Las Vegas, beyond the Strip

For a new spin on Sin City, hit desert wilderness by day, and enjoy spas and indulgent meals at night
Rachel Levin

No one thought Las Vegas was my kind of town.

"You wouldn't last 24 hours!" friends warned. "You, of all people, would absolutely haaate it."

I'm the type who prefers the mountains to the mall. I cringe at the oversize and artificial. I get lost in crowds. Cry in traffic. And so, naturally, I always agreed: Sin City was not for me.

But then, here I was, a Vegas virgin at 32 years old. And, I admit, I was curious. Maybe it was time I learned what all the buzz was about. I'm young; I'm fun; I'm a travel writer, for crying out loud! I called my friend Raina, the one other person I knew who'd Never Been, and we booked our flights.

And then we booked a room ― intentionally off the Strip and away from the chaos ― at the swank new Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, located 10 miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard and five minutes, tops, from the entrance to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. With an "adventure spa" and a view of the red rock from my big cushy bed, how bad could it be?

We'll spend our days outside ― in the wilderness, I told Raina. At night, we'll hit the town. If, honestly, only because we were dying to try chef Joël Robuchon's new eponymous restaurant, which elevated the local, already-on-the-rise dining scene. And then we'll retreat safely back to our rooms, Cinderella-style. After all, if we were going to make the most of our days, we couldn't sleep through them.

 

 

Fish-eye view of Hoover Dam

"Vegas doesn't typically attract, uh, out-doorsy people," says my cabdriver, on the way out of McCarran International Airport.

Perfect, I think. More room for me.

I'd heard all about Red Rock Canyon: It is climbers' heaven, with hiking and horseback trails galore. But I didn't know the relatively untracked Valley of Fire State Park is only an hour away; nor did I realize I could kayak down the Colorado River from the base of Hoover Dam. Vegas, baby, Vegas.

Our very first night, we wrap ourselves in the hotel's plush white robes, order room service, and watch America's Next Top Model. Off to a lame start, we realize. But what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! Plus, we have an early morning on the Colorado River.

Before we catch even a glimpse of glitter, we see a trio of bighorn sheep moseying along a grassy hillside near the base of Hoover Dam ― our launching pad for the day's paddle. I'm happy.

At the suggestion of our Red Rock Casino adventure activities guide, David Bert, we sign up with Evolution Expeditions Kayaking ― a new outfitter with the best boats in town.

Given the tight security at the Southwest's landmark power source, only 30 water permits are issued daily. "Even without that rule, though, there wouldn't be many folks out here," says Evolution's owner, Dan Cameron. "Locals who've lived here forever have no idea you can do this! Took me 20 years to find out."

Feeling fortunate to get a bottom-up view of the monolithic dam in the early-morning light, we slip quietly down the glassy class I river and past the volcanic red rock of Black Canyon. Our first stop is Sauna Cave, where our guide, Aaron, leads us into a pitch-black 60-foot-deep, geothermally heated tunnel. We walk cautiously and ankle-deep in soothing, steamy water.

Then we paddle on peacefully under the big blue sky, past peregrine falcons, our eyes peeled for more bighorns. I forget I'm in Las Vegas until Aaron informs me that his dream job is to be an aerial artist in a Cirque du Soleil show. "I'm worried I don't have the body," he admits, "but this kayaking gig should hopefully help my muscle tone."

 

 

At Boyscout Canyon, we wade through a series of natural hot springs until we reach a big turquoise-clear pool, tempered by a rushing cold waterfall, and jump in. "This sure beats gambling!" says the one other guest on our trip. Agreed.

That evening, we shift gears: Cruising down Interstate 15 in our Chevy Impala, we channel Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in Swingers. A surge of excitement hits us as we near the Strip. We're dwarfed by the gaudy skyscrapers, shining by the light of the setting sun. The sky is pink, the traffic converging. Signs, signs, everywhere are neon signs. We're trapped in a real-life Lite-Brite, starstruck and overstimulated.

An all-glass elevator shoots us to the top of Thehotel at Mandalay Bay, to Mix Lounge, where we toast our trip from a patio table with a bird's-eye view of the entire Strip. Lights crawl like caterpillars along the edge of the Luxor Las Vegas pyramid. So many hotels. So many parking lots. The long, narrow bar, with its disco feel, deep booths, and dim light, is almost too cool.

