Coolest international gambling destinations

As a connoisseur of risk, I have seen my fair share of glory and agony within the walls of lady luck. In Latin America, the casinos feel seedy and desperate, and a shower always seems to be good idea after leaving these smoky dens. Singapore casinos feel simple and clean, as though an army of robots lurks just beyond the curtain, meticulously tending to the unseen cogs that keep the experience running. Macau on an off day feels like the world just ended. Gigantic empty rooms full of smiling Macanese croupiers all enthusiastically welcome you to tables with delicate waves of upturned hands. It is like a creepy dream.

Vegas reminds me of the imitation crab in a California roll. You may know its fake, but you don’t care because it is delicious. Likewise, the Vegas pyramid, faux Eiffel Tower, and mini New York skyline are obviously not real, but the kitschy feel speaks to the synthetic appeal of the modern American dream. In Europe, the casinos are ornate old world establishments where you will feel like you forgot your velvet smoking jacket, even if you don’t own one.

So where are some of the coolest international places to thrown down on black and let it ride?

Macau, Macau
Macau was the first and last European foray into Chinese colonization. Portugal controlled the small administrative district until 1999 when they handed it back over to China. A gambling center since the mid-nineteenth century, it was once known as the “Monte Carlo of the Orient.” Today, Macau is an autonomous region of China and is considered one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The one time fishing village on the pearl delta is China’s ambitious version of Las Vegas – a sprawling complex of mega-casinos, shopping malls, and theme parks. In the Fisherman’s Wharf area, a replica of a crashed black hawk helicopter with American soldiers clutching assault rifles sits next to some faux Middle Eastern buildings (above). It is one of the stranger pop culture nods I have found in a world with no shortage for bad taste.

Macau has surpassed its stateside desert brethren in overall gaming revenues – raking in four times the revenue of Las Vegas. Macau boasts many familiar gambling franchises: Wynn, The Venetian, and MGM Grand. All are pager friendly. Also, the Casino Lisboa is an Asian classic that has been dealing hands in Macau for forty years. Macau is just an hour ferry ride away from Hong Kong.

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Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
One of the most prosperous countries in the world, Singapore is just beginning to stretch its gambling legs. With the construction of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, Singapore has begun capitalizing on its unique position in Southeast Asia and the rising economic standards in this region. While the Marina Bay Sands looks like something a tsunami with a sense of humor would create, it has opened to resounding success and aesthetical complaints have been minimal. The three 55-story buildings serve as pillars for a “sky park” shaped like a boat. The building is extremely unique looking, and the views from the rooftop pool are exceptional. What do you think of the design (above) of the Marina Bay Sands?

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Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco
Monte Carlo is located in Monaco – a playground for the mega-rich nestled between the French and Italian rivieras. Pearl white yachts sway in the calm Mediterranean harbor, and the bourgeois gamble away first world fortunes on carefree whims. Opened in 1863, the Monte Carlo Casino is as old school as it gets. Men are required to wear coats and ties. Women dress formal. This is the type of place where you feel like James Bond…until you lose all of your money and shamefully walk back to your hotel.

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Baden-Baden Casino, Germany
The Black Forest of southern Germany is an unlikely place for world class gambling, but in the old bath town of Baden-Baden, gamblers wager euros inside the swank Casino Baden-Baden. The casino has a an aristocratic French air about it that is almost excessively opulent. Red carpets, crystal chandeliers, and gold moldings contribute to make this one of the most attractive casinos on the planet. Walking through the royal halls makes one feel like a working class Hapsburg. The town of Baden Baden is known for its natural baths that have been in use since Roman times. It is a really stunning city, and the Baden-Baden Casino fails to disappoint.

flickr images via justindelaney, william cho, myhsu, and m4tik

Las Vegas, off the beaten Strip

The Las Vegas Neon Museum doesn’t announce itself with flashy lights; you have to find it in less obvious ways. Take a $20 dollar cab ride up to northern edge of Sin City, past the baking asphalt parking lots erupting with weeds and stout pawn shops eager with WE BUY GOLD placards, to the nondescript building the museum calls home. That’s when you’ll see it. Across the street, shimmering in the desert heat like a mirage: a gigantic, rusty-metal pool player. In one hand a cue, cocked, ready to fire, the player’s torso twisted in contrapposto like a billiard-playing colossus. Near this metallic giant lay dozens of gorgeously decorated neon signs – Stardust, Golden Nugget, Silver Slipper – artwork from a bygone era of Vegas history, out of sight and out of mind. Las Vegas is not a city that honors its past. Yet somehow fragments remain, ready to reveal their secrets to visitors who venture beyond the town’s glittering Strip.

