Las Vegas: Seeing Sin City with less sin and less city
Even the highest of high rollers sometimes takes a break from the blackjack table, the slot machine and the roulette wheel. And not everyone visiting Las Vegas wants to test his or her fortune with Lady Luck in the first place. I was there recently and managed not to drop a single penny on any type of gambling.
That's because the city has a surprising number of things to do that are outside the casino realm -- though you may have to walk through a casino to get anywhere, since every hotel is designed to make you pass through the aisles of temptation on the way out.
Dining and drinking options are on top of the list of fun activities, of course. But there are several other options that actually strengthen the body and the mind. Who would have guessed that fine art and healthful activities were so easy to take in? And if you have to balance those with a little time at the poker table, so be it.
RED ROCK CANYON NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA
Las Vegas is surprisingly small, which you realize when the trip from the airport to the hotel takes only 10 minutes. That means you can get outside of town quickly and into the unpopulated desert. In a half-hour, you arrive at Red Rock, one of the most conveniently located and stunning national parks in the country.
There are more than 20 official hiking trails, ranging from the serious fitness test to an easy walk. The landscape is breathtaking on each, and your eye will be busy taking in subtle variations in the rust-colored hills. It's hard to imagine the indoor world of casinos is so close. Red Rock has a 13-mile scenic drive, which is used to access each trail. But if you just want to cruise along at 15 miles an hour and see the desert landscape from the inside of your car, that works, too.
WHERE Entrance on Charleston Boulevard/State Route 159
INFO $7, blm.gov/nv
BELLAGIO GALLERY OF FINE ART
Since it opened in 1998, the Bellagio hotel has been a Vegas leader in serving up serious art within its huge resort campus -- generally they are shows on loan from prestigious East Coast institutions.
The current show, "Warhol Out West," on view until Jan. 2, is chockablock with famous works by Andy Warhol, on loan from the artist's museum and foundation in Pittsburgh. Mostly just a greatest-hits tour, there's also a light Western theme because of the inclusion of Warhol's 1986 series "Cowboys & Indians." Gen. Custer, the subject of one work, never looked so festive.
Starting on Valentine's Day is "Painting Women," an exhibition of 34 works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With paintings by the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt, it's sure to be a major draw.
WHERE Bellagio Las Vegas, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd.
INFO $16, 702-693-7871, bellagio.com
THE NEON MUSEUM
This is perhaps the only museum in the world that warns of "broken glass, rusty metal and darkness" on its website -- but that's Vegas, baby. Take a risk.
This collection of disused neon signs is familiar from movies and commercials, the perfect backdrop for anything glitzy. It all started with the Hacienda Horse and Rider sign and now includes hundreds more that tell the story of the brightly lit gambling metropolis better than any book ever could. Guided tours of what the museum calls its Collection, plus the larger adjacent Neon Boneyard, are more expensive at night ($25), given the premium for seeing the signs lit up (daytime tours are $18).
As a bonus, there's also a prime piece of mid-20th century modern architecture on-site, the La Concha Visitors' Center. This former motel lobby designed by Paul Revere Williams, which was moved from its original location, is as distinctively swoopy as Eero Saarinen's former TWA terminal at JFK, but on a smaller scale.
WHERE 770 Las Vegas Blvd. N.
INFO $18-$25, 702-387-6366, neonmuseum.org
Every few years, the brand-new casino in town gets all the attention. In the late 1990s, it was the Bellagio. Now it's Aria, much sleeker and more modern than its corporate sibling, and also featured in the current film "Last Vegas."
As befits the current vogue for wellness, Aria has put a lot of effort into its spa complex -- 80,000 square feet with 62 treatment rooms and a large fitness center, too. Try a Thai Poultice Massage ($190, 50 minutes), or splurge on a whole spa suite package ($425). Perhaps the most Vegas-y activity of all is the Indoor Hike ($45), an hour-long trek throughout the Aria property, promising cardio but also keeping you tethered closely to the casino grounds.
WHERE 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
INFO Treatments from $75, 702-590-7757, aria.com
Just 30 miles from Las Vegas, this Depression-era engineering feat is the world's most famous dam, and it created the vast expanse of Lake Mead from the Colorado River's waters. It sits on the border between Arizona and Nevada.
You can certainly enjoy it while craning your neck out the window and zooming over the new four-lane bridge that crosses the chasm nearby, completed in 2010. Better yet, take one of two guided tours, either the power plant (a half-hour) or the dam itself (one hour); visitor center access alone is $10. You'll learn that four enormous pipes can each handle 90,000 gallons of water a second to generate power, among other fun facts. And the charming Art Deco-style intake towers have some artworks on one side that require a close-up viewing.
WHERE Entrance on Nevada State Route 172
INFO $15 tours, 702-494-2517, usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam