“Back of my hand. Back of my hand …” The young TSA agent’s tone is matter-of-fact yet soothing, particularly as she struggles to get a blue-gloved finger between my waistband and my waist, a space we both agree is confoundingly snug. I have arrived at the Austin, Texas, airport with only a temporary, wholly insufficient paper copy of a recently renewed driver’s license, and thus my journey to Las Vegas begins, appropriately enough, with a thorough pat-down. Emily, my already-reluctant traveling companion, looks on with dismay. It’s an inauspicious beginning to our in-depth investigation into the phenomenon known as Las Vegas pool culture. Little did we know.
Over three days we would abase ourselves before khaki-clad, earpiece-wearing room-key inspectors (those we didn’t sneak past, that is), run in inadequately soled sandals down sidewalks baked by 111-degree heat, pay handsomely for the privilege of having our belongings searched and our bodies wanded, and espy more butt cheek than we ever thought possible.
Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
Encore Beach Club, Encore
Our first stop, after a buffet breakfast of smoked salmon, mac and cheese, liquid courage and other unnatural pairings, is Encore Beach Club, 40,000 square feet of pool party. We are throwing ourselves in the deep end, so to speak. Except there is no deep end, of course, nor diving boards or anything else that might not mix well with a Jeroboam of Ace of Spades rose ($25,000). No mere hotel pool, EBC is one of the heavy hitters of Vegas day clubs, which, if you’re not familiar, are pretty much exactly like Vegas nightclubs, except with sunshine and water and less clothing. The emergence of the Vegas day club is largely attributed to the Hard Rock Hotel, whose execs apparently figured that access to an Ibiza-style pool party brimming with babes and bros and booze was the kind of thing people already living it up in the land of no limits would pay for. The appropriately named Rehab, the “party that started it all,” was launched one Sunday in 2004, and it was off to the races.
The Vegas pool has long been part of the package of temptations, together with gambling and drinking and various other hedonistic activities, conjured up to lure fun-seekers to this strange patch of desert. Early iterations were typically come-one, come-all affairs, many of which were strategically situated right up against Highway 91 to tempt road-weary travelers. “If you wish to keep cool, take a swim in the pool,” proclaimed a postcard advertising El Rancho Vegas, which opened in 1941. Over time, as the Strip became ever more elaborate and attention-grabbing, the pools came to have less and less to do with simple recreation. Scalloped edges (the Flamingo, 1946) and unusual shapes (a Figure 8 at the Desert Inn, 1950) morphed into glass pools with portholes (the Mirage Motel, 1952) and pools with airtight underwater chambers for those who wanted to enjoy a cocktail fully clothed (New Frontier, 1955). The resorts have upped the ante ever since, which is how floating craps tables and underwater Muzak gave way, for better or worse, to live sharks and stripper poles.
The pole at EBC isn’t getting much action, but then, it is early.
Our 10:30 a.m. arrival required a relatively short wait of 45 minutes in a line secured with, of course, red-velvet ropes, from which we watched passels of bachelorettes and VIPs (i.e., attractive 20-somethings) go ahead of us. We forked over $60 each for the opportunity to run a gauntlet of bag searchers and body wanders (nine or 10 buff dudes in Under Armour-branded red shirts and black gloves), pay $50 for two 6-ounce mojitos and awkwardly set up shop in a tiny patch of shade thrown off from an elevated bungalow with its own private pool.
You can forget about a comfortable seat (or a towel) if you haven’t paid for the privilege. At Encore, prices can range from $5,000-ish for a daybed to $10,000 for a “water couch,” a 10-person table-sofa-lounge combo situated in a shallow part of the pool, the easier to roll right off into the water. The real estate at day clubs is parceled out like VIP areas in a nightclub; the price for a full day’s rental, which includes bottle service and its corresponding “minimum spend” agreement, is based on a variety of factors, like day of the week and the location of your couch or cabana. But the biggest determinant of cost is the talent, which in most cases is the DJ. Resorts compete fiercely to sign contracts with big names (an unusual number of which end in o — Diplo, Marshmello, Tiesto, Alesso). Earlier this year Calvin Harris, the highest-paid DJ in the world according to Forbes, renewed his contract through 2020 with Hakkasan Group, an international purveyor of luxury “night life and day life,” for a reported cool $280 million.
So with Emily in her tunic and me in my swim skirt, we settle into our shade patch with a woman from Singapore, who graciously gives us some of her sunscreen; we’ve come in empty-handed, intimidated by the long list of prohibited items, an odd assortment no doubt begot from hard-won experience (the usual suspects, like drugs and weapons, but also nasal sprays, vitamins, breath strips). The three of us proceed to gape, open-mouthed, at the spectacle, which at this point involves a lot of dancing and drinking and flirting. Most of the men wear standard pool attire; the women appear to have shopped from the Boudoir Resort collection 2019. Fake eyelashes and blown-out hairdos top 4-inch strappy heels and ankle-length robes in sheer fabric, the better to showcase the ubiquitous cheeky bikini bottom.
Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis, Caesars Palace
Seeking a little less excitement, we walk a long, hot mile that feels like 10 to Caesars Palace, Jay Sarno’s “palace for all the people.” The Oasis, with its imposing statuary, flowing fountains and stately columns, has seven pools, one to suit any mood or style, including European, aka “toptional” (my new favorite word). Like a Caesar, we confidently breeze past the check-in desks and make a beeline for the Temple pool, where we acquire two $25 pina coladas made with rum and vodka from the poolside eatery Snackus Maximus.
