By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Mar 28, 2013 at 9:07 AM

LAS VEGAS – I’ve stopped counting how many times I’ve been to Las Vegas. Definitely in the double digits, I didn’t go this March expecting any huge surprises.

But I was wrong. Vegas still surprises me, and always in a good way. I came to this realization as I sat in a comfy, leather chair, with an IV attached to my wrist and oxygen tubes in my nose.

Before you panic, that experience was actually planned. But more on that later.

What I’m saying is that you’ll never run out of things to do in Sin City, whether you speed it up, packing every minute with activities, like we did every other year, or slow it down, making the most of a surgical strike without burning ourselves out. Both ways are pretty fun.

This time, we only gave ourselves two days and two nights before we hopped into a humongous rental car and drove through the mountains to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.

With only 48 hours here, we had to use some strategy. We would not be Ulysses, aimlessly wandering the sea of entertainment that is The Strip. No, we lashed ourselves to the mast and plugged our ears against the Siren calls of the slots and blackjack tables with watered-down odds that can occupy newbies for hours upon hours (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s what you’re into).

The plan was to balance relaxation, old favorites and new experiences. Looking back at this trip, I can’t imagine it playing out any better.

After a few years away from our favorite place to stay on the strip, we came back to the Tropicana. Maybe it’s because of the Wisconsin connections in the casino, but more likely, because it’s just so low-hassle and well-located. Indeed, the casino’s signature scent that envelopes you when you walk through the door is enough on its own to make you want to stay until your bankroll is depleted. That aroma is somewhere between tropical beach and unsmoked Cuban cigar, warm and inviting.

The Trop no longer looks like old Vegas, even though it is one of the most historic properties on The Strip. You can still catch glimpses of its old-school past, like the stained glass ceiling above the gaming tables. But so much more is sparkling and new throughout the resort, from the subtle mood lighting behind a sleek and modern check-in desk at the lobby to the inviting Chill’m bar just off the casino floor ready to be your launch pad for shenanigans. Maybe the best thing about the Tropicana, however, is that it’s not a cavernous casino owned by one of corporate gaming behemoths in town. This is a perfect place to call home base.

Our hosts caught up with us over lunch at Beach Café, the bright, airy restaurant with a South Beach feel that we’ve visited in the past, before letting us depart to our rooms.

For a change, we finally picked a trip that wouldn’t take place in the dead of winter, so we could spend some quality time at the Tropicana pool. I can see while it’s regularly voted about among the city’s best, with the continuation of the resort’s South Beach vibe into this tropical oasis. Though it opened just a week before our visit, the early season crowd was lively and the pina coladas were icy and pricey but potent. Just what the doctor ordered to kick off a vacation.

Keep in mind that our traveling party for this leg of the trip was just Paul, who’s an old friend from college, and myself, and we got up around 2 a.m. Vegas time on Wednesday morning to make our flights from time zones farther east. So, anticipating a long day and night, we grabbed a power nap, made ourselves presentable, then hit the town. Hours had passed between touching down and shaking hands with the one-armed bandits. Who are we?!?

Re-energized, we made the easy walk over to New York, New York for the first gambling of the night. On this trip, I didn’t feel inclined to spend my time and money on the table games. I really wanted to play "The Hangover" slot machine, a move that turned out to be incredibly foreshadowing. Fortunately, the slots paid off a little better than Paul’s attempts at speaking broken Portuguese to the Brazilian cocktail waitress who kept our drinks refreshed.

With a little extra cash in my pocket courtesy of Mr. Chow and the wolfpack, we cabbed it over to The Palms Casino, which is a property that I’ve never visited before. It’s off the Strip a bit, and my expectations weren’t especially high given all I knew was it hosted a season of "The Real World" a decade ago with a particularly sex-crazed cast.

Once again, my Vegas expectations were shattered. It turned out to be a great night, and the party vibe at this remodeled casino makes it among the most energetic and fun properties in the city. I liked it almost as much as The Cosmopolitan, which sets the bar for Vegas fun rather high.

We started with drinks at Social, an upscale bourbon bar near the entrance that’s open to the casino floor. If you’ve been to the Hard Rock, it’s a similar concept for a central casino bar but executed at a level designed to class up your Vegas debauchery a bit. Now, I’m not a bourbon guy, but the drinks we enjoyed were about as jaw-dropping as the gorgeous model/bartenders who made them.

First off at Social was the 46 & Barrel cocktail, made with Maker’s Mark 46 infused with cherry and fig, Carpano Antica and a spritz of orange aromatics. Served over a spherical piece of ice that’s formed with a heavy press that slowly sinks down to shape the ice ball while your anticipation builds. Next up was the Social Misfit, made with Bulleit, Disaronno amaretto, Nagomi White Peach and fresh lemon juice served in a flask – which, by the way, you get to keep as a souvenir.

