Jolene goes to Las Vegas 2021 - part 1

Not too long ago, I was invited to dinner with my friends Jenay and Vadym in their home. The topic of my upcoming Vegas trip to see the Jonas Brothers came up, and I have to admit, I expressed some trepidation about going since Vegas is notorious for so many things I am not interested in - gambling, excessive drinking, night clubs, etc. Well, Vadym was pretty quick to open my eyes to the bigger picture. He said something like, "Las Vegas is where the greatest minds in hospitality come together," and that sentiment has stuck with me ever since.


Now that I am back from my trip, I can say that Vadym was right!


Thursday, August 19

Our trip began on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Mariah and I were off to the airport to start our adventure. It was strange to be headed to the airport for the first time since 2019 - I was filled with both excitement and a little bit of anxiety. I made sure to double mask and make the best of our short flight. And yes, I made us matching shirts!


Unfortunately our flight time had changed - American Airlines didn't alert me that the flight was delayed. Instead, the time was just different and showed 'on time.'

Our later flight impacted our plans a bit - when we arrived in Vegas, we had significantly less time to change, freshen up and get ready for dinner. I also wasn't able to take pictures of our immaculate hotel room at this time! Please note these photos were taken on the day we left, so our room was definitely not as pristine as it was when we arrived.

On that note, I will take this opportunity to talk about our chosen hotel: The Vdara. I'm sure many of you read that sentence and now have a lot of questions. What the heck is the Vdara?

The Vdara has a fun little mantra, "Do Vegas differently," and I can't think of any better philosophy for this hotel. Located right next to the Aria, the Vdara is a studio apartment building-turned-hotel. Our room was the regular studio suite, but it had gorgeous views, a lot of space, and a full kitchen. There is no casino, no smoking and there aren't any restaurants in the hotel, but because of those reasons it is quiet, clean and feels luxurious. Check out the view from our 41st floor room below!

We were like a small tornado that hit our hotel room - we quickly changed our clothes, put on our faces and before we knew it we were in our Uber on the way to Caesar's Palace.

Our first activity in Vegas was one that I was extremely excited about: dinner at the Bacchanal Buffet. Vegas is full of amazing food and plenty of amazing buffets, but after its recent multi-million dollar renovation and rave reviews, we just had to try it!

As we made our way through Caesar's Palace and got closer to the buffet, we could already see the long lines that had formed. Thankfully our two friends had checked in with the hostess prior to our arrival, shortening our wait time.


Pro tip: Try to make a reservation. When we went, no walk-ins were being accepted.


Bacchanal Buffet is clean, modern, and doesn't feel like your typical buffet. As we were taken to our table, we started to realize the sheer size of this buffet. The food stations were quite spread out which helped eliminate congestion and open up the space.

I won't go into full detail about what I ate, but I will mention how much I loved the themes of each food station. There were so many options and themes, ranging from an Asian section with poke bowls, sushi and other favorites, to a Latin section with horchata, fresh elote and plenty of guac, to a very impressive seafood area.

I was also impressed by the small plates offered. In lieu of always serving yourself from a communal dish, there were many small plates offered. There were so many interesting options that you wouldn't normally find at a buffet, like pea toast with watermelon radishes (pictured above) or roasted oysters with chipotle bourbon butter (also pictured above).

And of course, how could I not mention dessert!? Banana pudding, cheesecake, tiramisu, chocolate mousse... It was all delicious! Overall, Bacchanal Buffet did not disappoint. There are options for everyone, from the picky eater to a more adventurous foodie. Yes, this buffet is pricey, but I thought it was worth it.


Since we were already in Caesar's Palace, we decided to head over to the Vanderpump Cocktail Garden for some drinks. Say what you will about the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but I have been a long time fan of Lisa Vanderpump and was incredibly excited to enjoy my second Vanderpump establishment.

Amidst the chiming of slot machines and general buzz of Caesar's Palace traffic, the Vanderpump Cocktail Garden is a fairytale oasis. Crawling vines and twinkling lights beneath the glowing Vanderpump neon sign beckon sojourning casino-goers to come in for a nightcap.

Pro tip: If you are visiting the cocktail garden, go around 8PM for a shorter line.


I was beyond excited to be with my east coast friends I don't see often, letting loose in a beautiful place. However, this is where I must be honest. I never claim to post reviews on this blog, because I am a firm believer in subjective experience differing from person to person. In this particular case, I'd like to share my personal experience in the hope that maybe someone will be helped during their visit.


