestone walkways line The Grand Canal Shoppes, an indoor shopping area which features an authentic reproduction of Venice’s Grand Canal (complete with gondolas) and a replica of St. Mark’s Square, which serves as the centerpiece of the mall area.

Among the more than 80 shops, restaurants and attractions are Davidoff, BCBGMaxazria, Pandora, Brighton Collectibles and Caché, as well as restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, Buddy V’s and Carlo’s Bakery. (Like its original home in Hoboken, there was a long line outside Carlo’s, waiting to devour his cannolis and cupcakes).

H&M, the international fashion retailer known for offering fashion-forward apparel and quality basics, continued its expansion in the Las Vegas area by opening the largest H&M location in the world at The Forum Shops. Other popular stores include Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Guess, Christian Dior, Nike, Fendi and Hugo Boss, as well as restaurants such as Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, Joe’s Seafood Prime Steaks & Stone Crab, Border Grill and Sushi Roku. Retailers Alfred Dunhill, Hublot, Breitling, Panerai, Sandro and Sergio Rossi are also popular choices at The Forum Shops.

“We give so much attention to detail – the cobblestone flooring feels like you are walking the streets of Rome; our sky feature vaulted ceiling evolves to create an illusion of dawn to dusk,” said Maureen Crampton, director of Marketing and Business Development of The Forum Shops at Caesars. A total of 28 million customers visit them annually.

Enter any casino resort and you’ll discover shopping opportunities around every corner. With a thousand and one shops to choose from, the best bet is to check the list of stores and choose which stores you want to visit. Unless you want to spend an afternoon leisurely walking and exploring the different stores, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

That’s Entertainment

Las Vegas is called the “Entertainment Capital of the World” for good reason.

Like the shopping part of the equation, there’s a plethora of choices when it comes to entertainment. The city has been associated with legendary shows and entertainers, Cirque du Soleil spectaculars, world-renowned concert headliners, Broadway-caliber productions, award-winning magicians and unique-to-Las Vegas production shows.

Among the crop of headliners this year are Mariah Carey, the best-selling female artist of all time with over 200 million records sold, who is coming to Las Vegas with a headlining residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. For the first time ever, she will perform all 18 of her timeless and beloved No. 1 hits. Mariah Carey’s #1’s begins its residency on Wednesday, May 6, 2015.

Country fans will be excited to know that Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn will also be in Las Vegas this summer. The new show, Together in Vegas opens in June 2015 and will be a one-of-a kind country music residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Supremes star Diana Ross will bring a nine-date residency to The Venetian, beginning April 1 and ending April 18. Tickets for her show, The Essential Diana Ross: Some Memories Never Fade, are already on sale.

For the younger set, there’s Britney: Piece of Me, a show that traces the former Mickey Mouse Club member’s 15-plus years of chart-topping hits under her belt. With this show, Britney Spears is back and better than ever in her Planet Hollywood Resort &Casino show, which we were able to catch last Saturday.

Britney: Piece of Me is a very well-choreographed show, where Ms. Spears performs all her infectious dance songs, as well as tracks from her latest album. Her physical routine and choreography brings her to all the corners of the wide stage, including swinging up in the air dressed as an angel.

Thousands of screaming fans appreciate her show-stopping performances, singing her monster hits in a ring of fire or dancing in front of multiple mirrors.

Then there’s world-renowned singer, songwriter and performer Elton John who gives fans exactly what they’re looking for in his Las Vegas show, The Million Dollar Piano. Playing exclusively at The Colosseum inside Caesars Palace, the show’s centerpiece is the namesake piano.

Superstar siblings, Donny & Marie Osmond just can’t get enough of Las Vegas. They’ve been performing their stage spectacular, Donny & Marie, at the Flamingo Las Vegas since 2008. Olivia Newton-John has fans flocking to her Summer Nights residency at Flamingo Las Vegas.

Legendary rock band Journey led by Arnel Pineda makes its way to The Joint inside Hard Rock Hotel & Casino for a nine-show residency, Journey Las Vegas, from Wednesday, April 29 to Saturday, May 16.

When you’re not winning in the casino, lounging by the pool or savoring delicious cuisine, you’ll find that Las Vegas has a variety of must-see attractions and entertainment options to keep you occupied. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanoes and the world’s tallest observation wheel, Las Vegas’ attractions appeal to people around the world.

We rode The High Roller, the tallest observation wheel in the world at an impressive 550 feet tall and located at The LINQ Promenade. Towering above The LINQ Promenade’s $550 million outdoor dining, entertainment and retail district by Caesars Entertainment, the High Roller provides spectacular views of the Las Vegas Strip and Valley.

