LAS VEGAS - I did the unthinkable this fall - I flew to Vegas for back-to-back weekend benders.
No, I don't have a gambling problem. I didn't lose a single dime in a casino.
It was just how the stars in my life aligned. What was interesting about the whole ordeal was how the two visits couldn't have been more different. One was all about the spoils of a five-star golf trip - an adventure filled with flaming drinks, dazzling restaurants, limo rides, great courses and wild attractions on the Strip. The other was strictly for some father-son bonding over baseball. I was one of a dozen parents from California's Bay Area cheering on our teenage boys competing in a top travel baseball tournament.
Both trips had their highlights. I'm not one of those up-tight parents who encourages families to hide their children from the bright lights of the Strip. We let the boys walk home from dinner one night along the Strip without supervision. Bad idea? Maybe. I'm sure years from now my son will look back fondly at the experience. I even ditched my parenting responsibilities one afternoon after the team bowed out in the quarterfinals, playing golf on the Palm course at Angel Park. Meanwhile, the boys hung out at the pool at Mandalay Bay. See. There's something for everyone in Las Vegas.
Since we're not here to debate the finer points of the curve ball and the suicide squeeze, let's talk golf and see what a fun-filled Vegas golf vacation can look and feel like.
First, a quick recap of Angel Park, known as one of the region's best value plays. The facility, managed by O.B. Sports, caters to all ages and skills. In addition to two full-length 18s, there's an all-grass putting course and a nine-hole par-3 course called the 'Cloud' nine that is lit for night-time play. I want to come back with a few buddies for a par-3 shootout under the stars. On this day, another golf-crazy baseball dad and I tackled the Palm, the shorter and easier of the two regulation courses. We had a blast, tipping it out at 6,500 yards. It was forgiving enough to allow me (a 10-handicap) to hang with a long-hitting low handicap. Water hazards and desert gullies made several holes especially interesting in our nassau.
Back to the official golf trip, the opening dinner was held off the Strip at Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar. Gino, who founded the family-run business 30 years ago, served as our personal menu guide, ordering a tasty assortment of entrees and appetizers. Perhaps only in Vegas can world-class pasta be found in a run-of-the-mill strip mall across the parking lot from a CVS.
Nightcaps were served back at the Juniper Cocktail Lounge, a gin bar in the heart of the casino floor at the Park MGM. It was all about the presentation. One concoction came served in bird-shaped glasses. My 'No Judging' drink featured mint leaves lit on fire in a glass shaped like a hookah pipe. Needless to say, the bed was comfy that night at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.
Day 2: Magic in Mesquite
The 5:30 a.m. departure came early, because it's a good 90-minute ride to reach the CasaBlanca Resort in Mesquite, which is essentially a golf destination unto itself. You could easily spend 2-3 nights living it up in Vegas and then another 3-4 nights winding down in Mesquite, playing golf and still getting your casino fix at a slower pace. I'd only played the wild and dramatic Wolf Creek before, so it was good to see Mesquite had a "normal" course where you wouldn't need dramamine for the cart ride. CasaBlanca eased us into the round at daybreak before counter-punching with a tougher set of challenges about four holes in. Adding a round at a sister course, the Palm, and a stay just a mile down the road at the CasaBlanca Hotel, which is home to a spa and multiple restaurants, would have made for a nice weekend stay. But we had places to go and holes to dig back near the Strip.
I learned a whole new appreciation for golf course shapers and architects at Dig This Las Vegas, the most popular attraction in all of Las Vegas, according to TripAdvisor. Who knew working construction could be so much fun? Dig This is essentially a giant sandbox for adults, who can choose what type of heavy machinery they want to operate. I went animal in an excavator. I was apprehensive at first about the whole experience, but, following instructions given over headphones by my guide, I learned quickly how to drive and dig. What a hoot. I'm ready for bigger - and badder - machines next time. A second career? I'll leave that to the pros.