I ordered the English Garden (Hendrick’s Gin, Elderflower, Basil, Cucumber, Lemon & Lime, Black Pepper, Lavender & Celery Bitters, Aquafaba). I tend to gravitate toward craft cocktails with interesting ingredients and flavors, like this one. Unfortunately, the drink I got was less than satisfactory.

The cocktail itself was quite pretty, in typical Vanderpump fashion. As you can see from the photo above, my friend Hannah across the table ordered the same thing. If you are very observant, you will notice the darkness at the bottom of our drinks. What is that? It's pepper.


While pepper may have been listed as an ingredient in the cocktail, I did not expect my first sip of the cocktail to taste entirely like a pepper cocktail. I was so disappointed that the garden part of my cocktail was nowhere to be found.


Our server came back to check on us and I had to deliver the bad news that we were not in fact enjoying our drinks. I asked if the drinks normally have that much pepper, and to my surprise, she said yes! She then informed me I was “supposed to sip” the drink. Not sure what I was doing wrong, as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to sip a cocktail, but eventually those drinks were sent back and we ordered something else off the menu.

The Please Her, Caesar! (Vanderpump Vodka, Rosé Champagne, Blackberry, Elderflower, Lemon, Aquafaba) was perfectly pink and delicious. The rest of the night ensued with endless laughs and even more pent up excitement about the concert the next day.

Finally, we walked around a little, took some photos, explored the Conservatory at the Bellagio, then did a little exploring at Park MGM, where we would be headed the following night for our first of two concerts. I'd read about the Juniper Lounge, which promised Las Vegas' largest collection of gin, craft cocktails and amazing ambience.

Park MGM in general seems to cater to a younger, more trendy crowd. The resort is new and fresh with dining options like Eataly and several speakeasy-type lounges. The overall energy was quite different from some of the more dated Vegas properties, and that change was welcome.


We found the Juniper Lounge but unfortunately had the worst service experience we had our entire trip. The space is considerably smaller than what the photos show, and even 75% empty, we could not get service. We stood around for a few minutes wondering what to do. Were the tables reserved? Was it self-seating? I finally asked the bartender and he told us we would be seated. By whom, I had no idea.


Mariah eventually went up to a woman we saw wiping tables, and she informed us that they were just finishing up last call and we could essentially go somewhere else in the resort. It was such an odd experience, not because of our bad timing, but because we felt that we were not taken care of. Even their tone in speaking to us was unwelcoming.

Thankfully we took that woman's advice and went elsewhere in the resort. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the casino is the Nomad Bar, a slice of luxury away from the gambling masses. We were greeted by vintage photos, deep red roses and a very friendly hostess who informed us that even though the kitchen was closed, we were more than welcome to come in for a drink.


The hostess and bartenders were all very warm and welcoming, and of course our drinks were fantastic. The dimmed lights and sultry red velvet gave Nomad Bar quite the ambiance, and it was a welcome quiet change from our high-energy evening. Once we were done, we made our way back to the Vdara for a good night’s sleep.


Friday

Friday was our first full day in Vegas, and we began our day bright and early. Although we had brunch reservations at 10, we made a quick stop at the Cosmopolitan for a sweet snack before our quest for photos with the Las Vegas sign.

We walked to the Cosmopolitan and made our way to District: Donuts. Sliders. Brew. The Bacchanal Buffet had already thrown my diet out, so I figured I would just remain off the wagon and have a donut!

I was hoping for a more exotic selection like the flavors I had read about online, but I was still satisfied with my pineapple upside down donut and honey lavender oat milk latte. The yeast donut was light, fluffy, and not too sweet. I would have liked more pineapple flavor, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. My latte was a little on the sweet side, but I loved the strong lavender flavor. There was no formal seating area, but we found a table nearby and indulged in our early morning treats. Once we were done, we called an Uber to take us to the Las Vegas sign.

One fun tidbit I’d read about in a travel blog was the old cigarette machines in the Cosmopolitan. Instead of selling cigarettes, the machines have been updated to sell tiny pieces of art. As we were walking through the hotel for our Uber pickup, we stumbled upon a machine! I was so excited to purchase an original work of art.

Prop tip: visit the Las Vegas sign in the morning, before the line is long and before it gets too hot.

When we arrived at the Las Vegas sign, the line wasn't too long and the heat was still bearable. We joined the line, waited our turn, and and the shutter button never stopped. After collecting touristy photos to our heart’s content, we called an Uber and headed to the Bellagio for brunch.

pro tip: If you don't want to wait in line, there are still great photo angles off to the sides.

Bright neon lights may be the way we think of Vegas, but bathed in warm sunlight, the strip is a totally different animal. There is so much detail in each resort, transporting guests to faraway and even fantastical places. I didn't need the allure of nighttime Vegas to appreciate it.

