By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Dec 21, 2010 at 1:02 PM

LAS VEGAS -- I've visited Sin City enough times now that I can safely skip the pirate shows and the roller coasters and the over-sized hurricane glasses you see the rookies sipping from as they stumble around the Strip.

On your first trip, it's "Vegas!" On your eighth, it's "Vegas."

Which isn't to say that four days with an old buddy from college wasn't just as amusing (and exhausting) as the first time. Because, as Paul and I were reminded at every turn last weekend, Las Vegas just keeps on reinventing itself.

Every visit brings the opportunity for something new.

Over the years, I've experienced Las Vegas at its lower-end, staying in places like Imperial Palace and the old Barbary Coast, and at its highest end, with a visit to the stunning Vdara in 2009. Because I'm in the fortunate position to mix business with pleasure -- taking a vacation but writing about it for the pages of -- several Vegas properties have been extremely generous in making these trips great for me -- and 2010 was no exception.

But what I liked about this year is that the trip straddled the line between approachable and high-roller (pun intended), and it was almost all new to me. We made our home base the Tropicana, and before you snicker, you should be aware that it's nothing like you remembered it.

Built in 1957, the Trop is one of the oldest hotels and casinos on the Strip, so it's easy to see how the property has lost some luster in the shadows of its closest neighbors like MGM, Luxor and Mandalay Bay. But the Tropicana is an independent hotel and is in the middle of an ambitious, $165 million renovation. In an era in which old casinos are usually imploded and replaced, this is significant. The new Trop, which will be finished in 2011, is fresh and exciting -- and its location is absolutely prime.

We stayed in a two-bedroom suite, which was bigger and more well-appointed than most apartments I've called home in my younger days. Even though we got a taste of the new Tropicana, the best is clearly yet to come, as new enhancements like the "Mob Experience" exhibit and "Nikki Beach Club" are opening very soon. Even the basic rooms are quite nice and totally renovated, and there are some serious bargains to be had at this hotel. I've stayed all over the Strip over the years, and for many reasons, not the least of which being the convenience factor, the Trop is a solid choice for travelers on a budget.

It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint

If I've learned anything about visiting Las Vegas, it's that it's a marathon and not a sprint. It's easy to make a rookie mistake and go nuts on your first day, then find yourself running on fumes too soon.

So, we took Thursday to explore the property, beginning with a dinner at the brand new Cafe Nikki. The restaurant has a South Beach feel to it, with light woods and clean lines. In terms of pricing, it's on par with Milwaukee's nicer restaurants, and we enjoyed our seafood-inspired meals before heading upstairs to Brad Garrett's Comedy Club. Unfortunately, Garrett wasn't actually performing Thursday, but three decent comedians were, with Kivi Rodgers headlining. It was a nice way to set the table for a busy weekend, and after lots of laughs, we left the Trop to explore Mandalay Bay.

For all the talk about all the free drinks at the casinos, Vegas veterans know that it's a myth. Sure, you can order a cocktail while sitting at a slot machine, but if you have the kind of gambling luck that I have, you'll admit this city serves the most expensive free drinks in the world.

And speaking of gambling luck, mine was non-existent this weekend. I lost money everywhere I went -- but at least I had a good time doing it. So, after a fruitless few minutes on the casino floor at Mandalay, we ascended to its rooftop bar, Mix, for a $15 drink, but mostly for the view.

I won't lie to you, Las Vegas was sleepy this weekend, and many folks in the hospitality business told us that we visited during the slowest weekend of the year. And in fact, Mix was nearly empty -- which was fine, because we had plenty of space to admire the view of the Strip and start to zone out after a long day of travel, good food and lots of catching up.

All New and Getting Local

It's well documented that I'm a creature of habit, but at the beginning of this trip, Paul and I declared that we wanted to take as much of a repetition-free vacation as possible. Fortunately, Las Vegas makes that easy, because each year, so much changes. From the outside looking in, it's hard to imagine that it can all be sustained, actually, and based on the several projects that have recently stalled or evaporated completely, Vegas may be approaching -- or exceeding -- its logical capacity.

