Las Vegas has some unusual and adventurous options.
Shimmering in the desert haze, Las Vegas is – well – unique, but first of all, put credibility on hold; this is the city that worships excess – the home of the drive-in wedding service and hotels in the shape of New York skyscrapers or glass pyramids, and furnished with exploding volcanoes, classical Roman fountains, Venetian canals and pirate ships that engage in nightly duels. While Las Vegas might have its competitors, there is nothing on earth quite like the real thing.
Despite its excesses, Las Vegas comes at a bargain price. Apart from peak holiday periods, the vast number of hotel rooms means that rooms are usually available at a huge discount and the evening stroll along “The Strip” – the two-mile section of Las Vegas Boulevard known to locals as “Glitter Gulch” for its fabulous lightshow – will keep you entertained for hours without costing a cent.
Las Vegas has another side that few visitors ever take the time to discover. A one-hour drive from the city will deliver you to the cool, pine-scented slopes of Charleston Peak, a 3,500 metre summit in the Spring Mountain Range. Trails lead up to the summit and into the aspen forests that cloak these ranges. Slightly further afield is the Valley of Fire State Park, where 150 million years of wind and water has sculpted fantastic sandstone formations. A day trip from Las Vegas will take you to Death Valley, an eerie wasteland of sand dunes and searing heat that was named by westward-bound pioneers.
Las Vegas also makes an ideal base for visiting The Grand Canyon, in the neighboring state of Arizona. Every morning, Scenic Airways flights leave Las Vegas at first light and passengers are treated to the incredible sight of the sun rising over the canyon. The aircraft lands near the rim of the Grand Canyon from where you can take a coach tour or pick up a hire car and follow the road out to Desert View, a 35-kilometre journey along the southern rim of the canyon. There are not many earthly wonders that live up to expectations, but nothing will prepare you for the moment when you take your heart into your hands, shuffle forward to the edge of the canyon, check your footing, grab the handrail as vertigo takes hold and gaze into the depths where the belly of the earth is laid bare in a vision both terrifying and sublime.
The western corner of Nevada is a very different side of the state – calmer, cooler and almost neon-free. Straddling the border between Nevada and California, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in the country. The drive around the lake takes the best part of a day along the looping road that rises high into the ponderosa pines one moment then swoops down to sandy beaches and quiet stone and timber towns huddled at the water’s edge.
The Tahoe Basin has the greatest concentration of ski areas in the United States . One of the best known of the downhill resorts is Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, where the longest run is an amazing five kilometres. The average annual snowfall in the Tahoe region is around twelve metres, much of it dry powder snow.
Not far from Lake Tahoe, Virginia City was the site of Nevada’s first mining boom. Gold was discovered here at the notorious Comstock Lode in 1859, and the town mushroomed both above and below the ground, where mine shafts a thousand metres long pierced the mountains. Over the past 40 years Virginia City has discovered a new source of wealth – tourism – and the town survives as a museum of the old west, highly commercialised but still worth seeing.
This is Middle America – scenic, folksy and friendly, especially if you happen to come with an Australian accent. For anyone whose idea of the USA is derived from the small screen, Nevada will change your mind.