The Rio is on the money, even if it is off the Strip

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Travel Weekly senior editor Amy Baratta and her husband recently ventured off the Strip to stay at the Rio Suite Hotel & Casino. Her report follows:

LAS VEGAS -- I must admit I had my doubts about staying at a property not located on the famed Strip.

Masquerade Village at the Rio Suite is a combination gaming, retail and restaurant area. Would I feel isolated -- yearning for all those other casinos, the flashing neon signs, the pedestrian traffic that seem to define Las Vegas Boulevard? After two nights at the Rio Suite Hotel & Casino, my answer was, simply, no.

Yes, there are newer properties -- the Rio opened in 1990 -- and yes, there are bigger properties -- the Rio offers 2,563 rooms -- but the Rio features a wealth of restaurants and night spots that rival anything in Las Vegas plus an all-suites layout.

In addition, for guests who simply cannot stay away from the Strip and do not have a car, the hotel, which was purchased earlier this year by Harrah's, provides regular shuttle service to its terminal, located at Harmon Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, including a stop at Harrah's Las Vegas.

My first night at the property was very uneventful. A late-night flight plus a wait at the airport's car rental counter combined to put my husband and me at the hotel's check-in counter around 2 a.m.

By then, all I wanted was a bed -- any bed. What I got was suite 10026, a nice-sized room -- every suite is more than 600 square feet -- with a view looking toward the Strip.

The suite also offered a coffeemaker, an in-room refrigerator, an iron and ironing board and a safe as well as a separate dressing area, an L-shaped couch perfect for lounging around and a table with two chairs.

Perhaps the feature I liked best, though, was the vanity area, which was located separately from the bathroom. This area had the usual amenities -- a sink, a lighted makeup mirror and a hair dryer -- plus a chair where I could sit to blow dry my hair and apply makeup.

The bathroom, which contained another sink, the toilet and a shower, also featured a unique design element. Located head-high in the combination bathtub-shower was a window etched with clusters of grapes, leaves and vines that looked into the bedroom. When we looked at it from the bedroom, the window took on the appearance of an art deco mirror.

An identical window is located in every suite at the property -- a signature feature for the rooms, according to a Rio spokeswoman -- and was the brainchild of Tony Marnell, founder of the hotel and owner of Marnell Corrao Associates, the contractor that built the property.

The rest of the Rio is also fascinating, starting with the 120,000-square-foot casino, whose Brazilian carnival theme makes the place festive no matter the time of day.

Based on our arrival time, we knew the casino was a happening place at 2 a.m. on a Saturday, with more people coming in the doors than going out.

Besides the requisite slot machines and table games -- more than 2,500 slots and more than 100 table games, for those keeping count -- the casino is the place to be when the "Show in the Sky" begins.

For visitors who would rather spend their money shopping, the Masquerade Village area offers an assortment of stores ranging from Cole Haan Shoes, Alegre and Kid Vegas to the Bernard K. Passman Gallery, Houdini's Magic Shop and Money Magnetz.

A must-see is the Wine Cellar Tasting Room, where visitors can browse among and purchase from the property's 125,000-bottle wine collection, which is valued at $6 million.

Even visitors who are not avowed oenophiles may be interested in seeing some of the cellar's more historic occupants, including a madeira from Thomas Jefferson's estate that will be opened at midnight on New Year's Eve. And, true to its name, the tasting room offers scheduled tasting sessions.

Visitors even may see Barrie Larvin, the Rio's master sommelier and a walking wine dictionary, wandering among the racks and cases.

The property's assortment of shops is matched by its range of restaurants.

The Carnival World Buffet, one of the Rio's signature dining experiences, is an all-you-can-eat establishment that takes diners on a journey around the world.

For a more upscale experience, I can recommend Napa, whose menu offers country French gourmet fare and a mind-boggling 600 selections of wine. Although dinner for two can be pricey, especially if wine is purchased, the food is fabulous.

Other formal dining options include Antonio's Italian Ristorante, Buzio's Seafood Restaurant, Fiore Rotisserie & Grille and Fortunes, which serves Chinese food.

Besides the Carnival World Buffet, other casual dining spots include Village Seafood Buffet, All-American Bar & Grille, Bamboleo, Mama Marie's Cucina, Mask, Toscani's Deli & Market, Sao Paulo Cafe, Star Deli and Bakery and VooDoo Cafe & Lounge.

Even if clients don't eat at this last venue, they should make the elevator ride up to the 51st floor, where the restaurant is located, and check out one of the best views in the city, day or night.

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