Vegas is town forever stuck in the present; a city that appears to have neither a past nor a future: it simply is. It’s a fact borne out by the city’s relentless reinvention, renovation and recreation. On the famous “Strip,” outdated hotels are leveled to make way for the newest mega-resort. Even finding a clock inside a casino is a challenge. All of this suggests a town that ignores the passing of time in exchange for the pleasures of an ephemeral present. Except not all of the Old Vegas has disappeared; it’s simply been shoved to the margins. Venture ten minutes from ageless Las Vegas Boulevard and a different Vegas emerges; a destination of Atomic Era drinking dens, whimsical pinball parlors and a museum harboring a gallery of neon masterpieces.

If you’ve ever wondered what exists in Vegas beyond Roman Strip Malls and Eiffel Tower knock-offs, it’s time to dig beneath the surface. Let’s tour Las Vegas, off the beaten Strip. Keep reading below for more.A Neon Graveyard
If it’s possible for an Inert Gas to symbolize the magnificent highs and tumbling lows of Vegas history, then Neon is it. This strange element has been fueling the glowing signage of Las Vegas ever since mobster Bugsy Siegel dared to imagine this fantasy desert town as the world’s foremost gambling mecca. Though the casinos of Bugsy’s day long-ago met the wrecking ball, some of their signage lives on at the Neon Museum in northern Las Vegas.

For $15, visitors can explore “canyons” stacked with old Vegas neon signage, and imagine for a moment what once was: a place that hummed with a fiery visual energy, full of wildly exotic genie lamps, cocksure cowboys and colorful flamingos erupting like fireworks in the dark. It might not look like the Louvre or The Met, but this is one of the world’s great repositories of art, strokes of neon artistry left to rust and bake in the relentless desert sun.

Drinking in the Past
The Atomic Liquor Store is more than a bar: it’s a temple to long-lost Americana. Reportedly the “oldest bar” in Vegas, this drinking den got its name from the 1950′s nuclear tests that took place only 60 or so miles from its front door. Swanky Vegas cocktail lounge this is not. In addition to its location deep in the heart of seedy Fremont Street, visitors will need to be buzzed in the locked front doors.

But fear not, this historical oddity is worth the trip. From the minute you catch a glimpse of the sturdy decades-old neon sign out front, greeting you like an old friend, to the inflation-proof $1 cans of Busch Beer and molding pool tables, you’ll feel as though you’ve traveled back in time. The bar’s ramshackle decor, killer jukebox stocked with plenty of Springsteen and Mellencamp and a rotating cast of local Sin City characters is guaranteed to provide a memorable night out.

Playing for Keeps
Games are the de facto language of gambling. In Las Vegas, wherever you move you’re sure to encounter these games, the constant gaze of a slot machine or the hypnotic spinning eye of a roulette wheel beckoning you to try your luck. But a very different type of game competes for your attention at the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame. Except instead of one-armed bandits you’ll find 10,000 square feet of vintage pinball and arcade games from the 1950′s, 60′s, 70′s, 80′s and 90′s, waiting for you to give them a play.

Whether you’re a fan of Captain Fantastic or Guns ‘n Roses, Waterworld or Pac-man, there’s a childhood memory begging you to relive the past. Drop in a quarter, and a real-life time machine springs back to life. Bells clink. 8-bit explosions foam in your eardrums. A flickering orange glow of enjoyment fills your view. But too soon, your pinball disappears from view and the machine again falls silent; a teasing vision of a Vegas that once was, but is no more.

Daily Pampering: Hit the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in style

There is no place in the world that oozes conspicuous wealth quite like Monte Carlo. And, when the drivers start their engines for the Monaco Grand Prix,this tiny country is electrified, with the wealthy coming to play during one of the most popular events of the year. Want to count yourself among them? The Fairmont Monte Carlo has some great packages that will appeal to the affluent, making your experience more than just a day at the races.

This year, the hairpin bend in the track being officially renamed the “Fairmont Hairpin” … for a reason. Enjoy the action at this tricky spot from the comfort of the hotel, while sipping champagne in a suite and avoiding the crowds below. Or, you can take in the race from the 200 VIP stadium seats that the Fairmont is installing on its roof, offering the highest views of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit.

