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Gay-friendly Las Vegas is on a winning streak

Sin City isn't teeming with gay businesses, but its anything-goes attitude and big, gay marketing push attract LGBT travelers in spades.
BY LOANN HALDEN, Special to The Miami Herald

luxor There's always been something a little bit queer about Las Vegas, dating to the drag queens who performed at the Kit Kat Club in the 1940s and a bedazzled Liberace becoming the city's highest-paid entertainer when he appeared at the Riviera Hotel in 1955.

But as Las Vegas tossed in the chips on its gamblers-only image in favor of sleek luxury hotels and award-winning chefs, gay travelers started paying more attention -- and the marketing blitz to woo them ignited. Resorts created gay-specific ad campaigns, Krave, the Strip's first gay nightclub, opened in fall 2004 and a gay pool party at Luxor launched this summer.

Yet, the gay scene still pulsates largely beneath Sin City's skin -- in the homoerotic tangos of Cirque du Soleil's acrobats or the stage spectacles of gay icons like Cher and Bette Midler -- rather than blazing in rainbow lights on the Strip. The city's lone all-gay guesthouse and most of its gay bars are tucked away from Las Vegas Boulevard.

Las Vegas is the rare resort town to make frequent appearances in top 10 lists of the most popular U.S. gay destinations without having a highly visible gayborhood. Rashad Robinson, who oversees the Advertising Media Program for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, says the city is savvy about showcasing its diverse attractions and activities to appeal to the diversity of the gay community.

In the past 18 months, Las Vegas has hosted major gay events ranging from the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association's annual convention to the Bigger Vegas/Convergence 2009 gathering, which brought 800 plus-sized gay travelers and their admirers to town.

WHERE TO STAY

Most of the major Strip hotels are gay-friendly, but the light-infused, 2,034-suite Encore, the 2009 addition to the Wynn resort complex (styled under the discriminating eye of Wynn's gay executive vice president of design, Roger Thomas), gets bonus points for launching the first on-site LGBT concierge service.

At the opposite end of the Strip, Mandalay Bay, aka ``Mandalay Gay,'' and its sexy, casino-free sibling, THEhotel, have maintained their gay cred. THEhotel's opening in 2003 heralded the Strip shift from adult-Disney-style theme resorts to modern luxury, as epitomized in its Zen-cool, gay-popular spa, the bathhouse.

A planned room makeover should give Luxor a much-needed aesthetic boost, but in the interim, the more affordable choice has hosted recurring gay parties in its bordello-style CatHouse resto-lounge and its adults-only pool.

The men-only Blue Moon Resort is a friendly, cruisy and casual alternative for those seeking an all-gay stay off the Strip (rental car recommended); day passes available.

DINING

While there's no one spot where gay diners congregate on the Strip, it's comfortable cozying up to a same-sex partner wherever a marquee-name chef showcases his or her dishes -- the seismic shift from $3.95 buffets to haute cuisine clearly raised the gay comfort level.

Some noteworthy examples: MGM's L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, the more relaxed (though still pricey), Michelin-star restaurant from the French wunderkind, with an open kitchen and a particularly attractive staff; and Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, which showcases the environmentally conscious Mexican creations of Food Network's Too Hot Tamales, Mary Sue Milliken and out lesbian Susan Feniger. Paris' Mon Ami Gabi café attracts gay brunch fans with its build-your-own Bloody Mary bar and Strip-side view of Bellagio's dancing fountain.

NIGHTLIFE

From Cher to showgirls, the gay-flavored entertainment options are endless. Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity, known for its same-sex pairings, recently launched a commitment ceremony package in honor of Nevada's new domestic partnership legislation; it includes a ceremony in Luxor's wedding chapel, a stay at New York-New York and show tickets.

The only gay bar option on the Strip -- and it's a good one -- is Krave, a mega-club reminiscent of South Beach's gay heyday; the small lounge next door holds the lesbian party CandyBar on Saturdays. Sin City Q Socials hosts a martini reception for gay professionals every Tuesday at rotating locations.

A cluster of off-Strip gay clubs sit among the somewhat seedy strip malls at Paradise Road and Naples Drive, aka ``The Fruit Loop.'' Top weekend draw is Piranha/8 ½ Lounge, a sprawling multi-room space that attracts an ethnically diverse mix of locals and tourists (only out-of-towners pay cover). Gipsy, which hosts drag shows; Levi-leather bar Buffalo; and Freezone, a dive bar with the largest lesbian following of the bunch, are within walking distance.

DAYTIME ADVENTURES

In response to Las Vegas's exploding (but hetero-dominated) adults-only pool party scene, Sunkissed Sundays brought a gay pool party to Luxor this year, and is scheduled to return to the Strip in May 2010.

Gay-friendly Pink Jeep Tours transport small groups into the nearby natural beauty of Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire or the Grand Canyon.

Longtime lesbian tour operator Babs Daitch, with the aid of gay historian Dennis McBride, created the ``Gays Gone By'' tour through Las Vegas's queer history. Available for groups of four or more, its multiple stops include Snick's Place, the city's oldest gay bar, the Liberace Museum and the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.

Caption: The Luxor hosts a gay pool party. LOANN HALDEN / LOANN HALDEN

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GOING TO LAS VEGAS

HOTELS

Encore, 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-770-8000 or 888-320-7125; www.encorelasvegas.com/pride. Rates from $199.

Mandalay Bay/THEhotel, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877-632-7800; www.mandalaybay.com. Rates from $109.

Luxor, 3900 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-262-4444 or 877-386-4658; www.luxor.com/lgbt. Rates from $45.

Blue Moon Resort, 2651 Westwood Dr.; 702-784-4500; www.bluemoonlv.com. Rates from $119.

DINING

Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-632-7403; www.bordergrill.com. Entrees $18-$34.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-891-7358; www.mgmgrand.com/restaurants. Entrees $38-$70.

Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Resort, 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-944-4224; www.monamigabi.com/vegas. Entrees $13-$40.NIGHTLIFE

Krave/CandyBar at Planet Hollywood, 3663 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-836-0830; www.kravelasvegas.com.

Piranha Nightclub/8 ½ Lounge, 4633 Paradise Road; 702-791-0100; www.piranhavegas.com.

Zumanity at New York-New York, 3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 866-606- 7111; www.zumanity.com.

DAY LIFE

• Sunkissed, LGBT pool party, May-September, 2010 location to be determined; www.sunkissedlv.com.

• Thanks Babs, The Day Tripper, LGBT tours, 702-370-6961; www.thanksbabs.com.

• Pink Jeep Tours, 3629 W. Hacienda Ave.; 702- 895-6777 or 888-900- 4480; www.pinkjeep.com.

INFORMATION

• Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, www.visitlasvegas.com (click on gay travel under ``features'').

• Sin City Q Socials, www.sincityqsocials.com.

• QVegas Magazine, www.qvegas.com.

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