On a trip to Las Vegas and its surroundings, Claire Dodd shuns the slot machines in favour of some alternative attractions and experiences.
It’s nearly 3pm when the sun finally makes its way over the 600 metre-high canyon walls. Part-time actor (so very Vegas) and kayaking guide Danny is telling us stories about the movies he has shot and what the city is really like, when he stops and points up.
“Yes! Now this is America!” he shouts as a bald eagle glides above us and perches on a far-off rock. His laugh bounces off the sheer walls, rust red and looming, and carries over the Colorado river as curious bighorn sheep watch on.
We’re just a 40-minute drive from the slot machines and shows of the Las Vegas strip. But to me, the Black Canyon could not feel further away. And that is largely the point. I am in Las Vegas – and just outside of it – to find out what the destination has to offer beyond the casinos and to discover some lesser known attractions and experiences.
Danny tells us he set up Vegas Glass Kayaks in 2016 precisely to show people an alternative side to his hometown. After a two-mile paddle up-river towards the Hoover Dam and a picnic on a remote beach, we are now floating lazily back to our launch point taking in the silence and basking in the November sun.
The gentle current picks up a little. “They’re releasing a little water from the dam,” explains Danny. The creeping golden sunlight illuminates our transparent kayaks as the perfect, clear water begins to glow emerald green. Through the kayak I can see every underwater detail.
Operating year-round, a half-day tour costs $200pp including hotel pick-up and lunch.
“If there’s one thing I know about tourists, it’s that there’s a great deal of anxiety about leaving the strip. But everybody wants to,” says Danny. “When people think of Vegas I want them to think of it as the valley, as a piece of the earth that’s different from any other place on the planet. I want people to have the opportunity to see all those sides of it.”
It turns out there are many more sides to it. From wellness activities, to sports and adventure, art and culture, there is a vast array of unexpected activities for visitors.
It is something I’m reminded of each morning when I open my curtains at the MGM Grand to see the blinking lights of the strip give way to the silhouettes of hot air balloons rising slowly over the nearby mountains.
You do not have to go far from the city to be immersed in nature. Another short drive along Interstate 15 takes me to Seven Magic Mountains, a colossal piece of desert art by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. The neon colours of its rock towers are still vibrant in the dusk light when I visit.
Zip lining the Bootleg Canyon above nearby Boulder City (the town created to build the Hoover Dam) affords extensive views of Lake Mead. Prices start from $159 with Flightlinez.
But, this being Vegas, it seems neither do you have to leave the city either. It is another early morning for me, as I make my way to The Mirage hotel for a spot of dolphin yoga – yes, you read that right. In the underwater observation room of the dolphin pools, I try to keep up with the class, but cannot help being distracted as three dolphins occasionally come to check on what us odd humans are up to. A one-hour class costs $50.
Non-typical or off-strip activities like these are becoming a greater area of focus for the destination. Forever the brightly lit chameleon, as the type of visitor heading to the city is changing, so too is the city.
“The strip is the heart of Las Vegas with world-class dining, entertainment, nightlife, shopping and spas,” says Cathy Tull, senior vice-president of marketing at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “We also aim to highlight that there is so much more to do in Las Vegas away from the strip, whether that’s visiting the Grand Canyon, hiking at Red Rock Canyon or exploring downtown.”
Arts and culture investment has pumped new life into downtown – the area surrounding Fremont Street, where restored classic Vegas neon signs from the Neon Museum line the streets and vast murals by world-famous artists adorn the walls. It is also emerging as a foodie hub, with restaurants such as 7th & Carson leading the way.
“Dining out in Vegas can be intimidating,” says Donald Contursi of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours. “People don’t know what to order, they’re worried about prices. We do all that for people, so they can just enjoy themselves. For agents, it’s a good way to earn commission on food.”
As well as offering a gourmet experience, stopping for a few dishes at up to five top restaurants on the strip, the company also offers tours of downtown.
Run at peak times, guests get to skip the lines at some of Vegas’s top venues. For downtown, says Donald, where new venues are continually opening, a guide means guests will find tucked-away speakeasies and special, tiny venues.
Tonight, though, I am going large. I am on the company’s Savoury Bites and Neon Lights tour ($299) where after consuming oysters, snails, and octopus at restaurants including Sage, Milos and Cucina, it is time to head to the airport in a limo for a helicopter ride over the strip.
From the fountains of the Bellagio to the canals at the Venetian, I can see it all. It is mesmerising. It is a totally different kind of mesmerising from drifting along the Colorado river, and that is what makes Vegas unique – its seemingly endless array of new experiences. You do not have to venture away from the strip to have a new experience in Vegas. But you should.
Book it: Gold Medal offers four nights at the four-star MGM Grand in a Stay Well Queen Room from £999pp room-only, including one free night and flights with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick between June 1 and 16.
The Neon Museum which houses iconic Las Vegas signs is expanding with around 40 signs expected to be added. Pre-booking is essential.
MGM Resorts International and New York-based Sydell Group are in the process of rebranding the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino to create two distinct hotel experiences: a Las Vegas version of
Sydell’s acclaimed NoMad Hotel, and the launch of a new luxury hotel named Park MGM. Renovations at the Monte Carlo will be completed by the end of 2018.
Wynn Las Vegas has started construction of new 47-storey, 1,500-room hotel tower. The Paradise Park project will include a nightly carnival parade on the lagoon, complete with fireworks.
Gordon Ramsay’s newest Vegas restaurant, Hell’s Kitchen, opens this month at Caesars Palace, while Wolfgang Puck’s Spago will open at the Bellagio in spring.