The High Roller is 100 feet (30 meters) taller than the London Eye, which opened in 2000 and 9 feet (2.7 meters) taller than the Singapore Flyer, which opened in 2008. Each cabin can hold 40 people and takes 30 minutes to complete one revolution, and the cabins can be booked privately for groups.

It’s amazing to learn that this place—which now earns millions of dollars a year— was just an alley way between the then Imperial Casino and Flamingo. We were told by Christina Karas, corporate PR manager of Caesars that the promenade is an open-air shopping, dining and entertainment district that redefined the iconic Las Vegas skyline.

“We wanted to bring some of the activities outdoors,” Ms. Karas remarked.

Now considered a relic from the recent past, the Polaroid has made a comeback on the Las Vegas Strip at the two-story, 8,500-square-foot Polaroid Fotobar and Museum also at The LINQ Promenade.

The Fotobar offers visitors a chance to turn digital photographs into Polaroid replicas and learn a little bit about the history of these revolutionary instant cameras. One can quickly pull photos from phone, social networks and a variety of other online locales and create custom photo prints that resemble Polaroids with modern-day framing, display and filter options.

Upstairs at the Polaroid Museum, you can see interactive and educational exhibits showcasing the history of Polaroid and its founder Edward Land, including one of five remaining working 20×24 cameras in existence.

The museum also has rare artifacts, art and advertising from the Polaroid Historical Collection at MIT, such as a Polaroid camera resembling an order of McDonald’s french fries. There’s a display of Polaroid cameras from throughout the years as well as compelling artwork collages created with Polaroid photos.

We also visited the famed Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens where there are displays of gorgeous plants, flowers, trees and rare, natural finds from all over the world. Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical Gardens ushered in the Year of the Ram with a vibrant display through March 15.

The display’s bold centerpiece features a family of five goats standing proud atop a lush mountain. At the entrance of the Conservatory, a 12-foot-tall lantern sits atop a Koi pond that holds 21,000 gallons of water, live Koi fish and bonsai trees perched atop pedestals. Additional illuminated lanterns sit at the corners of the garden where a perch of lucky I-Ching rest below.

The remaining two gardens showcase an Asian vignette. In one garden, beneath a moongate wall, three Chinese children each made with 5,000 fresh cut flowers dance around a pond surrounded by bamboo and ancient stone lanterns. In the opposite garden, three Chinese children play at the end of a brick bridge which adjoins a Chinese pavilion to a garden filled with lush bromeliads, red cyclamen and chrysanthemums.

The design of the Conservatory’s tranquil temple is guided by the ancient practice of Feng Shui – the art of using surroundings to attract harmony, balance and positive life energy. Each garden within the Chinese New Year display encompasses water, ensuring a positive flow of energy; and the three friends of winter—pine, bamboo and plum, symbolizing perseverance, integrity and modesty, respectively.

Then finally, on Saturday, we were whisked off on a stretch limo to the hangar of Sundance Helicopters, the most experienced helicopter tour company with a fleet of 27 aircraft and 16 tours to the Grand Canyon.

It was my second visit to the Grand Canyon but the experience was just as breath-taking if not more. That’s because our excursion had us landing on a plateau at the bottom of the canyon and after almost thirty minutes enjoying the views and the landscape, our pilot Michelle popped the champagne. It was a little too surreal, sipping bubbly while enjoying such magnificent view. And it was just eight in the morning.

It was an incredible sight to see Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and the Mojave Desert in one sweep. As a bonus, the return flight flew from the downtown end of the strip, giving us passengers a rare view of the city from up above.

This trip is perfect for people who visit Las Vegas and want to see the Grand Canyon as well without spending 8 to 10 hours on a car.

And to cap the trip off, we were whisked off to The Cosmopolitan’s Sahra Spa & Hammam for a couple of hours of utmost relaxation and tranquility. To soothe our nerves and feet after days of walking around and exploring The Strip, it was a welcome retreat and a perfectly soothing ending. If ever you’re in town and want some serious pampering, consider blocking a few hours of your day to make the most out of it. The facility offers so many options from hot eucalyptus steam rooms to a jacuzzi with a waterfall feature to cold mist room.

In the end, it’s all about choices. Whether you travel to Las Vegas for work or play, there’s always a surplus of options for you to choose from. Or you can do what we did, mix business with pleasure. In Las Vegas, that’s the only way to play.

(NYNJ February 27, 2015 LifeEASTyle Magazine pg.2)

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