LAS VEGAS — As if Las Vegas weren't surreal enough, the Artisan hotel plunges you into a shadowy world of weirdness that makes the rest of Sin City seem downright virtuous.
The receptionist likened it to the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. I was convinced the eerie paintings covering every inch of every wall might come to life at any moment, like at Hogwarts.
The Artisan, a boutique nongaming hotel a few blocks from the north end of the Vegas strip, drew me in because it seemed like a unique, charming alternative to the mega-casino hotels.
Unique? You betcha. Charming? Certainly at first, with its dark, moody lobby, dramatic chandeliers, ornate statues, seductive trance music, and framed paintings and mirrors plastering the walls from floor to ceiling, as well as the ceiling itself.
But the esoteric decor isn't all that makes this hotel a bit crazy.
Housed in a building that once was a Travelodge, the Artisan last year fell into disrepute when news broke of many health issues — soiled mattresses, mold in the ice machine, bugs in the booze. New owners took over in January, and the hotel has been brought back to life and up to health codes.
Now the Artisan can concentrate on what it's known for: as a late-late-night weekend party spot. When we went downstairs about 8 a.m. one Sunday to start our day, people were still dancing in their club gear in the dimly lit bar, which gets busiest after 3 a.m.
And then there was the swingers party. Yes, the night we stayed there the Artisan happened to be hosting a party for swingers — not the Lindy Hop kind but the couple-swapping kind — who grooved on the pool deck until dawn. Unable to sleep with Beyonce blaring in my ear, I gave in to my curiosity about 3 a.m. and crept to the outdoor stairwell to spy on the party — and then I got locked out, in my pajamas, alongside a swimsuit-clad couple heading somewhere with an ice bucket.
When someone finally opened the door, I ran to my bed and hid under the covers.
What happens at the Artisan really should stay at the Artisan.
Checking in: Reaching the front entrance of this unimpressive white building on the edge of Interstate Highway 15 took several U-turns, and when we finally arrived, we discovered our only option was to valet park (it's free). We left behind the bright desert sun to enter this brooding, gothic world, unapologetically overdecorated with a suit of armor, bookcases packed with dusty books and a giant stone fountain. Service at the swanky black reception desk was efficient and friendly, but no one took us up to our rooms or gave an explanation of the hotel's amenities — or warned that there would be parties raging all night. The receptionist just pointed to the single blood-red elevator, beside a large reproduction of the "Mona Lisa.'
Rooms: The 63 rooms on three floors are each themed after a painter, whose name is on a placard on the door and whose paintings cover the bedroom walls (creepy paintings also cover every bit of the corridor walls). After having to return to the reception desk three times because my key didn't work, they finally relocated me to another room, themed after Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The attractive room, an average size, had black walls, black shutters and a comfortable white bed with a red bolster. A white orchid, flat-screen TV and two Fiji waters, at $5 apiece, were on the dresser.
Bathroom: The spacious and clean bathroom had shiny black tiles on its walls and floor and a black shower curtain.
Kid-friendly: Um, no.
Perks and peeves: For a small hotel, the Artisan has a great pool, which is ringed by nine daybeds, three cabanas and a bar. There's much exploring to do, and by opening odd doors and exploring passageways you stumble upon the quirkiest things: Here's a wedding chapel; there's a terrible, dusty gym with one bench and a few dumbbells. A small nook houses a public computer with Internet. There's free Wi-Fi throughout.
One of the hidden gems of the hotel is a patio you get to via a passageway through the bar, a quiet outdoor spot with wicker furniture, candles and gentler music. The hotel's restaurant, appropriately named Mood and open nonstop on weekends, has a varied menu of contemporary American dishes (crab cakes, lobster BLT, rack of lamb).
My greatest peeve, aside from the key not working and the lack of hair dryer in my room, was the noise. The receptionist, who discounted my resort fee when I complained, said they always call the room shortly after people have checked in to inform them of the nightclub atmosphere. I never got that call. And I'm not sure why they don't just tell you when you check in — or, better yet, when you book your room. They say guests can request to stay in a quieter room away from the bar area.
Price: $105 for rooms with a classic king bed or two queen beds, suites $223 on a mid-December weekend, including fees.
Bottom line: Those seeking a break from the strip can have a one-of-a-kind experience, but this isn't for the faint of heart.