Travel

Live Like an ‘80s Casino Magnate in This Retro Las Vegas Suite

Experience swanky vintage Las Vegas in the penthouse at the El Cortez.

flickr/pony rojo
flickr/pony rojo
flickr/pony rojo

There’s a clunky, very vintage-looking Unisonic video intercom system outside the 15th-floor penthouse in Downtown Las Vegas’s El Cortez Hotel. Ring the intercom’s loud doorbell, step inside, and you’ll realize it even works: You can actually see into the hallway through a very grainy black and white closed-circuit TV, retro tech at its goofiest. Once you’re in the suite’s foyer, you’ll see a set of interior doors complete with custom oversized “JG” door pulls. You might ponder the initials for a moment, but if you’ve booked this suite, you probably already know what they stand for. After all, the penthouse’s former resident is likely the reason you’re here-to live like the late and legendary casino magnate Jackie Gaughan. When Gaughan moved to Las Vegas in 1950, the city wasn’t anywhere near as glamorous as it is today. The future desert hotspot only had about 25,000 residents, a smattering of casinos, and Frank Sinatra was about a year out from playing his first Vegas show. Still, Gaughan-a one-time Omaha bookmaker-saw promise in the city and its gambling future. He bought a 3% stake in the Flamingo, then another 3% in the Boulder Club, and just a decade later opened his own casino, the Las Vegas Club. Many more casinos would pass through his hands in the years to come, and at his peak, Gaughan owned an estimated 25% of available real estate in Downtown Vegas, making him one of the most successful mid-century moguls in all of Sin City.

El Cortez Hotel & Casino - Las Vegas
El Cortez Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas
El Cortez Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas

One of Gaughan’s signature properties was the El Cortez, which he purchased in 1963. He moved into the casino’s penthouse with his wife Bertie in 1980, reigning over his Vegas empire from their fully customized perch on the 15th floor. Though Gaughan sold the El Cortez to his business partner in 2008, he kept on living in the suite until his death in 2014. Since then, the El Cortez has kept the suite as Gaughan left it as a tribute to their onetime owner, renting it out by request to Vegas visitors interested in stepping into the shoes of the mid-century magnate.

El Cortez Hotel & Casino - Las Vegas
El Cortez Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas
El Cortez Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas

Though the El Cortez itself certainly doesn’t offer the glamour a mega-resort on the Strip might, the hotel’s recently remodelled hotel tower is nice enough, and it’s clear from the moment you see the swanky Jackie Gaughan suite that you’re in for a singular experience. Once you’ve passed the intercom and reached that first set of initialled interior doors, you’ll realize just how big the Gaughan suite actually is. When this reporter stayed the night, the suite felt positively cavernous, especially for a solo endeavour. There are dozens of doors to closets and powder rooms and hallways, and the suite’s oversized L shape makes it kind of a confusing space to navigate. Despite the clunkiness, the Jackie Gaughan suite is an absolutely fascinating space. It’s like stepping into an estate sale after almost all the knick-knacks have been sold, or using your grandparents’ condo in Florida while they’re up north for the summer. The entire suite is full of stuff, and not just opulent, plush ‘80s furniture all covered in velvet and brass. Start opening kitchen cabinets and you’ll find tons of mismatched glassware. There are decorative liquor bottles in the living room celebrating Gaughan’s time in the armed services, as well as a commemorative cup that appears to have been given to Nebraska-raised Gaughan by the state’s Cornhuskers football team.

El Cortez Hotel & Casino - Las Vegas
El Cortez Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas
El Cortez Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas

All the suite’s interior details were handpicked by Gaughan’s wife, Bertie, and it’s clear she had an eye for excess. Every carpet in the suite is so plush you feel like you’re in a bounce house. There are two charmingly vintage refrigerators in the kitchen space, plus one behind the wet bar. Open the period refrigerators and you’ll be hit with a big wave of, “Oh, wow, my great-aunt had this.”The 2,800-square-foot suite somehow feels even bigger than that measure would suggest, boasting two enormous master bedrooms-a more sedate beige and mint space for Jackie and a silver and pink palace for Bertie-connected by a private “romper” room that’s filled with old LPs, mod furniture, and a (thankfully) modern TV. While both rooms have en suite bathrooms, they leave a little to be desired in terms of modernity. During my visit, I went to use Jackie’s shower in the morning and found that it wouldn’t even turn on. I hit up Bertie’s instead, where I found ridiculously over-the-top pink and white faux marble fixtures, wall mirrors etched with cherubs and bubbles, and golden swan faucets on the (also very pink) raised soaking tub.

El Cortez Hotel & Casino - Las Vegas
El Cortez Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas
El Cortez Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas

In contrast to what you’d find in a traditional hotel suite, all of Jackie and Bertie’s closets and drawers are still in the suite, too, meaning you can open drawers and doors to your heart’s content. If you’re an estate sale fan like me, or someone who always opens the hosts’ medicine cabinets in their bathrooms when you’re at a party, this room will give you the same kind of voyeuristic thrill. I loved discovering the couples’ shoe closets, finding the faux cabinet door in each bathroom that seemed to have formerly housed a hamper, and even venturing into the two massive walk-in closets near Bertie’s room (both of which still have Gaughan-related items in them, like a dated treadmill). I stumbled upon a massive pile of birthday cards that El Cortez employees and staff had signed for Gaughan leaning against the wall in one of the closets, and with a little examination I even saw an inscription from Gaughan’s grandkids. The suite’s swag doesn’t stick indoors, either: There are four balconies attached to the room, each boasting panoramic views of beautiful Las Vegas. While they’re certainly not the swankiest perches in Sin City, with thin metal railings, faux plants, and iffy stucco, they make a strong argument for sleeping in Gaughan’s room with the curtains open, looking out at the Strat Hotel’s tower and the lights of the Strip beyond. In the morning, you’ll wake up to bright desert sun and step out into Downtown Vegas, where the Arts District is honestly pretty amazing. You could get coffee and food at the El Cortez if you wanted, but I just threw a few coins in the casino’s slots-yes, they still have coin slots-and then headed down to Ferguson’s Downtown for a sausage roll and cold brew at Mothership. These days, the Gaughan suite is available by request. Adam Wiesberg, the General Manager of the El Cortez, says that while the room is mainly used for events and Hollywood shoots (including Ellie Goulding’s “On My Mind” video) it’s available to rent for about $1,500 per night to just about anyone. You’ll just have to pass a brief vetting by the hotel’s staff first, so they can make sure you aren’t about to wreck the space. In my experience, the massive suite feels a bit eerie with just one or two people spending the night, so a group stay is probably the way to go here. You should be able to fit at least five or six people (provided people don’t mind sharing beds) for a retro-style night on a special occasion or a viewing party that makes use of the enormous living room TV. The Jackie Gaughan suite seems like the perfect place to make memories with loved ones, just like Jackie and Bertie did all those years ago.

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Marah Eakin is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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