And for you bourbon aficionados out there: yes, Social gets its hands on a couple of the precious few bottles of Pappy Van Winkle allocated to the state of Nevada. This is a true bourbon lover’s Nirvana, but I assure you it’s accessible enough for anyone who just enjoys a well-made cocktail.

Suitably lubricated, we walked across the casino for dinner at Heraea. It has a sports bar vibe going on with lots of TVs, but the food was top-notch fare suitable for fine dining restaurants in just about any other American city. I had the filet and bacon Brussels sprouts, and they tasted as good as they could possibly taste. As with Social, Heraea brought its A game with service. I never cease to be amazed at the all-star level of service in Vegas. Everything was perfect.

We thought the cocktails might be hitting us when the Lane Bryant convention seated behind us (really, not being sarcastic) morphed into a conga line around the restaurant. As the friendly conventioneers danced around us with some of the restaurant staff – who genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves – that was our cue to step next door into Scarlet, easily one of the most unique bars I’ve ever visited.

It’s unique because this "microbar" seats just six. Yes, six. It’s an elaborate mixology program with a select drink menu of infused spirits. Our bartender Daniel was making them faster than we could finish them, but the banana bread infused reposado tequila was one of the best drinks I’ve ever had. Daniel happily experimented on our willing livers with more gems, like a mixture of jalapeno-infused reposado and mango puree that we’re pretty sure had a catchy cocktail name, but frankly our notes get a little hard to read after that point. We left Daniel’s care more a little wobbly.

But that was OK, because had the next morning all figured out. Our inebriation was for science, dammit! More on that soon.

Approaching midnight, Paul and I had now been awake for almost 24 hours, but we took the elevator to the top of The Palms to visit Ghostbar. It might’ve been a little clubby for our liking, but Ghostbar offers the best skyline view in Las Vegas. Because it’s set back from the strip, one can see all the action from the light beam at Luxor to the spire of the Stratosphere. On a beautiful warm night, we could’ve stayed forever. But it was time to go home.

Redemption and Resurrection

I won’t lie, when I sprung out of bed at 8 a.m., I didn’t feel great. Dizzy, green around the gills, and head feeling like it was in a vise, Paul and I subjected ourselves to this Mother of All Hangovers to ourselves on purpose.

Yes, on purpose.

Because we knew we had a 10 a.m. appointment with Hangover Heaven, we deliberately erased that line we’d been learning to draw since about age 21 that separates a buzz you can sleep off from a nasty hangover. We went a little (read: a lot) crazy the night before, mixing different liquors with reckless abandon, tossing in some shots and beers, and all the other rookie mistakes that ruined so many Sunday afternoons in college.

I had heard of this hangover doctor before, but in planning this trip, I made a mental note to visit.

Paul couldn’t have been more skeptical, going so far as to research this doctor’s credentials and licensing in advance (and concluding it was all on the up-and-up) but I was all in.

Dr. Jason Burke, a Duke-trained anesthesiologist by day, built Hangover Heaven last year, and promises to cure tourists’ hangovers. We decided to test his abilities and give him a tough case to work with, and when his EMT picked us up at our hotel, we slumped into the seats and noted the location of the standard-issue barf bags as the van made some stomach-turning dodges and weaves through traffic to the Hangover Heaven clinic. Normally, there is a deluxe Hangover Heaven tour bus, but it was out of commission for repairs on our visit.

On arriving, Hangover Heaven looked like any other medical practice in an office park – except for the clever slogans about "redemption" and "resurrection" plastered on the merchandise for sale at the front entrance. We slumped down in cushy leather chairs and signed our lives away; did we just waive our right to sue and instead submit to arbitration should we die in the next hour? I dunno. Seemed like we’d have signed over my soul to the devil in the state we were in.

The words all jumbled together, but Burke had to ask us a few questions first as he took our blood pressure (mine was through the roof because I was severely dehydrated, and I forgot to take my medicine that morning).

"When did you stop drinking? How much did you drink? Have you taken any other substances besides alcohol?" he asked.

"2:30 a.m., I think we drank every drop of liquor in the county, and no," I replied to each question.

Burke explained that he doesn’t perform the treatment on patients who are still drunk, and since he customizes the treatment for each person, he needed to know how much was consumed and if a patient is taking any illegal drugs. He also asked about my specific symptoms and how they rated on a scale of one to 10. I had a splitting headache (10), I was dizzy (10) and I was shaky (10). No nausea (0).

With that, an RN started IVs on Paul and me. She went through my wrist, since my elbow veins weren’t easy to find. She also hooked us up to an oxygen tank.

I felt a cold sensation going up my arm as the IV started to rehydrate my parched body. Ultimately, we got two bags of fluid, along with Toridol for the headaches, anti-nausea medicine, vitamins, anti-oxidants and more. The whole process made me have to go to the bathroom badly, so I shuffled to the bathroom, holding my IV. Paul joked that this is what our trip to Vegas would look like in 40 years, anyway.