We slip into the blessedly cold water and note the diversity of this pool — bodies of all shapes and sizes speaking all kinds of languages, and families with children, something that feels like a plus at this juncture. A cluster of boisterous Irish women keeps us entertained for a good bit, as do two Caesars-employed dancers with faux Greco-Roman-goddess-style braids and metallic-gold bikinis swaying to the music atop their pedestals. We pass a couple of hours this way, unable to wrench ourselves from our liquid blue cocoon, until the lifeguard blows his whistle at me for the second time, for daring to sit on the half-submerged steps leading to the giant rotunda that houses a towering golden Caesar (Augustus? Julius?), and we decide to call it a day.
Sunday, 10:44 a.m.
Daylight Beach Club, Mandalay Bay
“Anyone here rock stars?” Emily and I are getting better at this; we’ve left breakfast at the hotel with a mini-bottle of sparkling wine and two large OJs to go, and so I’ve had just enough to laugh and wave my hand obnoxiously at the official-looking woman scanning the small group of us huddling in the shade of a spindly tree, waiting for the gates to open. Turns out she’s looking for folks who have signed up for a “party bus” tour of the Strip and VIP access to select clubs. We have just been denied access to Mandalay’s “world-famous aquatic playground” (“2,700 tons of real sand!” “1.6 million-gallon wave pool!”) but have managed to score two “ladies get in free” passes to Daylight.
Clearly, spending a few hours at a day club is a fairly attainable goal, depending on capacity, what you’re willing to pay and some abstruse concept called gender mix (hence the free passes). Getting into a hotel’s complex of “regular” pools — or even finding them — is more of a crapshoot. Almost always hidden in the back-40, they are mostly the unassailable domains of registered guests, with a few confusing exceptions. Some are open to the public, some are aggressively locked down, and some let you in on certain days for certain fees. Appearance matters, unfortunately, as does time of day. Later, at another pool, I’ll ask for a float and the attendant will first look at his watch and then tell me it will cost $20. I can only surmise that hot air captured in PVC plastic gets more economical as the day wears on.
Daylight is not yet bumping because, once again, we’re early. Although it’s terribly hot and the still-clear pool beckons with colorful gratis tubes shaped like cross-sections of lemons and limes, we sit on the pool’s edge, our feet in the water, and drink expensive cheap wine from plastic glasses. That gets old fast, and we move on.
Grand Pool Complex, MGM Grand
We’d hoped to talk our way onto the lazy river but are not terribly disappointed when we don’t succeed, as the river is downright inert, packed with colorful tubes barely conveying rambunctious children and enervated adults. So off we go down a winding path to the day club, Wet Republic. But we can hear MGM’s “ultra pool” before we even lay eyes on it, and we turn on our heels and skedaddle back down the Strip to our hotel. You’ve seen one day club, you’ve seen them all.
Marquee, the Cosmopolitan
Well, maybe not. We have concluded that we’d be remiss if we didn’t visit our own hotel’s day club, Marquee, another high roller in the pool-party scene. So we descend to the entrance, on Level 2, where an attendant takes us on a disorienting trip down a long hall into an elevator and through a dark, cavernous space that hosts the nightclub, all of which gives us plenty of time to gird our loins for our debut. We walk onto the pool deck just in time to witness a bronzed dude doing the “hang loose” sign as he scoots across the path of a barrel-bellied middle-aged man in an American flag swim brief emerging from the pool to dance with three young women. “I’ve got the power!” rings out in a deafening fashion from the DJ booth as we bypass the purple lounges and matching umbrellas to find a narrow edge of a planter to perch on.
Ogling the impossibly perfect bodies and the extravagant display of assets, what becomes crystal clear (unlike the pool) is that none of this is about the pool.
Monday, 12:41 p.m.
Cypress Premier Lounge, Bellagio Hotel & Casino:
We have surrendered. Earlier in the morning, exhausted and nigh well overcome by sensory overload, we’d nonetheless decided to come sniffing around the verdant acreage that cradles the Bellagio’s five pools. Delighted that we had gone unnoticed by the room-key police and captivated by the “azure waters,” the peaceful setting, the adult contemporary playlist, we made a solemn pledge that we would return, books and hats and sunscreen in a bag no one would search, and pay for the privilege. And so here we are, having put down $85 each — which seems to us a bargain, relatively speaking — for a few hours in a reserved chaise lounge.
“People actually enjoy this?” one of our cabdrivers had asked, as we’d regaled him with our day-club adventures. It would appear they do. The pools are selling what all of Vegas is selling: escape on an epic scale, the opportunity to mingle with the young and attractive, to brush against what feels like celebrity, to gain entree — however fleeting and expensive — to velvet-roped exclusivity. And if that moment in the sun means a multi-thousand-dollar credit card bill showing up a few weeks later, well, so be it. It’s hard to ignore the gratuitous excess, the worrisome superficiality, the aqueous extravagance. But it’s also hard not to be seduced.
Right now the water is crystal clear and almost uncomfortably cold, alive with splashing fountains. We recline in our umbrella-shaded daybed, with plush towels near at hand and our own tastefully dressed Personal Cypress Host, who graciously brings us all the iced-down bottles of wine we are willing to pay for. Sade’s “Smooth Operator” plays over the sound system (“Diamond life …”), and I spy a sign advertising poolside chilled eye treatments and foot exfoliating. “Relax,” it says. “You’ve earned this.”