I thought I had pretty much “done” Vegas to death. I’ve been here off and on since the ‘70s when Downtown WAS Vegas. And came back when The Strip just got started. And visited again when the town tried to turn family friendly. And again when it went back to its gambling, sin city roots. And now, once again, when it’s doing a bit of everything.
I’m happy to say, Vegas is really back. Well, the Vegas I like … the one with lots of choices for folks who DON’T gamble.
This time I was in a hotel in the original, downtown area, four miles from The Strip.
The Downtown Grand Las Vegas hotel is old school … you wade through the casino to reach the entrance for buses and tours. The rooms are simple, but it’s got a great pool deck with impressive views of the area.
The star of downtown, though, is Fremont Street, a freak show that begs to be experienced at least once. When the sun goes down, the neon lights, the videos on the canopy, the interesting street people and THE MUSIC come up.
The canopy is amazing … a four-block long mesh on which music videos play, along with a zip line that threads most of its length. There’s gambling, food, stalls with quirky stuff for sale, even a booth of Chippendale guys (bare to muscle bulging waist) who will (for a fee) take a picture with you.
The rapper was cool. The street magician, who sat in mid-air while folks crawled beneath and waved arms above him, was fascinating. How???? He wasn’t saying.
There’s also a welter of great museums in the area … the Neon Museum, showcasing old neon signs, the Mob Museum, a wax museum, just to name a few.
Over in “new” Vegas stretches The Strip, crammed with huge, high end hotels with just about any kind of diversion (think replica of Paris, roller coasters ….). At the MGM ARIA Resort & Casino, my friends and I had a chance to do a mixology class … the $75 was worth its weight in tips, history and, of course, drinks. (See Yvette’s story, “Mixin’ It Up in Vegas,” on her Vegas mixology class.)
One day we visited the High Roller. Right now (until Dubai bests them), it’s the world’s tallest wheel. They call it an “observation” wheel because the cars ride outside the track. Each car holds 40 people and the ride takes 30 minutes, giving you an incredible view of the area. Best time to do this is dusk, when lights are just starting to come on and you can still see the buildings.
Yes, we were told, people get married on this wheel. But the absolute over-the-top event was a chap who had won America’s Greatest Talent and, last summer, made himself disappear from one of the cabins and reappear at the hub of the wheel’s spindle … on an OUTSIDE PLATFORM. The event became a two-hour NBC special.
The wheel was built, by the way, as a lure to draw people off The Strip’s main drag and onto a side street called LINQ Promenade, which is part of the Caesars Entertainment company.
“We could have put the world’s fastest roller coaster there, but we wanted something that had an appeal to the largest possible crowd,” said High Roller General Manager Eric Eberhart. Enter the observation wheel … exciting but not heart attack inducing.
If all this civilization gets to you, there’s Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, 17 miles west of The Strip with nearly 200,000 acres of breathtaking hills, vistas and climbing cliffs that are among the 10 most climbed walls in the country. There’s a 13 mile loop road, 19 official (and lots more unofficial) hiking trails and countless unpaved, thrill producing off-road jeep tracks.
The photo magnet, the Calico Hills, is early in the drive. Three different colors thread through the rocky walls … red from iron oxide, beige from silica and pink from magnesium and manganese.
Guided hikes, cycling, jeep rides and so forth are available and one nice way to do it is stay at nearby Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa. Yes, the place has the ubiquitous gambling, but it’s not always in your face. Plus there’s a welter of gourmet restaurants, a palm tree lined patio with pool, a spa. And a Starbucks, which is nice since Vegas hotels have, for some reason, kept coffee makers out of the rooms.
Folks also usually add on trips to nearby parks, figuring, if you’re only two or so hours away from, say, Death Valley….
And that’s where I went one day. Flooding rains (yes that happens here) had washed five feet of debris over one main road so we never got to the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, but did go to the park’s most famous overlook, Zabriski Point, and have lunch down at Furnace Creek Ranch with its nearby, very photogenic dead tree skeletons. And we dodged the heat (107 degrees) in the air conditioned Visitor’s Center.
Gambling is just not my thing and it may not be your’s. But good restaurants? Spectacular shows? Great behind the scenes tours and classes, funky museums, along with that utterly weird and wonderful chaos of Fremont Street? Yes, definitely. Just bring plenty of memory cards for your camera and storage in your phone. – Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
If You Go
* Las Vegas: http://www.lasvegas.com/
* List of Vegas area museums: http://www.vegas.com/attractions/museums-galleries-las-vegas/
* List of area and nearby recreation: http://www.vegas.com/attractions/recreation-las-vegas/
* Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa: https://redrock.sclv.com/
* Death Valley National Park: http://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm
Photo Diary: https://goo.gl/photos/KTaq4Kek18oL9W1m7