Make the most of your trip to Monte Carlo with one of the Fairmont’s F1 packages, available from May 12 – 16, 2010. Rates start at €4,800 and include buffet breakfast, rooftop access, welcome amenities and in-house Grand Prix activities.

While you’re in town, don’t forget to stop by the Sardinia’s Billionaire Club. Italian entrepreneur and F1 manager Flavio Briatore is taking his club to the Fairmont Monte Carlo for Grand Prix week this year. From 11:30 PM until 5 AM, you can hit the Salle d’Or in the hotel for music, fashion and entertainment with Monte Carlo’s elite.

White Collar Travel: Three perspectives on business travelers and their miles

What would you do with 300,000 frequent flier miles in your account – not to mention enough hotel points to get you 10 days in the blissful destination of your choice? Your imagination is probably running wild, as mine did when I got my first travel-intensive gig a decade ago. I had visions of southern France: soaking in the Mediterranean sun, roulette in Monte Carlo and smoking Cuban cigars from a balcony overlooking the ville.

Six months later, I fantasized about sleeping in my own bed for three nights in a row, in a one bedroom apartment I shared in a suburb of Boston. Eventually, I did burn most of my miles, some of them to Nice and Monaco, but not under the circumstances I expected. Along the way, I saw three major attitudes that business travelers had toward the points and miles they’d collected.1. Points are to be amassed, not used
Among the hardcores, this was the norm. We were all engaged in an unspoken race, the point of which was to make the numbers ever higher. Strangely, this exercise was separate from status. Points are for “winning,” status is about comfort. As far back as 1999, a client mentioned to me that he’d overheard two guys in a restaurant swapping astronomical numbers. He asked me, “Will they ever use those miles?” I just shook my head “no” and let out a mouthful of smoke.

2. My day will come
Road warriors who have plans to leave the life at some point think about consumption. In a few years – when they get “normal” jobs – they’ll take a few mind-blowing trips … in style. Exotic locations, first class seats and unimaginable luxury are the salient objective, and there may be plans for the girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse who tends to materialize shortly after life on the road comes to a close. The major risk is burnout: these folks need to get off the road before they find the prospect of travel under any circumstances utterly loathsome.

3. Go away instead of getaway
I ran into a few people who had but one dream: watching it all expire. They miss their families and crave a normal life. I remember one of my bosses reflecting, “The only thing better than watching ‘em get higher will be sitting back and watching ‘em expire.”

Be sure to check out Episode 5 of Travel Talk TV, which features a Santa Cruz beach adventure; explains why Scottish money is no good; shows how to cook brats the German way; and offers international dating tips!

Five steps to a better Valentine’s Day from Fairmont

After the toll that 2009 took on your spirit and your body, it’s time for you to commit to a relaxed and steady 2010. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts in on board with this and is kicking in some amazing deals through its Willow Stream spa brand, which is available around the world. So, if you’re planning to hit Monte Carlo, Miami or the Mayan Riviera, you’ll have a top-shelf treatment ready and waiting for you. Check out the “Follow Your Heart” spa experiences on tap at 11 Fairmont hotels this Valentine’s Day.

One Heart: This is a Red Ribbon Lips facial upgrade and includes a complimentary Jane Iredale Organic Sugar Lip Scrub treatment that will soften and soothe your lips. Worried about dry, cracked lip kissing? That won’t be a problem after this treatment.

Two Heart: Willow Stream’s Sending You Kisses offer includes a Willow Stream Lip Kit and Lip Definer pencil, which will make softened lips eye-catching — translation: you’ll more likely have the chance to use them.

Three Heart: Enjoy a Heartfelt 90-minute spa experience, an hour of which is side-by-side for couples, with a 30-minute dip in the spa’s oversized whirlpool tubs … complete with champagne.

Four Heart: The Love Me package makes you the center of attention. The solo day at the spa includes a 90-minute experience before noon and a Willow Stream spa bento box lunch.

Five Heart: Willow stream will Love You Forever. On the first day of the month, guests will enjoy enjoy either a 60-minute or 90-minute spa treatment … for an entire year!

Participating resorts include: Fairmont Turnberry Isle (Miami), Fairmont Singapore, Fairmont Scottsdale, Fairmont Le Montreux Place (Switzerland), Fairmont Mayakoba (Mexico), Fairmont Acapulco Princess, Fairmont Banff Springs (Alberta), Fairmont Dubai, Fairmont Southampton (Bermuda), Fairmont Monte Carlo, Fairmont Empress (Victoria, British Columbia).