Slowly, I began to regain my composure enough to ask Burke a few questions, like why he’s the only doctor who specializes in hangover treatments?

"Traditionally, there has been a stigma attached to hangovers," he said. "As a result, the medical profession hasn't taken hangovers seriously as an acute medical condition. As a physician, I don't judge – I treat. With hangovers, I saw a medical condition that needed my attention and expertise. So, I founded Hangover Heaven – the only medical practice in the world geared to the study, prevention and treatment of veisalgia, or the common hangover."

Burke explained his typical client: men in their 30s/early 40s, and women in their early to mid 30s. "However, everyone from cash-strapped college students to professional athletes purchase our supplements and injections. Many Hangover Heaven clients are here in Las Vegas for a short while to enjoy themselves; they don't want to spend a day of their vacation feeling ill in their room."

After about an hour, I felt significantly more relaxed and able to ask Burke a few more real questions, like what do his colleagues think about this?

"Some have been envious that they did not think of the idea first," he explained. "A few have felt hangovers are not a condition that needs to be treated. I would say at least 95 percent have been very supportive."

As we wrapped up, Burke pointed out that my color had come back, but really, I just felt extremely tired. Burke explained that since my body wasn’t fighting the hangover anymore, it was ready for some actual sleep. My headache wasn’t completely gone, so he pumped in more Toridol. He gave me a beta blocker to drop my blood pressure and stop the shakes; interestingly, it’s a banned substance for golfers on the PGA Tour – it stops the yips. He gave us both gigantic vitamin B shots into our shoulders. My bruise was still evident more than a week after the treatment.

Customers pay between $99 and $199 for treatments ranging from the "Redemption" to the "Salvation" to the "Rapture;" we received the top-of-the-line treatment. Even though we didn’t pay for it, I would’ve in a second. Totally, totally worth it. In fact, Dr. Burke will even make "house calls" (for a fee) to your hotel. If you’re already dropping thousands of bucks for your flights, hotels, high-end meals, and gambling, this is money well-spent that will ensure you enjoy your vacation to the fullest without wasting hours curled up in the fetal position in your hotel room. (I speak from experience.)

And Burke gets it. He said, "My ultimate goal is to end hangovers. There has been little medical research on hangovers, especially the epic hangovers I treat in Las Vegas. By continuing to apply science and my medical expertise to veisalgia, I hope there will come a day when hangovers cease to cost the US billions of dollars while causing so much physical pain and suffering."

Amen, Dr. Feelgood.

And sure enough, after all this medical treatment, Paul rose from his chair like Lazarus, proclaiming he was completely healed. He said he felt better than he did before drinking. I felt about 85 percent better; I still felt a little off. Our medic drove us back to the Trop, and we had refreshing power naps. Like magic, I was perfect again.

So, of course, we got back on the horse and swiftly undid all the healing the good doctor had done. Because, you know, VEGAS!

Never Enough

First, however, we stopped at the famous In N Out Burger behind New York, New York. I had visited this place in Phoenix once, failing to see the hype. This time, at 2 p.m., we stood in line for a half an hour before we ordered off the "secret menu."

My verdict: mediocre. Maybe people who live in a place where there aren’t great burgers like Milwaukee might be impressed, but I wasn’t. I’m done with this place.

However, we were at least full now, and with a newly refreshed Paul playing designated driver, we finally hit Frankie’s Tiki Room, a destination we’d had on our to-do list for years but never seemed to have the time to get there. This dark, windowless tavern was a like a Hawaiian dive bar version of At Random. In other words, outstanding. And reasonably priced to boot. We also stopped for a quick drink at The Peppermill, which is a Vegas version of Bryant’s.

All in the name of journalistic research.

The rest of the night, we took it relatively easy, gambling a little here and there. I even won back some of the money I flushed away on the slots with a burst of good luck at the blackjack table. But we had to show restraint, since we would have to leave by 8 a.m. to drive to Phoenix in time for the Brewers’ game.

And amazingly, our plan paid off. Even on four hours of sleep, we checked out of the hotel and hit the road by 8.

Las Vegas surgical strike: mission accomplished.

But I admit that two days and two nights in Las Vegas aren’t really enough. Still, we’d visited enough times that we knew what to skip and what to see. I loved our south Strip location at the Trop, and I loved that we spent an entire night at the Palms. More than anything, I loved the experience at Hangover Heaven. A concept like this simply must come to Milwaukee.

"We are currently speaking with potential investors about franchising opportunities," said Burke.


I also realized that Las Vegas is much more fun in March than it is in December. The weather is better, the pools are open, and it gets dark later at night. I’m very pleased with this shift in schedule.

And finally, I learned that we’ll never run out of surprises in Las Vegas. There’s something new, fun, weird and awesome around every corner.

Sin City never gets old, even if we do. It’s a trip I can’t wait to make again and again.

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.