Lago is known for its gorgeous views of the Bellagio Fountains, and reservations are coveted. Since it is located at The Bellagio, guests can expect a higher end dining experience.

We were seated fairly quickly inside but unfortunately the shades were drawn so our view wasn't as spectacular as I'd hoped. There was an additional outdoor section which I'm sure had great views, but the sun was starting to blaze, and the idea of sitting under those rays was simply not appealing.

The menu was small, and I noticed some items I had previously seen were missing. I was not very impressed by the options, but ended up with a delicious drink (the Rosso Bellini) and a light meal (Smoked salmon crostini). I was not very hungry since I'd eaten a donut that morning, but it all worked out for the best.

Our next stop was supposed to be at the High Roller (we had pre-purchased tickets). However, it seemed that either I misread the tickets or they changed the times on us so we were not able to use our tickets. This was very disappointing, but at the same time, we actually did not care for the area so we moved on to the Venetian instead.

The Venetian is a beautiful, Italian-themed Las Vegas resort, complete with iconic eateries, great shopping and gondola rides.


We escaped the heat and went inside to the Grand Canal Shoppes. We did a little bit of shopping before making a decision on a whim to go on a gondola ride. Tickets can be purchased at the ticketing office near the gondola entrance – you don’t need a reservation ahead of time.

Our gondolier was so much fun – he was very friendly, gave us some history about the gondolas in the US, and even sang for us!

After our ride, we made one last stop at Carlo’s Bake Shop before heading back to our hotel to freshen up for the evening.

I used to love watching Cake Boss and always dreamed of trying one of Buddy’s famous cannoli. Well, my time finally came in Vegas! I was so excited to see Carlo’s Bake Shop in person, cases stocked with gorgeous Italian pastries.

I gleefully ordered a plain cannoli, a cookies and cream lobster tail, and a box of rainbow cookies. I wasn’t sure when I’d eat my treats, but I simply could not pass up the opportunity to purchase them.

Soon enough, we were back at the hotel for a short break before dinner (during which I took full advantage of the beautiful bathtub in our room) and our first concert of the weekend.

For dinner, we had reservations at International Smoke at the MGM Grand, created by Ayesha Curry and Chef Michael Mina. As far as ambiance goes, the MGM Grand itself isn’t typically considered a luxury resort like the Bellagio, so International Smoke followed suit. It wasn’t a typical high-end dining experience, but it was quirky, no frills and comfortable, including fun décor and cheeky neon signs.


Though the menu is not particularly large or diverse, there are still some impressive items to choose from. Through MyVegas app awards, I earned a free appetizer so we decided to try the cornbread with curry butter along with our drinks.

To my surprise, I really loved this appetizer! The cornbread had just a hint of sweetness and was not dry at all. The curry butter had an unfamiliar appearance, but the flavor made up for its unconventional appearance. While I don’t normally enjoy spicy foods, there was just enough heat in the curry to round out all of the other flavors.


As for my entrée, I chose to be a carnivore for the night and order a steak. International Smoke’s menu has a steak section where you select your cut, then choose from their preparation options. I got a New York strip steak prepared with a yuzu ponzu sauce, with trumpet mushrooms and scallions.

My plate was extremely simple (remember the whole no frills thing?) but if I am being honest, this was one of the best steaks, if not THE best, that I have ever eaten.


If you've been following jolenegoes for a little while, you may already know I am a huge Jonas Brothers fan, which was the main reason we came to Vegas at all. In addition to painting an outfit for opening night of tour, I also initiated a fun fan sign project!

I coordinated with a group of fans to pass out signs that I made, to be held up during a particular moment of the show, specifically after a song that we assumed would be the opener. However, we were unsure if our plan would work since we didn't officially know what the opening song was! We decided to take the risk anyway, organizing how we would hand the signs out, etc.


Many people dismiss 'fangirls,' even though sports fanatics are more socially acceptable, but organizing this project was so impressive. The fans I worked with had great ideas, organized spreadsheets, commitment and enthusiasm and we all worked together to make the project a success... even bringing 3000+ signs to Vegas!

Long story short, the Jonas Brothers did open with the song we'd hoped for, and since I was not in the pit that night, I got to watch all of the signs go up after they sang Remember This. It was absolutely incredible to see, and the boys' reactions validated everything we had worked for. I also can't deny the way I felt seeing my lettering all over a concert venue!


We visited The Nomad bar one last time with our friends before heading back to the Vdara and calling it a night.... er, morning. It was a fantastic first full day in Vegas, and we were ready for our second!


Want to read about the rest of my adventure? Head over to Part 2.

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