Next stop is dinner at Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn Las Vegas. Arguably the hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard since its splashy 2005 opening, the Wynn boasts a $2.7 billion price tag, a collection of van Goghs and Picassos that will bring you to tears, $500 greens fees, and a flashy website that takes two minutes to load. We allow a good half-hour to make our way 3 miles, but still we're late for our reservation. The effects of the long day in the desert sun kick in as we devour our steak frites and crispy duck confit, mesmerized by the changing colors of the "Lake of Dreams" light show outside.

Bedtime. Twenty-four hours down ― and, surprising myself, I'm actually looking forward to tomorrow.

 

 

From red-rock hound to jet-setter

We grab a cup of coffee and a couch in the lobby, and stare through the doors tinted fire-engine red at a view of fountains, non-native palms, and surrounding construction that will soon create an urban center, complete with residences and shops. We meet up with David Bert, the adventure activities guide who'd steered us to the kayak trip, so he can show us around Red Rock Canyon, the national conservation area he's long considered home.

"Are you ready to get spanked?" he asks. I'm startled, but then quickly realize it's only innocuous hiking-speak. We tell him we'd prefer to take it easy, after yesterday's invigorating paddle. He whisks us 15 minutes from the resort, yet seemingly worlds away, to Sandstone Quarry. I'm surrounded by yellow sandstone cliffs, ruins of an agave-roasting pit, and crazy red rock formations. I ponder how these pancake layers came to be.

"People come here for the whole what-happens-here-stays-here thing," says David. "I tell them, 'Take a bunch of photos, show your friends! Spend a few bucks on a horseback ride and actually get your money's worth ― you'll blow a whole lot more at the blackjack tables.'?"

 

 

We scramble up to Calico Tanks, one of David's favorite respites ― and a unique juxtaposition. Standing among 150-million-year-old rock, touching the earth in its purest form, I can see, looking at a distant Emerald City, the exact antithesis: a 6-mile stretch of nothing but stuff, spanning from the Stratosphere to Mandalay Bay.

We're back by noon and head straight for Salt Lick for real-deal Texas barbecue: jalapeño-stuffed shrimp wrapped in applewood bacon and tender smoked brisket. Trying our best to save room for dinner, we hold back on the berry cobbler.

And then we hit the pool, the hotel's 3-acre centerpiece encircled by private cabanas and umbrella-shaded chaises. The scene is tamer than I'd imagined, with more gray-haired folks than bikini-clad 20-somethings. Next, I treat my desert-dehydrated skin to the "Crystal Caviar" facial. After an indulgent sequence of exfoliation, creams, masks, and wraps, I emerge glowing ― and ready for our next splurge, Robuchon.

Dining at Joël Robuchon's restaurant, for us, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with the full tasting menu priced at $360. So we savor each of the 16 courses, every sip of wine, and every pampered moment of the three-hour dinner. We treasure the over-the-top touches, from the dizzying choice of 14 kinds of fresh-baked levain to the truffled langoustine ravioli to the purple ribbon?tied napkin that appears upon return from each trip to the ladies' room. Only in Vegas.

Après dinner, we head over to the Mirage for Love, Las Vegas's latest Cirque du Soleil production. An acrobatic show unfolds, set to a remix of the Beatles' greatest hits. We silently sing along, awestruck by the tumbles and trapeze ― and then I, uh, nod off. Just briefly. It was late ... We had all that wine ― Raina nudges me. By the heartening "Love Is All You Need" finale, I'm revived.

Downstairs, we see a snaking line by a velvet rope. It's Jet, the hottest club on the Strip ― or so we'd heard. Enough with the good-night sleeps. We're in Vegas! The music is hypnotizing, as is the people-watching. We make it through two of the three sound rooms in the laser grid-lit space. But we can only handle so much. Around 3 a.m., we call it a night.

We wake way too late for the sunrise horseback ride we'd planned. "This must be how people normally do Vegas," I grumble, as we wander aimlessly around the MGM Grand. I slap five bucks down on the Wheel of Fortune ― and win five more! This is kinda fun, but I'm no fool and quit while I'm ahead.

And we rally. We leave the Strip for a drive through Lake Mead National Recreation Area to Valley of Fire State Park. An endless stretch of mind-boggling boulders erupts from the creosote bush. The red rock looks superimposed against the stormy sky. Terra-cotta sand seeps into our sneakers along the White Domes Trail. Eventually, we tear ourselves away.

Four days and 100 hours later, it's all over.

"Checking out just for the morning?" the valet asks, opening the car door. He sees my suitcase. "Or checking out forever?" he smiles.

I pause, unsure at first how to respond. "Actually. No. Not forever," I reply, laughing. "I'll be back."