Image: Bellagio
Courtesy the Bellagio Hotel
The Bellagio is known for its massive pool, where tasty, freshly made cocktails flow.
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updated 8/1/2010 12:38:34 PM ET 2010-08-01T16:38:34

In 2001, fresh from a $200 million renovation a few years earlier, the Desert Inn imploded into a towering cloud of dust, courtesy of its new owner Steve Wynn. In its place now stands his flagship enterprise, the Wynn Las Vegas, which opened in 2005. It's a massive jade arc that contains a large waterfall in its nightclub, Tryst, not to mention a Ferrari/Maserati dealership.

Rather than rest on his laurels, Wynn decided to outdo himself by opening the $2.3 billion Encore casino right next door at the end of 2008. Sure, it was right in the middle of a recession, but Wynn didn't cut corners there, either: There are 5 restaurants and 11 high-end boutiques, and guests can even gamble by the pool.

The Vegas hotel industry is all about one-upping the neighbors — even if that neighbor is yourself. And it works: In 2009, even amidst an economic crisis, the city saw 36 million visitors drop more than $5 billion in casinos on the Strip (and more throughout the rest of the city). They stayed in the city's 150,000 hotel rooms at an occupancy rate over 80 percent — that rate hovered near 90 percent on weekends. Room rates in Las Vegas are still relatively low — around $90.

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But when you're deciding on a hotel in Vegas, a decent room rate only answers one part of a larger question. Namely — what are you in the mood for?

Click for slideshow: Best hotels in Vegas

We polled 10 luxury travel agents who live and breathe Vegas. They visit several times a year to keep their clients apprised of the latest developments, and they have strong opinions about what's worth a visit, and what's not.

"If a client comes to me with a hotel where they want to stay, I always ask, 'Why?' to try to find out how much they know about the property, and if they would really be happy there," says Monika Dystart, travel specialist at Sixth Star Travel in St. Louis.

Are you a high roller? Try Wynn Las Vegas, which features the only golf course on the Strip, or the Bellagio, where highly liquid visitors are given their own playing rooms. Partial to swimming pools? Check out the minor ocean at the Mandalay Bay, replete with waves lapping against a powdery sand beach. Is this a romantic trip? The Four Seasons takes serenity very seriously.

"Las Vegas is constantly evolving," says Anthony Adler, CEO of California-based Cruise and Resort, Inc. "New isn't good enough anymore. Each new property has to successfully raise the bar on luxury guest offerings. And the best part is, you can now find luxury options in Vegas without getting a penthouse suite."

Case in point: the MGM Skylofts, which wins high praise for its sleek, airy rooms and boutique service — a concierge calls before your visit to make dining and entertainment arrangements. While weekend rates for a suite can hover around $3,500 per night, during the week some rooms run for a decidedly more reasonable $700.

And while Vegas will always be synonymous with gambling (the house politely accrued over $15 billion last year, thank you very much), hundreds of thousands of its visitors take more interest in Nemo than Keno.

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"I think that Vegas is often overlooked when families are planning vacations," says Nancy Yale, owner of Cruise Resort & World Travel in Fairfield, Conn. "I think it can be a great stop for a few days while visiting the Grand Canyon or Hoover Dam."

Several agents recommended New York-New York for its rides (including the Manhattan Express, which hurtles patrons across a faux Manhattan skyline at nearly 70 miles an hour), but the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas was the top choice as a family hotel. This Tuscan-themed resort is about as far away from the old, off-the-strip Binion's as you can get: Scenic hiking trails, panoramic lake views and a robust array of activities for the kids.

For folks who like to play the ponies, a trip to the Sports Book at Caesars can constitute a near-religious experience — you could easily spend all day gazing up at dozens of jumbo plasma screens while lounging in their narcotically comfy recliners (many people do). But when it comes to live events (and reports of boxing's demise have been greatly exaggerated), the Garden Arena at MGM Grand is the place to be.

But in the end it's all about picking your agenda.

"The best advice I can give is to choose the hotel that is best for your visit — don't base your choice on the ads that you see, or where your friend stayed," says Yale. "Also, it's always a good idea to secure show tickets ahead of time."

© 2012 Forbes.com

Photos: What's new in Las Vegas

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  1. 50 years of Danke Schoen

    Fifty years ago, a young Wayne Newton played his first gig in Las Vegas. Now, he tells the story of his iconic career over the ensuing half-century in a new show called “Once Before I Go.” Playing Tuesdays through Saturdays at the Tropicana, the show features a full orchestra, video clips and reminiscences from the man rightfully called “Mr. Las Vegas.” Show tickets are $88 and $110, with VIP packages, including a meet and greet session and photo op, available for $165, plus service fees. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Tropicana) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. City on the Strip

    If you build it, will they come? As the largest privately developed project in U.S. history, the new CityCenter complex on the Strip is part destination resort, part urban enclave -- and a major roll of the dice for its owners, MGM Mirage and Dubai World. Its size and style -- four hotels, two residential towers and a 500,000-square-foot "retail district," all designed by world-class architects -- are like nothing else in Vegas and may serve as a sign of the next step in the city's evolution. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for CityCenter) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Elvis avec acrobats

