The neon signs burn just as brightly as they ever have. And never have the mega-resort casinos been more gargantuan, with bigger-than-life million-dollar stage shows and change-your-life million-dollar dreams. Yes, Las Vegas is still very much the famed "Entertainment Capital of the World." And how.
But beyond the glitz and glimmer of the Strip, there exists a different Sin City—a Las Vegas that hides in plain sight even as the slot machines sing their songs and whirl around toward lucky sevens. It's a Las Vegas that is not exclusively for the locals, but still one that Strip-obsessed visitors often ignore—or flat-out don't even know about.
This Las Vegas is more than just joining a tour group for a half-day trip to the Hoover Dam, though it might not be for first-time visitors who really should go all-in for six-hour blackjack sessions, three-foot-tall mugs of beer to drink while people-watching along Las Vegas Boulevard, $150 Cirque du Soleil shows and $40 buffets. For those who have done the Strip to death, for those who can resist the lure of sliding clay chips across felt tables, for those unafraid to rent a car and venture out beyond the Strip, a new experience awaits.
A couple right turns out of the rental car garage put you and your GPS right on Las Vegas Boulevard, with the iconic Las Vegas Welcome Sign just two miles up the road. For most Las Vegas visitors, their vacation here exists on a roughly five-mile north-south stretch between the shiny golden façade of Mandalay Bay and the Stratosphere—which has the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States, by the way.
But our alternative Vegas vacation starts by bypassing the Strip altogether. The I-215 "Beltway" heads out West from the Strip past a series of exits that lead to suburban strip mall after strip mall. But as the peaks of the Spring Mountain range get closer, the Charleston Boulevard exit showcases a pair of gems.
Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa is 15 miles away from the action of the Strip, but once there you might need to be reminded you're in Vegas. Red Rock is named after the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area just a few miles west of it, and while the typical Las Vegas gaming experiences are plentiful there, there is also opportunity to treat a stay there like a getaway from the rush of life. And in Las Vegas, that's saying something.
The resort boasts a full spa. Hiking and horseback riding excursions can be booked through the property. There are restaurants ranging from a high-end steakhouse to sushi to an above-average buffet to a food court, plus a bowling alley and movie theater. There are night clubs and bars, one of Las Vegas' nicest sportsbooks, and you can hop out of one of the better pool complexes in town and choose between a cabana or a seat at a blackjack table while you air dry. Once decamped, there is little need to leave the resort, making Red Rock a Vegas anomaly—an escape from reality that is actually relaxing if you want it to be.
Just a few miles west of the Red Rock resort is Red Rock Canyon, a 13-mile one-way drive filled with dozens of u-shaped turns and switchbacks. The canyon is a mecca for cyclists and runners looking to get in some road work at altitude. For the adventurous, there are enough hiking trails to keep one busy for a month, not to mention rock climbing opportunities. The hikes range from easy ones of under a mile to the more strenuous 5 miles and a legit half-day. But the views of the canyon's sandstone formations can be truly spectacular. And if you just want to drive through, there are dozens of pull-offs for photo opportunities and short hikes—and you might just spot a wild burro or two.
An hour northeast of Las Vegas sits the Valley of Fire State Park, which takes its name from the red sandstone rock formations throughout the valley. If you visit in the summer, be prepared for temperatures that can hit 120 degrees—but as they love to say in Las Vegas, "It's a dry heat." The Valley of Fire features some of the most picturesque rock formations in the West, including the famed Elephant Rock. And in several locations, petroglyphs—rock drawings done by the ancient Pueblo tribe that lived in the area starting around 300 BC—can be found, making the area one of the more fascinating historical locations within a short drive of Sin City. Some of the formations in the valley are so otherworldly that they have doubled as other worlds in the movies, including scenes on Mars in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger hit Total Recall.
And as long as you're at the Valley of Fire, you're only a few miles from the north end of Lake Mead, which, given its size as the largest man-made reservoir in the country thanks to the Hoover Dam, is far from a hidden treasure. But plenty of boating, swimming, fishing and other water activities abound there, making it a nice retreat from the bustle of the casinos.
But let's be honest—you're not going to Las Vegas to steer yourself completely away from what it's known for. And in the last few years, the city has become known for its world-class dining options as much as it has for gambling and stage shows and the "what happens here stays here" mantra.
It's easy to get lured in to any of the dozens of fancy-pants restaurants the backing of celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse, or even fancier backing of legendary chefs like Joel Robuchon and Tom Colicchio. And make no mistake, you'll get a great meal—at a great price. Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian and New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand offer a chance for a dining experience that will make you feel quite Vegas without leaving your wallet completely empty, as will any of Puck's many offerings, including Spago at Caesar's Palace. And if you want to play to the stereotype and hit up a buffet, the offerings at Bellagio, Wynn and Paris are all outstanding and provide an excellent quality bang for your buck, even if you're not gorging yourself.
But trips to Las Vegas for me aren't complete without at least one trip to a place that most of the tourists don't know about. If you aren't specifically looking for Lotus of Siam, you won't find it. It's hidden away in a strip mall complex off Sahara Avenue a mile from the Strip. From the outside, Lotus appears to be just another random ethnic food offering of several in the complex. But inside, Chef Saipin Chutima is crafting what review after review has called the best Thai food in North America. She also won the James Beard Award last year for best chef in the Southwest. The pad Thai at Lotus is second to none. And if you go on weekdays at lunch time, there is a buffet for $10.99 that lets you wrap your taste buds around several Lotus specialties. You'll thank me later for the fried banana rolls alone.
Four Kegs Sports Pub is the only Las Vegas restaurant to be featured on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which is odd given that host Guy Fieri went to UNLV. But his recommendation of the beef and cheddar stromboli is spot-on. My last trip there, owner Mario Perkins popped out from the kitchen, sat down in my booth and had a good chat with me about what I thought, and what made me leave the comfort of the Strip to seek out the Four Kegs. And the wings are pretty good, too.
Hoosiers will want to hit up Hash House A Go Go for a taste of home. The restaurant, which started in San Diego twelve years ago, has four Vegas locations. But the original, which isn't inside a hotel, is the way to go. Hash House serves up what it calls "twisted farm food" three meals a day, including an entire menu section called "Indiana Favorites." But its take on chicken and waffles is what got it a spot in the Top 100 Greatest Cult Restaurants in America from Poor Taste magazine. Two giant chicken breasts are fried, then served atop waffles made with bacon inside them, then drizzled with a maple-caramel syrup and topped with fried leeks. And why not? Vegas is a city of excess, and that meal takes the cake.
In a city where if you look hard enough, there's something for everyone, the glitz and glimmer can be hard to resist. But it doesn't take too much searching to find some things you never knew were there.