Serving of glitz with the gravy

The Baltimore Sun

Instead of gathering at Grandma's house, they'll eat gourmet turkey dinners and champagne brunches at casino hotels. They've scored hard-to-come-by tickets to popular shows, such as Jubilee at Bally's Hotel and Cirque de Soleil. And they'll avoid the scores of business convention-goers who fill the city at other times of the year.

Sin City, surprising as it might seem, has become a hot getaway for this family-centered, wholesome holiday. Las Vegas is the second-most-popular Thanksgiving travel destination on this year, rising from its sixth-place spot two years ago. Trailing Hawaii and New York, Las Vegas ranked third among U.S. destinations in American Express' recent holiday travel poll.

"A lot of people think of Vegas as just casinos, but there's everything there, which is why it's so cool," said Pikesville resident Marc Soloweszyk, who met up with his parents there for Thanksgiving week. "There's so much to do."

The Soloweszyks planned to get spa massages, take in some shows and good meals, and, of course, gamble.

This travel trend comes as many air carriers are expanding their service to Las Vegas, a top tourist destination they can count on for strong and steady year-round sales.

Orlando-based AirTran Airways, the second-largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, now has twice as many nonstop flights nationally to Las Vegas as it did in 2006.

"It's very much a leisure market where we get a lot of traction through our low fares," said AirTran spokesman David Hirschman. "You can't think of Las Vegas as non-family anymore."

Earlier this month, Southwest Airlines, which is BWI's dominant carrier, opened its newest crew base at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. Las Vegas is the airline's busiest airport, with about 240 daily departures.

Southwest has 14 total flights from BWI to Las Vegas, three nonstop, company spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said. US Airways also offers two direct flights from Baltimore to Las Vegas.

Sales of Southwest vacation packages, for travel from BWI to Las Vegas during Thanksgiving week, more than doubled compared with that period last year.

"Families are saying: Let's not spend Thanksgiving at home this year," said Amy Ziff, a editor-at-large. "Las Vegas has an increasing appeal, with its restaurants, diversity of hotel offerings and all the shows and adrenaline thrills."

For some couples and families, the Thanksgiving trip to the glitzy city doubles as another celebration: an anniversary, a 21st birthday, a delayed honeymoon.

Angela and Eric Dennis are skipping the family feasts in North Carolina to fit in a romantic jaunt before Eric leaves on a 15-month deployment to Iraq.

In Las Vegas, the Dennises will celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary early and still get to spend Christmas at home with their families.

With gourmet offerings such as quail, pumpkin creme brulee and balsamic cranberry sauce, Vegas restaurants will offer them unique takes on the traditional Thanksgiving fare.

"This is going to be different from the usual green bean casserole, that's for sure," said Angela Dennis, 31, who worked at Towson University before moving to Fort Bragg with her husband. "The holidays are very much a family-oriented thing in the South, so people almost feel sorry for us, because it's just going to be the two of us."

David and Tobie Soloweszyk, who moved from Randallstown to retire in Florida, had already done Vegas with their older son, Phillip, 28. They wanted their other son, Marc, 24, to have the same experience.

"I am like a kid in a candy store here," Marc Soloweszyk wrote in an e-mail after winning $60 at the blackjack table. "It's like Disney World for adults!"

Eldersburg residents Sherri and Todd Horton had hoped their three children would join them in Las Vegas this week. Dad had frequent-flier miles to burn. But the kids had too much schoolwork, so their parents went alone on a pre-Thanksgiving gambling getaway.

"It's as busy as it's ever been," Sherri Horton said from a casino Monday afternoon. "It's packed."

Maggie Schmerin, 23, of Crystal City in Northern Virginia, was meeting her parents and brother in Las Vegas to celebrate his 21st birthday. Like the Hortons, the Schmerins were staying at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino on the Strip.

But they planned on a quieter Thanksgiving dinner at the Ritz Carlton Lake Las Vegas in nearby Henderson.

"We still want the traditional food," said Maggie Schmerin, who does public relations work in Washington. "Lake Las Vegas is away from the hustle and bustle, to make dinner a little more special."

And what would Las Vegas be without its newlyweds?

Married Sept. 29, Jason and Kimmie Gray had to delay their honeymoon until this week. In her first year as a third-grade teacher in St. Mary's County, Kimmie Gray can't miss too many days of school. Thanksgiving gives them an extra day.

But it's the first time Jason Gray won't share the meal with family, at his mother's in Prince Frederick.

The spreads at the Bellagio and Bally's might give mom a run for her money, though.

"It's the best food you've ever tasted," Jason Gray said of the top Vegas restaurants. "I told my mom I've got something to compare to her cooking now."

Top domestic Thanksgiving destinations

1. New York 2. Las Vegas 3. Orlando, Fla. 4. South Florida 5. Los Angeles 6. Chicago 7. Dallas 8. Washington, D.C. 9. Denver 10. Phoenix [Source: Travelocity]

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