Oyster preview and photos of Vdara at City Center Las Vegas -- it's still early

City Center in Las Vegas
City Center in Las Vegas

City Center, the $11 billion mega-development off the Las Vegas Strip, has opened for business -- sort of.

If you don't know anything about this place, well, there's this city in the Nevada desert where people go to gamb-- ...

The short version is this: City Center was envisioned as a city within a city. Many of the world's great architects were commissioned to design its various pieces and were to use the latest in green building strategies to make this city an environmentally conscious one. A huge, 4,000-room casino-resort called Aria would stand at the center and be surrounded by two 400-room, nongaming boutique hotels (the Mandarin Oriental and the Harmon); a 1,500-unit, nongaming, all-suites, condo-hotel called Vdara; a huge retail and entertainment complex called Crystals; and a residential complex called Veer. All this was to be packed onto a 76-acre parcel of land shaped like a fat T, with the bottom of the T touching the west side of the Strip just south of the Bellagio.

Of course, the development and building process -- financed by MGM Grand and Dubai World in a contentious joint venture -- was epic. Suffice to say that the project has cost massively more than was originally anticipated, and that its financiers were not happy to see a crisis subsume the economy during construction. And yet, amazingly, all of it has more or less come to be.

Needless to say, the opening of city center has been highly anticipated. So I made a trip to get an early look. I stayed at the nongaming, condo-hotel Vdara partly because Aria isn't scheduled to open until next week. As a result, my impressions are -- admittedly -- preliminary and partial. Even so, I made a lot of intriguing discoveries. In Oyster fashion, I'll list the pros and the cons, and then offer a few closing thoughts. Stay tuned in the coming months for the full review.

Pros

  • The rooms are modern in style and have nicely designed small kitchenettes with modern appliances.
  • The contemporary décor and design is undoubtedly striking and, to my eyes at least, attractive.
  • This place is pleasantly quiet – it’s a nongaming hotel, after all.
  • You gotta love that new hotel smell!
  • The TVs offer tons of channels, many in HD.
  • At 70Mbps, the wired Internet here is the fastest I’ve ever seen in a hotel -- by far.
  • The hotel is legitimately green. It earned LEED Gold status, which isn’t easy. Guests will notice CFL light bulbs or LEDs; that the hotel doesn’t replace a lightly used soap bar at the sink during room cleaning; and that it doesn’t provide a bar of soap for the shower -- the one from the sink had to serve double duty

Cons

  • Until Aria opens, dining options are limited; there’s just one restaurant, called Silk Road, plus Bar Vdara in the lobby. (A rooftop pool and lounge area, called Sky, isn’t open yet.) Meanwhile, the Bellagio’s restaurants -- the closest to Vdara until Aria opens -- are at least a 15-minute walk away, and the walk to Aria is around the huge, industrial-feeling traffic circle that connects Aria and Vdara off of City Center’s secondary Harmon Street entrance.
  • The hotel feels empty; as far as I can tell, many of the rooms in the hotel aren’t yet ready.
  • There ain’t no action -- that’s the down side of this being a quiet, non-gaming hotel -- particularly in the not-yet-compete City Center.
  • Speaking of the Strip, this place isn’t even close. It’s hard to overstate how isolated you are at Vdara, and the opening of Aria will not change that in any major way. I believe Vdara is the City Center property that’s farthest from the Strip. And the walkway from Vdara to the Strip is not an attractive one. Even if you do brave it, you’re still isolated on this stretch of the Strip, and to get across the Strip requires walking hundreds of yards to the nearest overpass. The only hotel that is remotely near this massive complex is the Bellagio, and that’s to the equivalent of a 10-block walk in New York City. Access to anything outside City Center will, for most guests, require a cab.
  • Vdara isn’t as luxurious as the Trump International, another condo-hotel.
  • Some basic elements of the user experience are off. For example, the rooms don’t have a light switch near the bed to control the main lights; the very green lighting is not strong enough to illuminate the room properly at night; and the remote control for the television was impossibly bad
  • Relative to the Wynn, Bellagio, Caesars, and the Venetian, the approach by car to Vdara is uninspired and uninspiring -- it offers none of the playfulness or over-the-top touches that are now Las Vegas standards. Instead, it has all of the charm of a highway on-ramp in Los Angeles, which is what it resembles. I didn’t use City Center’s primary street entrance, so I need to reserve judgment on it.
  • Not uncommon for a hotel at this stage of opening, the service is still spotty: I waited a long time for my room to be cleaned; housekeeping knocked on my door, loudly , even though I had the do-not-disturb light on; and I was told by a waiter at the Wynn (admittedly not a completely reliable source) that friends of his working at City Center hotels have only received four days of training because of limited budgets.
  • Yuck! The avocado in my room service salad was rock hard. I’m not talking slightly under ripe – rock hard! McDonald’s would never have served it.

Conclusion City Center, which is bringing a huge number of new rooms to an already glutted Las Vegas hotel market, is as much a construction zone as it is an open hotel. It’s sparkling clean, but any new hotel should be clean. The shopping mall is well done, but not at the level of the over-the-top “mall” at Wynn/Encore or even the ones at the Palazzo/Venetian or at Ceasars. It still has many empty stores right next to the ultra-luxury retailers like Louis Vuitton and Tom Ford. In fact, the whole complex has an 85 percent complete feel to it. Until Aria is open, it’s too early to say if it can compete with the sheer vibrancy you get in other top Las Vegas hotels. I’ll be back in the spring once the other hotels have opened and they’ve had a chance to complete construction and work out the initial kinks. In the interim, your eyes should be wide open about what to expect: A venue that can’t yet compete with the best Las Vegas has to offer. But this game is a long one, so full judgment needs to be withheld until the spring. In the interim, caveat emptor.

Entrance at Vdara Las Vegas Resort Hotel and Spa
Entrance at Vdara Las Vegas Resort Hotel and Spa
Lobby at the Vdara Resort Hotel and Spa
Lobby at the Vdara Resort Hotel and Spa
Room at the Vdara Las Vegas Resort Hotel and Spa
Room at the Vdara Las Vegas Resort Hotel and Spa
Kitchenette at the Vdara Las Vegas Resort Hotel and Spa
Kitchenette at the Vdara Las Vegas Resort Hotel and Spa
View of City Center from the Las Vegas Strip
View of City Center from the Las Vegas Strip
Harmon Road to Vdara at City Center
Harmon Road to Vdara at City Center
Construction at City Center
Construction at City Center
Mall at City Center
Mall at City Center
Empty stores at City Center mall
Empty stores at City Center mall
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