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For the millions passing through on their way to California, their image of Nevada is of long, empty roads and dusty desert towns, often little more than a gas station and 24-hour store with a few slot machines in the corner. For those not drawn by the desolation of the desert landscapes, it is fortunate that 'Lady Luck' descended on this state to give hundreds of thousands of people a great man-made reason for visiting. This is casino country, Las Vegas, and the other smaller towns where the main income earner is gambling.
Carson, the sleepy state capital, has tree-lined streets and some handsome old buildings and hosts the Nevada State Museum, which covers the geology and natural history of the Great Basin desert: enough distraction for a few hours. Reno is a smaller and less glitzy version of Las Vegas, packed with casinos and pawnshops, and provides easy access to Lake Tahoe, over the border in California.
Situated east of California, Nevada is split up into territories such as Cowboy Country, Pioneer Territory, and Pony Express Territory. These adventurous names aside, the majority of the state is a fairly desolate desert, sometimes beautiful, but also harsh and inhospitable. The better land is used for grazing hardy cattle, while the least forgiving is used by the military for weapons testing and other mysterious pastimes.
Nevada does have a few scenic attractions of great interest to visitors. Around Las Vegas, Lake Mead is popular with fishermen and water sports enthusiasts. While both the Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire State Park have magnificent desert scenery, which has been used as the backdrop for many famous movies including Star Trek - The Next Generation. The sandstone has been eroded into wonderful shapes over millions of years and at sunset these great natural monuments turn every shade of red.
No expense was spared building the Venetian Hotel, aimed to recreate the city of Venice in the Nevada Desert, and the result is fairly spectacular. Guests can travel around the hotel in a gondola - real canals run through the grounds - and a replica of St Mark's Square and the Basilica turns from night to day every three hours. Visitors have to look carefully to notice that the sky is actually a vast fresco. The only things missing are the pigeons and the backpackers. The casino itself is massive, featuring something like 2,500 slot machines and 125 gaming tables. For guests taking a break from the tables, there are five swimming pools, a fitness centre, and 17 restaurants - mostly pizzerias. One of the main attractions is Madame Tussauds Las Vegas, a wax museum presenting some of the world's biggest icons including stars, politicians, record-breaking athletes, and legends.
The Bellagio is one of Las Vegas's most opulent hotels and most popular casinos. With an Italian theme, the great bulk of the Bellagio sits in its own vast garden. It has more than 3,000 rooms and hundreds of slot machines and gaming tables. However, its best-known attraction is its amazing water show - a breath-taking union of water, music, and light. Between 3pm and midnight (from 12pm on weekends) the Bellagio's world-famous fountains 'dance' to opera, classical, or whimsical music with carefully choreographed movements. Beyond the Bellagio's gracious lobby lies the Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, a magnificent garden abounding in fragrance, texture, and colour. The hotel also has a new fine arts gallery that hosts contemporary art exhibits.
Another MGM mega-casino, the showpiece at the Mirage is a volcano that shoots flames 100 feet (30m) into the night sky every 15 minutes (6pm to midnight), spewing smoke and transforming a tranquil waterfall into spectacular streams of molten lava. As you'd expect of Las Vegas, it's all quite kitsch, but great entertainment. Siegfried & Roy's White Tigers used to be one of the Mirage's signature attractions, but the show was cancelled in 2003 after Roy Horn was attacked by one of the tigers during a show. At any given time. However, there are a number of outrageous attractions at the casino. A popular feature is the aquarium located behind the Front Desk. This 20,000-gallon saltwater aquarium is home to angelfish, puffer fish, tangs, sharks and other exotic sea creatures.
The Luxor Hotel, themed on ancient Egypt, is one of the most prominent sights on the Las Vegas Strip. It is a massive black-glass pyramid containing 36 floors of hotel rooms. Shining through it into the night sky is one of the world's most powerful light beams, which they claim can be seen by planes circling Los Angeles. The ground floor of the hotel is given over to a massive casino, which stands beneath a recreation of King Tut's Tomb. Other than gambling, entertainment at the hotel includes an IMAX theatre, gyms, swimming pools, and exhilarating shows by comedians, dancers and singers. The Luxor is a Vegas landmark and one of the most popular casinos and hotels in the city.
One of the most famous casinos in Las Vegas, the MGM Grand was the largest hotel in the world when it opened in 1993 with more than 5,000 rooms. The complex also houses about 19 restaurants, many shops and nightclubs, a convention centre, and a spa. The MGM Grand's most famous attraction was, for many years, the glass-sided lion habitat; however, the casino closed this in early 2012 as part of an extensive renovation. Today, the MGM Grand is home to the Cirque du Soleil and many other exciting entertainment options. An iconic Vegas landmark, the MGM has been thrilling and entertaining visitors for many years.
The 44-storey Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino is among the largest on the Las Vegas Strip with more than 3,000 hotel rooms and a 135,000 square foot (12,500 sq m) casino. The tropical-themed resort has a number of popular family attractions, including the Shark Reef saltwater aquarium and large-scale stage shows ranging from Broadway musicals to Cirque du Soleil productions. The most popular attraction at Mandalay Bay however, is Mandalay Beach, an 11-acre pool area featuring three heated pools, a wave pool, lazy river, and children's pool. Voted Best Pool of Las Vegas many times by Las Vegas Review Journal readers, Mandalay Beach has its own bar and restaurants.