    What do you get when you combine Elvis Presley with acrobatics, elaborate costuming and state-of-the-art special effects? Why, Sin City's seventh production put on by those fun-loving fabulists at Cirque du Soleil. Viva ELVIS opens on Dec. 18, and will play several nights a week in a specially built theater at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter. Tickets are $87–$149 for preview performances (through Jan. 28) and $99–$175 thereafter, plus service fees. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Up, up and (hopefully not) away

    Looking for a new perspective on the Strip? If so, then climb aboard the new Cloud Nine Balloon, which offers tethered balloon rides to a height of 500 feet above the ground. Eleven stories high, the balloon carries up to 30 people in a circular gondola and provides a 15-minute panoramic “flight” before being winched back to earth. Daytime rides are $22.50 for adults and $17.50 for children ages 5–12; evening rides are $27.50 and $17.50. Children 4 and younger fly free. (Cloud9vegas) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Plush planet

    Apparently, CityCenter didn’t use up all the window glass on the planet: just across the Strip, the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino will open its own skyscraping hotel in early 2010. Managed by Westgate Resorts, the 52-storyPH Towers will feature 1,200 timeshare units along with a health club, meeting facilities and a tropical pool complex with its own sandy beach. As a vacation-ownership resort, it will also offer easy access to the dining, gaming and entertainment facilities at Planet Hollywood. (PR Newswire) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ruck and roll

    If you can tell a grubber kick from a checkside punt, you’ll probably want to be at Sam Boyd Stadium at UNLV February 13–14 when the USA Sevens Rugby Tournament makes its Las Vegas debut. Part of the IRB Sevens World Series — and the only U.S. stop — the event brings together professional teams from 16 nations, along with thousands of rabid fans, for a two-day round-robin of mauling and mayhem. (The players have been known to get a bit rough, too.) One-day tickets are $35–$250, plus service fees. (Todd Warshaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. From Music City to Sin City

    Alas, it took all of five hours for Garth Brooks’ un-retirement concert series at Wynn Las Vegas to sell out, but country music fans can still get their boot-scootin’ boogie on this winter. This month, Trace Adkins plays The Pearl at the Palms Casino Resort on Dec. 9; three days later, Randy Travis takes the stage at Monte Carlo. Then, on Feb. 6, George Strait (aka “The King of Country”) and Reba McEntire (aka “The Queen of Country”) will hold court at the Grand Garden Arena at MGM Grand, with Lee Ann Womack opening. (Tami Chappell / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Downtown goes upscale

    As seen in this artists rendering, a longtime landmark in downtown Las Vegas, the Golden Nugget is in the middle of a $300 million renovation that promises to add new luster to Glitter Gulch. In November, the hotel opened Rush Tower, a 25-story addition with 500 rooms and suites, several shops and a Chart House restaurant anchored by a 50,000-gallon tropical aquarium. A new pool will connect to The Tank, the hotel’s existing pool complex where a three-story water slide shoots through a 200,000-gallon shark tank. Midwinter rates start at $69. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Making an impression

    You’ll probably never see Jay Leno, John Madden and presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush share a stage, so comedian/impressionist Frank Caliendo may be the next best thing. One month into a 10-year run at Monte Carlo, the "MADtv" and "Fox NFL Sunday" vet skewers all of the above, along with DeNiro, Pacino and dozens of other boldfaced names, four nights a week in the resort’s Lance Burton Theater. Tickets are $48–$81, plus service fees. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Exclusive enclave

    Hotel32 sits right on the Strip, but you’d never find it unless you knew where to look. That’s because it occupies the 32nd floor of the Monte Carlo resort, a hotel within a hotel for those who want a VIP experience at a reasonable price. Ranging from studios to two-bedroom penthouses, accommodations include roundtrip limousine service to and from McCarran Airport, private check in, butler services and complimentary breakfasts and evening snacks in an exclusive lounge. Special rates start at $170 per night. (Ogara Bissell Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Take the leap

    Leave it to the folks at the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino to find yet another way for adrenaline junkies to scare themselves silly. Already famous for its sky-high thrill rides, the resort is adding a new one called a Sky Jump that essentially lets guests throw themselves off the 108th floor — fortunately, while being attached to a harness/cable system that stops them before they hit the deck 107 stories below. The ride is modeled after one in Auckland, N.Z., but alas, you’ll have to wait to take the plunge since the Vegas version won’t open until April. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. He writes the songs

    Who? Barry Manilow, of course, who will end his current show at the Las Vegas Hilton on Dec. 30 and open a two-year run at Paris Las Vegas on March 5. While the former show was billed as a collection of his greatest hits, the new gig is expected to highlight classic love songs, many of which will appear on his next album, “The Greatest Love Songs of All Time,” which is set to drop Jan. 26. Shows are Friday–Sunday; tickets are $95–$299, plus service charge. (Paris Las Vegas via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Opening Of Wayne Newton's "Once Before I Go" - Show
    Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Tropicana
    Above: Slideshow (12) What’s new in Las Vegas - What's new in Las Vegas
  2. Las Vegas Strip Exteriors
    Ethan Miller / Getty Images
    Slideshow (23) What’s new in Las Vegas - Viva Las Vegas!

Video: Sure bets for Vegas shoppers

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