Working construction does amp up an appetite, so we wandered through the Grand Canal Shoppes of The Venetian Las Vegas to Buddy V’s Ristorante, another Italian joint named after TLC's “Cake Boss” star, Buddy Valastro. His family-style plates could feed an entire golf tournament for a week. The vodka tomato-cream sauce on the chicken rigatoni was too legit to quit shoveling in my face.
Too bad we were stuffed by the time we hit Topgolf Las Vegas, a haven of more food and drink. It's amazing how popular Topgolf has become with the younger crowds. I was just as likely to walk by a hitting bay with ladies in high heels swinging clubs as I was a real foursome of golfers. With more than just golf - cornhole, foosball and even a pool - it's a cool hangout after dark. Even the free shuttle back from the MGM Grand was an experience. The driver acted like he was auditioning as a comedian for his own casino show, telling cheesy jokes so bad you couldn't help but laugh.
Day 3: A Superhero on The Strip
Nobody's ever called me a superhero on a golf course, especially one as challenging as Bear's Best. This collection of replica holes from famous courses by Jack Nicklaus is scenic and interesting, but there's lots of danger lurking. It can be a bit weird playing black-sand bunkers one minute (a shout-out to Old Works in Montana) and navigating a minefield of pines a few holes later (a nod to Castle Pines in Colorado), but that's the novelty of it. The first and last holes have to be the hardest bookends in Vegas golf. They're both terrifying with water lurking on both the drive and the approach. In between No. 1 and No. 18 is a joy ride of a round among some really swanky modern homes.
After an inspiring lunch at Public School 702 in downtown Summerlin, the Vegas outpost that hosts the PGA Tour's Shriners Hospital for Children Open at TPC Summerlin, it was time to don a superman cape on FLY LINQ, a new zipline above the LINQ Promenade, the open-air entertainment, retail and dining district situated at the heart of the Strip. With 10 side-by-side lines, you can race your friends while being launched from the 114-foot-tall tower, either sitting down in a harness chair or strapped in "superhero" style with your legs out and your head facing the crowds cheering from below. I went superman, of course. The landing near the base of the High Roller observation wheel provides a jolt after about 30-40 seconds of action.
Later, the reward for driving to the M Resort Spa Casino in Henderson was two-fold - more futuristic golf shenanigans at the TopGolf Swing Suite and a unique dinner at '16 - A Handcrafted Experience', a chic restaurant on the 16th floor. The Swing Suite wasn't at all what I expected. It was two hitting bays with simulators adjacent to the casino floor very similar to the Toptracer Range experience I had recently on Vancouver Island, where you can play full rounds or compete in closest to the pin competitions, all while slurping signature cocktails and gorging on finger food to share. The group next to us - slightly golfed out by now - chose to play other sports games, shooting hockey pucks at a virtual goalie and pitching baseballs to fake batters.
What caught everybody's fancy at the restaurant was the "Wine ATM", where we could sample wines dispensed from a wall of bottles. Simply insert the purchased ticket, put a glass under the dispenser and catch the pour. It was a fun, interactive experience.
Day 4: A Comeback Story
A morning return to Henderson brought my first taste of the Lake Las Vegas life. The great recession caught up with this overambitious development of luxury homes and two four-diamond resort hotels, shuttering both the Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf courses at the Reflection Bay Golf Club in 2009. The Nicklaus course - a former host of the Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge - roared back to life in 2014 as the economy improved. Nicklaus redid the greens and made some tweaks before the grand reopening to make the design more playable. Thanks to that assist, I shot my low round of the week. With five lakeside holes and lots of elevation change, Reflection Bay now ranks among my top five favorite courses in Las Vegas. It's well worth the drive.
The news that the Wynn is bringing back its golf course by 2020 only proves how valuable golf is to the Vegas economy.
Unfortunately, I had to leave early to get back to the reality of family life, so I missed more action at my favorite hotel on the Strip, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, for dinner at Momofuku, followed by a late-night showing of OPIUM. I'm not sure when I'll be back, but I'm comforted by the fact that any time I need a fix, Vegas is just a simple hour-long flight away.