Two illustrations of this gamble (again, pun intended) are neighbors CityCenter and The Cosmopolitan, and Friday, we visited them both. CityCenter was a massive undertaking, not quite finished when we visited last year. It is now, however, and its Aria may be my favorite new casino in the city. The Cosmopolitan literally opened the day before we arrived, and it's a complicated story of a German bank-owned development that switched from condos to hotel-casino midstream. Similarly luxurious as CityCenter, it will remain to be seen if the two neighbors thrive or flounder -- but even on this slow weekend, both were the liveliest, most bustling properties we encountered.

For lunch on Friday, we visited Skybox at Aria, which looks like a nice sports bar -- but that description doesn't do it justice. In fact, it's a casual bar with surprisingly great food (and amazing desserts), and its chef loaded us up on calamari, seared ahi tuna and one sampler that I'll be talking about for a long time: the Firecracker Burger, made with India's Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, rated the hottest in the world.

While I appreciated the gesture, actually eating the burger is a terrible idea. I like spicy food, but one bite did me in. Fortunately, the Firecracker Burger came near the end of the meal, because I couldn't taste anything else for at least 20 minutes. If you order this burger, you are either extremely brave or you are a raving lunatic. Consider yourself warned.

After lunch, Paul and I walked over the Bellagio, where we took a quick walk through the casino's gallery of fine art. A little bit of culture didn't seem like a bad idea, and it was a nice treat to see Picassos, Degas and Renoirs in the same city as Elvis impersonators and all-you-can-eat buffets. Cliches aside, Las Vegas has something for everybody. Literally, everybody.

It took a few hours to cool down from that spicy burger, but by evening, we regained our strength and walked to The Cosmopolitan, inspecting the brand new casino before dinner. You never know what you'll find in Las Vegas, but get this: the property features a large-scale installation by Milwaukee artist, Amy Soczka. The piece is a blue, 8 by 8 foot paper cut out.

For dinner, we walked upstairs to Comme Ca, a French-themed restaurant with a spectacular view of the Strip. This was a memorable meal, both because of excellent service from our waitress and the restaurant's world-class sommelier, but also because the property is putting a strong emphasis in preparing hand-crafted drinks from its creative mixologists. Comme Ca has a vintage, French countryside feel to it with an urbane polish, and Prohibition-inspired cocktails complimented a superb bone-in filet for me, while Paul opted for the duck confit. As you can imagine, this was the priciest dinner of the trip, but it was fantastic -- and considering this restaurant was a mere three days old, the execution was stellar.

After dinner, we waddled over to the Monte Carlo to visit minus5 (as in, degrees Celsius), a new "ice bar" that's way more fun than it sounds. Sure, it seems like madness to leave Milwaukee in December, then to visit a bar completely made of ice that sits at 15 degrees Fahrenheit at all time. But they suit you up in faux fur coats and hats as you drink mostly vodka-based cocktails out of glasses also made entirely of ice. The novel atmosphere, which only gets bitter cold after an hour or so, pretty much forces its patrons to mingle rather than keep to themselves. Kitschy, yes, but also pretty unique -- and really fun and rather delicious, too.

By now, it was getting late, but time sort of stands still in Las Vegas, so we cabbed it downtown to visit a few bars recommended by locals. Sure, it's fun to play among the uninhibited tourists, but people actually live in Vegas, too, and are some of the nicest, friendliest folks you'll ever meet. We ended our night with a visit to the awesomely divey Beauty Bar and Downtown Cocktail Lounge along Fremont Street, just east of the downtown casino action.

Recover and Rally

Despite my best intentions and never-say-die attitude, the hacking cough I brought with me from Milwaukee, but tried to ignore, started getting the best of me by Saturday morning. Maybe it had something to do with the 4 a.m. bedtime six hours prior, though I prefer to blame the cool desert air. Nonetheless, I wasn't in great shape when we drove out to the Green Valley Ranch in Henderson to see what the scene was like waaaay off the Strip.

