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|| News Item: Posted 2000-11-21

The Count on Cigars: Ya Gotta Love Vegas
Smokin' in Las Vegas

By Eric Risberg

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The first time I visited Las Vegas was almost 20 years ago, when I was sent there to cover the Caesar's Gran Prix race, held in a parking lot that is now home to the posh Bellagio. At the time, the most popular meal in town was the $4.99 steak dinner, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ann Margaret were among the top acts, and the Dunes, Desert Inn, and Sands were some of the top hotels. Fast-forward 20 years, and Howard Hughes and the Rat Pack would have a tough time recognizing the place.

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to get sent to Vegas to cover the David Tua vs. Lenox Lewis heavyweight championship fight held at the Mandalay Bay hotel. While the fight turned out to be a real loser -- as evidenced by the large numbers of people streaming out of the aisles after the 11th round -- cigar smoking in this city that never sleeps was a big winner.

One of the first things you'll notice about Las Vegas, especially if you are from California or any other police state when it comes to cigar smoking, is that you can smoke literally anywhere, and nobody casts even the slightest dirty look. It just so happened that I happened to be in Vegas the same weekend as the Big Smoke, sponsored by the Cigar Aficionado magazine at the Paris-Las Vegas hotel. Boy, what a coincidence. Between the weigh-in of the fight and the fight itself, I had a day to check out some of the new cigar shops and a few of the cigar bars.

In addition to being able to smoke anywhere, what really impressed me was the exotic selection of hard-to-find cigars at some of the shops. I was also intrigued with all the little smoking lounges and bars that evoke images of Venice, Paris, or some tropical resort.

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Among the special places to have a smoke, here are a few of my favorites.

The Cuba Libre at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

Here you can get a drink of rum or port along with a pre-Castro cigar. This shop, which gives the feel of when the Mob ruled Cuba, offers an amazing selection of Fuente Fuente Opus X cigars, which are sold separately along with Padron Anniversary and Ashton VSG cigars. What is also good about this spot is that it is a short walk from Nobu, where I had one of the best sushi dining experiences ever, and AJ's Steak House.

Napoleon's Retreat at the Paris Las Vegas.

If your taste runs more for a cognac or armagnac while you are puffing on that Diplomatico or Quai d'Orsay, and if you want to imagine you are in Paris on some side street bar, then this is the place. The humidor offers a broad range of cigars and some boutique cigars.

The "Havana Dee's" cigar lounge at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House.

After enjoying a great steak dinner with colleagues Kevork Djansezian and Mark Terrill of Los Angeles, we stepped into this lounge and were thoroughly relaxed. This restaurant, which just opened in July, offers a very high level of service, and we felt very pampered the whole time we were there. This had to be a first: A few days after arriving home I received a very nice card from our server. As for the lounge, what a place! A rich dark interior, deep leather chairs, a terrific jazz singer playing piano, with the walls filled with artistic black and white photos of smoke rings. Just off the lounge, you can step into the humidor to see some of the exotic selections they offer -- everything from an Opus X "A" ($200) to a Padron Anniversary Exclusivo ($25).

What also makes this restaurant special is their selection of wines. The owner of the restaurant, Dee Lincoln, has been the top bidder at the Napa Valley Wine Auction for the past few years. One of her most unusual purchases is on display at the restaurant: Lot 007, the "Q" table featuring magnums of wine by top Napa winemakers with the name of every James Bond film painted on them. The table opens up by remote control and displays the wine, all to the tune of a Bond theme.

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The Island Lounge on the floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel.

I'm a huge fan of this hotel. The rooms are very spacious, the wave pool is awesome, and it's five minutes from the airport, tucked away at the far end of the strip away from all the crowds jamming the sidewalks. Plus, inside you'll find the House of Blues and a killer place for a martini, Red Square, where your drink rests on a counter of ice at the bar and the olives come stuffed with bleu cheese.

But if you want something simpler and want to do some amazing people watching, try the Island Lounge and order up a rum and Coke as you puff on that gran corona. You will see some amazing things and never know with whom you may strike up a conversation. After the fight at 3:30 a.m., this place was hopping. The crowd was several deep at the bar. There were pinstripes, porkpie hats, gold chains, leisure suits, shark skin jackets -- you name it, it was there. It was like seeing characters out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a more tropical setting.

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As for shopping, the Colosseum at Caesar's and Bombay Cigar Club at the Mandalay Bay, both owned by the same people, offer excellent selections as well as pre-Castro cigars and hard-to-find cigars. The Colosseum had a pre-Castro Partagas Lonsdale from 1961 that looked very nice. The Davidoff store at the Venetian had an excellent selection of accessories. Also worth visiting is the humidor tucked away in the back of the Dunhill store at Caesar's Palace.

In the event you go to Vegas and end up a huge winner, a number of the shops I visited had a small number of Prometheus 2000 Limited Edition desktop/travel humidors for Fuente Fuente Opus X cigars. For $1,500, you get a humidor, leather embossed case, cutter, and a varied selection of 20 Opus X cigars. Since most places in Vegas are selling the Opus at $50 to $200 a stick, this package is quite a deal. Unfortunately, the winnings of either Mr. Djansezian or myself were insufficient enough to purchase one.

Better luck next time. Good smoking,
The Count.

(The Count, Eric Risberg, is an Associated Press staff photographer based in San Francisco, CA.)

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