Bellagio: No coasters, but plenty of class

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Las Vegas editor Amy Baratta sampled the newly opened Bellagio resort. Her report follows:

LAS VEGAS -- In a city where most casino properties employ special effects, amusement park rides and liberal use of neon lighting, the Bellagio stands out like a black strapless evening gown in a room full of sequins and beads.

There are no roller coasters or circus animals to be found at Mirage Resorts Inc.'s newest and -- at $1.8 billion -- most expensive property.

poolside Instead, visitors and guests can take in hundreds of millions of dollars worth of original art -- collected by Steve Wynn, Mirage Resorts' chairman and chief executive officer -- starting with a spectacular multicolored hand-blown glass sculpture called "Fiori di Como" created by Dale Chihuly and mounted on the lobby's 18-foot-high ceiling. The $10 million piece, whose name literally means "Flowers of Como," is lighted from behind, creating a chandelier effect.

From the lobby, usually crowded with visitors craning to glimpse this massive glass flower garden, would-be art enthusiasts need only take a few steps into the next room to buy a ticket to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.

In the property's conservatory, the gallery, which charges $10 per person, features a collection of 27 works ranging from bronze sculptures by Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti to paintings by Edgar Degas and Jackson Pollack. Because of the gallery's limited space, only a few visitors at a time are allowed in, creating a line that always seemed to snake through the conservatory. (When I visited the property, I found that the number of gallery-goers thinned out around 6 p.m.)

While waiting in line, visitors can take in another of Bellagio's attractions -- the conservatory gardens. Decorated through this month with a harvest motif to depict fall, the gardens will be changed in December to reflect the holiday season and will feature as a centerpiece a 32-foot-tall Christmas tree decorated by designer Martha Stewart. After the holidays, the gardens will be changed again for Chinese New Year with a dragon motif, followed by a spring arrangement that will feature cherry blossoms.

If, after the lobby and the art gallery, guests still haven't gotten enough art to satisfy their cultural cravings, they can check out the property's restaurants, many of which boast original artwork on their walls as well as creative dishes on their menus.

Picasso, for example, features the Mediterranean cooking of chef Julian Serrano as well as several Pablo Picasso paintings and a large collection of his ceramic pieces. At Aqua, a seafood restaurant that originated in San Francisco, diners can catch a commissioned painting by Robert Rauschenberg.

Three commissioned pieces by Carlo Maria Mariani, George Deem and Gregory are in Prime, a steakhouse-style restaurant that also features a five-paneled water-themed canvas screen by Joseph Raffael. Original artwork also can be found in two of Bellagio's Asian restaurants.

The paintings of Frank Owens and a commissioned amber glass sculpture by Martin Blank accent Shintaro, which dishes up teppanyaki, sushi and multicourse Pacific Rim tasting menus.

The dining room in Jasmine, a contemporary gourmet Chinese restaurant, showcases authentic as well as replicated Chinese art.

Rounding out the property's list of restaurants is Le Cirque, the only eating establishment at the property that requires a dress code of jackets for men; Osteria del Circo, which serves homestyle Tuscan food; Olives, a casual Mediterranean eatery; Noodles, a traditional Asian noodle kitchen that also serves Chinese dim sum; Sam's American, which features an open kitchen where diners can see the chefs preparing food; Cafe Bellagio, the property's 24-hour dining rooms; the Petrossian Bar, which offers afternoon tea as well as caviar, champagne and smoked salmon, and the Buffet at Bellagio, whose selections include Italian, Japanese and Chinese fare as well as seafood dishes.

Nearly all of the restaurants, with the exception of Aqua, Cafe Bellagio, Sam's American and Buffet at Bellagio, offer views of Bellagio's lake, which takes its design from Lake Como in northern Italy's lake district. More than 1,000 fountains are in the lake, the principal performers in a water ballet, of sorts. Free to spectators is the 15-minute water and light show. It spans more than 1,000 feet with water soaring up to 240 feet in the air from fountains choreographed to music. The show is performed every half hour starting at dusk (around 5:30 p.m.) until midnight.

The restaurants offering lake views are heavily booked during show times that coincide with lunch and dinner, so visitors who wish to dine while taking in the water ballet are advised to make reservations well in advance. Some lakefront restaurants and bars -- Picasso, Olives and the Fontana Bar come to mind -- offer patio seating, which is the first to be snapped up by those planning to take in the show.

However, visitors also might consider asking for an inside table next to a window, especially during the fall and winter months, when desert evenings turn chilly.

I happened to be dining at Olives one evening when the fountains began to do their thing. My table for two next to the window -- which I did not reserve ahead of time -- was the best seat in the house.

Guests willing to pay upwards of $100 a piece can take in the resort's other water show, "O," Cirque du Soleil's $70 million production performed in, on, above and below a 1.5 million-gallon water tank.

The show, whose name is a play on eau, the French word for water, features certain similarities to the company's show "Mystere," which can be seen for slightly less money at Treasure Island, another Mirage Resorts property.

However, the whole water-as-a-stage concept is unique to "O," adding another dimension to an already eye-popping performance.

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