The casino wasn't bad, actually; a lot less garish and devoid of a cheesy theme. We made a beeline for the buffet, but missed the breakfast cutoff by 15 minutes. Amazingly, this buffet stops serving breakfast at 11 a.m. on a Saturday. Take my advice and skip this place.

Deciding that discretion, albeit a little late, is the better part of valor, we laid low on Saturday, throwing away a little more cash on slots before heading to New York, New York for dinner.

It was here that I decided it was time to change my luck. Still a little woozy, I even plunked down $18 for the potentially rejuvenating powers of an oxygen bar at the casino (it worked a little). Then, I took what was left of my dwindling bankroll and placed my first ever bet at the sports book on a boxing match that seemed like a sure thing.

Our dinner reservations were at the new Sporting House, formerly known as the ESPN Zone, but for all the many TVs plastered on the wall, they didn't get Showtime and couldn't show us the fight. We enjoyed a decent meal with huge portions, though comparing this sports pub to the stellar Skybox left me spoiled. It's a good place to catch Sunday football, I'm sure, but Aria's offering is much better.

Jumpy and nervous about the biggest bet I've ever placed, we recessed to the casino floor to wait for the results of the fight. New York, New York's sports book couldn't show the fight, either, so I resorted to following the action through Twitter on my iPhone.

It started out so well. My guy, Jean Pascal, knocked down Bernard Hopkins twice in the early rounds, and I had dreams of recouping my losses. But then he ran out of steam and barely finished the fight, which ended in a draw.

Crestfallen, I had assumed I just lost, but the sports book cashier told me a draw equates to a refund. Never had break even felt so good.

Our last official visit was to Aria's elegant Sage, a restaurant and bar that offers a unique absinthe experience. I've had absinthe before, and I don't like it very much. But this trip was about new experiences, and I'm down for trying any $25 drink that involves lighting it on fire and inhaling its vapors with a straw. Indeed, the taste wasn't for me, but I'm glad we checked it out, because it further reinforced the outstanding service we experienced at Sage, but really everywhere, we visited.

The size and scope of Las Vegas service industry can't be compared to anywhere else in the world, and at the city's better restaurants and hotels, its staff is the best you'll find. Whether at Aria, the Tropicana or the Cosmopolitan, we were consistently impressed with everyone we encountered, all professional yet friendly, attentive but not overbearing. It's simply a key part of Vegas that shouldn't be taken for granted.

On our way out of Aria, we stopped at Todd English, a lively pub that while is no way authentic, felt like a reasonable facsimile thereof. The bar offers customers a free pint of beer (of your choosing) if you can finish it in seven seconds or less. No problem there; even the bartender agreed that the challenge is a little too easy.

We wrapped up the night by visiting an old favorite, the Hard Rock casino, which was unusually dead for a Saturday night. And, after years of trying, we actually walked over to the Double Down Saloon and watched the punk/ska band Murder Majesty rock the house for a set before finally, finally packing it in and getting a few hours of sleep.

Like always, it was a whirlwind trip, one that felt like forever but flew by, both at the same time. Our mission was to try new things, and we did.

In that regard, Las Vegas never disappoints. From a Hawaiian barbecue lunch at Aloha Kitchen near UNLV to a night cap at the old El Cortez, we saw more of this city than we ever have.

Sure, it's harder to pull back-to-back-to-back all nighters than it used to be -- and I don't especially want to anymore -- but there is so much to do in relatively little time. Las Vegas is different than it was even one year ago, and if you haven't been in several years, it's a different place completely.

And if you've never been, ask yourself why not. You can run the gamut on your experiences in this city. It can be as cheap or as expensive as you're willing, whether you play a single hand of blackjack or not.

For us, it's about finding the right mix. I'm already thinking about next year.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.