Seeking out best bets and hidden treasures

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LAS VEGAS -- Everyone loves insider info, especially Las Vegas visitors. Making hit-or-miss decisions on busy weekends is a figurative crapshoot, so why not go for the sure thing?

Follow these tips and you may end up having a rich (pun intended) experience in Vegas.

• Luxurious linens and low room rates don't usually go together -- except at the Palms Hotel and Casino.

Standard guest rooms at this off-Strip boutique property feature Egyptian cotton linens, down comforters and down pillows. Upscale toiletries, including Neutrogena shampoo and lotion, grace the bathrooms.

Despite the conventional thinking about Vegas rooms, clients do spend time in these units, and for good reason: Five-star amenities at three-star prices (rates start at $79 midweek) make the Palms a Best Bet in the accommodations category.

Aladdin's Desert Passage Shops offer an exotic faux-outdoor experience. • Common wisdom may have dismissed the idea of blackjack for a buck in Las Vegas as a relic of a bygone era, but it's alive and well on the Strip at the Sahara's One Dollar Blackjack pit.

Multiple tables offer $1 minimum bets in this low-roller's paradise, which can be busy and smoky but never risky.

• And speaking of low rollers, some may remember their parents telling tales of penny slots in Vegas.

Well, due to hard economic times, nostalgia or just plain inertia, penny slots are still ringing at the Orleans.

Several lines of new-generation, electronic penny slot machines are located near the front entrance to the hotel on Tropicana Boulevard.

And, yes, drinks are free while playing, even for pennies.

• Long considered by insiders to be downtown's most intimate and romantic restaurant is Hugo's Cellar, located downstairs in the Four Queens Casino.

Voted "Best Gourmet Room" by Las Vegas Review-Journal readers on multiple occasions, this landmark features prime meats and fresh seafood served by professional, no-nonsense waiters in a subdued and darkened room.

Hugo's is a Rat Pack-era throwback that has thankfully survived the onslaught of loud, trendy eateries with a focus on tableside preparation, quality provisions and old-world atmosphere.

• While the waits can be longer and the prices steeper than at any other buffet in town, the Buffet at Bellagio is still tops in its class.

Featuring quality cold seafood, a gourmet salad bar, exotic meats and myriad delicious side dishes, this upscale spread is as close to gourmet dining as a buffet can get.

In fact, I consider it to be the city's only true gourmet buffet. Roast buffalo, venison, Kobe beef and wild boar are just some of the exotic meats offered on weekends, when the price notches up $7 to $31.95.

Don't miss the to-die-for, curacao-infused, mashed sweet potatoes.

• Serious blackjack players know where to go for the most liberal "21" rules in town: the Las Vegas Club on downtown's Fremont Street.

Only at designated tables, bettors can double down on two, three or four cards; split aces multiple times; and win automatically with six cards totaling 21 or less.

• As most Vegas visitors know, there's no lack of free entertainment around town. Volcanoes erupt, pirates battle, fountains dance and sound-and-light shows dazzle nightly.

Inclement weather, however, can quash even the fiercest eruptions and sink the meanest pirates.

But there is a weather-proof, always-available option: the free Masquerade Show in the Sky, appearing daily in the Rio's Masquerade Village. The parade of Carnival floats suspended from the ceiling is an amazing multimedia experience. Shows start at 3 p.m. daily in a comfortable and constant 72-degree environment.

• There's no shortage of cheap buffets in Vegas, most of which fall neatly into the "you get what you pay for" category.

A notable exception is the Ports o' Call Buffet at the Gold Coast. This recently revamped operation offers seven live-action stations serving good food in a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.

That combination along with the price -- only $6.95 -- easily makes the Ports o' Call my pick for the best lunch buffet for the buck in Las Vegas. Be sure to try the mini turkey reuben sandwiches.

• Caesars' Forum Shops are still a prime draw, but Aladdin's Desert Passage Shops (shown above), offer an exotic faux-outdoor experience.

Clients stroll through a re-creation of a north African bazaar, listening to the sounds of the souk while being entertained by street performers and fortune tellers.

More than 140 specialty stores and eight diverse restaurants also compete for their attention.

Getting caught in the hourly thunderstorm in Merchant's Harbor isn't even a big worry, because it's confined to about 100 square feet. Isn't that convenient?

• Now that roller coasters have become an architectural design feature at several hotels, those looking for the fastest, most stomach-churning, neck-whipping ride need merely hop on New York New York's Manhattan Express.

It's a quick but wild whip around the skyline, past the pool and briefly through the arcade before depositing slightly disoriented passengers right near Nathan's hot dog stand. It's an only-in-Las Vegas -- via New York -- experience.

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