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A Casbah That Rocks

Sunning, shopping and dining under Aladdin's spell--a loud, over-the-top experience that's very, very Vegas


LAS VEGAS — On paper, the new Aladdin hotel must have seemed like a sure thing, a belly-dancing fantasy made flesh and concrete. After all, why settle for Paris, Venice or the Strip's other faux-Continental fare when you can abandon yourself to the perfumed pleasures of the Middle East? Better yet, a fairy-tale Middle East where every wish is as good as a command?

The Aladdin, which opened Aug. 18, fulfills its hedonistic mission in many ways. During a recent weekend romp, my wife and I splashed in the capacious rooftop pool, dined like sultans at two of its better restaurants and parted with hard-earned greenbacks faster than you can say "Shazzam!"

Primed for some sensual self-indulgence, Marla and I set out on our magic carpet ride (OK, a '97 Saturn) over the pre-Halloween weekend. Dodging thunderstorms and freeway jams, we arrived in Vegas feeling like Bedouins after a trip across the Sahara.

As burly and bulky as a circus strongman, the 2,600-room Aladdin has muscled its way onto a 34-acre lot next to the equally imposing Paris. While the entrance to Paris is plainly marked by its ersatz Arc de Triomphe, the Aladdin's subterranean garage is harder to spot than Al Gore's punch hole on a Palm Beach ballot. We missed the well-camouflaged driveway--or maybe forgot to say "Open, sesame!"--and had to circle the block to find our way to the valet pull-up, where a cheerful attendant spirited us into the hotel.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 19, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Weekend Escape--A story in some copies of today's Travel section misidentifies the location in Las Vegas where Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere" is playing. The show is at Treasure Island, not Mandalay Bay. The reference is in the Weekend Escape story on the Aladdin Resort & Casino.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 26, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Travel Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Weekend Escape--A story in some copies of the Nov. 19 Travel section ("A Casbah That Rocks") misidentified the location in Las Vegas where Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere" is playing. The show is at Treasure Island, not Mandalay Bay. The reference was in the Weekend Escape story on the Aladdin Resort & Casino.

Lobbies never have been Las Vegas' strong suit. They're utilitarian spaces intended to herd human masses toward the gaming tables. Alas, the Aladdin's lobby, with its one meager ottoman to accommodate guests waiting to check in, is no exception. The space also hints at the hotel's disorienting layout. Designed to evoke the colorful chaos of a Middle Eastern bazaar, the floor plan is somewhat, well, bizarre.

Certainly, the architects deserve some credit for originality. They have envisioned the casino as a series of stacked, interlocking levels, a veritable souk, with arched doorways and cutaway views that let you spy on the action below, like Ali Baba surveying the cave of the 40 thieves. But the skewed sight lines and poorly marked signage, with its curving arrows pointing hither and yon, make you feel as though you've stumbled into an M.C. Escher drawing with no exits.

From the lobby, you enter the casino by ascending a grandiose curving staircase. Blaring pop-rock from the "My Sharona" era alerts you that the Aladdin isn't taking its "Arabian Nights" theme too literally. Not that anyone expects to hear qawwali tunes while cranking a slot machine. But during our two-day stay we would find the piped-in top-40 drone maddeningly hard to escape. It follows you onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel, surrounds you at the roulette wheel, blasts you like ice water when you're making goo-goo eyes over a romantic dinner.

After finally locating the elevators, we headed up to our 16th-floor room ($239 plus tax per night for a Friday and Saturday; midweek rates drop as low as $69, but you may have to ask for the special over the phone; the hotel's Web site doesn't always show it).

Decked out in creamy marzipan greens and golds, the room was resort-quality comfortable, if not much in keeping with the Arabian theme. The king bed was luxurious, the two phones (one cordless) convenient, and the bathroom faucets, shaped like magic lamps, amusing. The TV offered no fewer than four channels in Arabic and one Chinese.

We had decided to start our weekend early, and on this Friday afternoon we wanted to dip into one of the two sixth-floor outdoor pools but were told they were closed because of lightning storms.

Unperturbed, we sampled the shops of Desert Passage, a $300-million complex adjacent to the $1.1-billion Aladdin. This glorified indoor mall, which unfolds under a trompe l'oeil ceiling of a dusky sky, offers a fairly predictable lineup of gourmet comestibles (Godiva chocolates) and boutique fashions (Hugo Boss et al.). We enjoyed browsing for a few minutes before lunch.

Bicycle-powered rickshaws whizzed weary shoppers past us as we ambled toward Bice Grill.

Suggesting a kind of Beverly Hills version of Rick's Cafe Americain in "Casablanca," Bice is meant to exude a sort of 1930s expatriate charm, with moody lighting and murals of glamorous couples enjoying stylish repasts. Marla's $11.75 chef salad came with a nice variety of lean meats, while my $8 chopped salad, complemented with clam chowder ($6.50), came with toast points spread with a tasty olive paste.

Our favorite part of the Desert Passage turned out to be the Flying Carpet Bar on the "rooftop" of Fat Anthony's restaurant, in the Alacazam food court. Seated at one of the Flying Carpet's small round tables, with fake minarets meeting your gaze and pedestrian chatter rising from the "street" below, you can pretend you're a character in a Graham Greene novel, awaiting a clandestine rendezvous in a Third World back alley.

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