With more than 250 classic antique cars on display, the Imperial Palace Auto Collection is an absolute must for car enthusiasts. It is actually part of a larger collection and cars are rotated in and out of the showroom on a regular basis. All cars are available for purchase, and once a car is sold it is replaced by another. Exhibited are rare models, race cars, muscle cars, touring roadsters, and dozens of vehicles once owned by the rich and famous. Claiming to be the one of the largest as well as the best collection of classic cars in the world, this vast showroom is heaven for petrol-heads and a very popular tourist attraction in Vegas.
The downtown area of Las Vegas is where it all began and the Fremont Street Experience aims to celebrate this heritage. The street is also known as 'Glitter Gulch' for the bright neon signs and thousands of flashing lights that line the streets - this is where you'll find Vegas Vic and Sassy Sal, two of the nation's best-known neon icons. Some of the city's most famous vintage casinos are found here, including the Golden Nugget and the Gold Spike, as are most of its strip clubs and stage shows. Most entertainment is on or close by the Freemont Street Experience Mall. The Fremont Street Experience encompasses the iconic Vegas experience, giving people exactly what they expect when they think of the glitzy casino city.
The glass-encased theme park of Adventuredome is the perfect attraction for thrill-seeking kids on holiday in Las Vegas. Its loop roller-coaster and other gut-wrenching rides are not to be missed. If this adrenalin rush is a bit too extreme, there are also shows by magicians and jugglers on offer, as well as plenty of treats like ice-cream, popcorn, and candy. There are also rides and activities designed for younger kids who may not be old enough to ride the main attractions. The fact that the theme park is indoors is an extra bonus, protecting visitors from the sometimes inhospitable Nevada climate.
The Buffalo Bill's amusement park is an excellent holiday attraction for children, offering everything from earth-plunging rides that defy gravity or end with a huge splash, to log rides on a fantasy lake. Kids will also love the Frog Hopper, bouncing around the park on the back of Buffalo Bill's life-like amphibian. Buffalo Bill's Resort & Casino is a great choice of travel base in Las Vegas for families travelling with children as the resort caters equally to adults and kids, and is known for its high-energy live shows as well as its amusement park and gambling facilities. Youngsters will be kept happy and busy as adults explore the more grown-up attractions of the resort.
Kids will revel in the exciting experience of flying through the Grand Canyon in a helicopter and landing at the Grand Canyon Western Ranch. Once at the ranch, children are thoroughly enthralled by horse-drawn wagon rides and the cowboys putting on a show. The western-style meal served at the ranch also goes down a treat. This family-friendly excursion across the border to Arizona is a great break from the casinos and resorts of Las Vegas itself, giving visitors the chance to experience some of the natural splendour of the region and partake in the pioneer and cowboy culture so well-loved in the US.
No longer the family-friendly pirate hangout it once was, Treasure Island has revamped itself as an adult-oriented contemporary resort. The free Sirens of TI show is a special effects-laden production that is a must-see on the Las Vegas Strip, with music, explosions and beautiful women. Treasure Island is also home to a Cirque du Soleil show, and offers a number of restaurants and nightclubs. Famous comedians and musicians regularly perform at the resort. Although not a family resort, Treasure Island is an exciting adult destination in Vegas and one of the city's enduring favourites.
Dig This is a wildly popular attraction in Las Vegas that allows you to operate enormous vehicles like bulldozers and excavators under the supervision of trained instructors. While the price tag is high, the experience is unforgettable as you team up with other participants to complete tasks. You must be at least 14 to operate the machines. Dig This has been voted the number one Las Vegas attraction on tourist review sites like Tripadvisor. People of all ages get super excited by the chance to experience the power of massive machinery.
Nevada is the driest state in the US and is divided into semi-arid and arid climatic regions. The summers in Las Vegas get uncomfortably hot and the winters very cold, making the more mild spring and autumn months the best and most popular times to visit. In summer, between June and September the temperatures can climb up to extremes like 125°F (52°C), and in winter, from December to February, temperatures at night can drop as low as -50°F (-46°C), but these are the record temperature extremes and averages are substantially milder in most of Nevada. The weather is fiercely dry most of the year, but thunderstorms are likely in the summer months.
Just 500 yards from 'The Strip', Pamplemousse provides a quiet dining oasis reminiscent of a cosy French country inn, with soft orchestral music in the background to accompany the gourmet fare. There is no menu. Instead, waiters knowledgably recite the special of the day, which usually include the renowned Hobo Steak, Norwegian salmon, roast duckling, veal medallions, filet mignon, and spring lamb. The appetisers and desserts are just as mouth-watering, including the famous trademark Basket of Crudités. Reservations are essential. Open daily for dinner. Dress smart casual, no jackets required, but appreciated.
The Steer, about a mile from 'The Strip', is the oldest steak house in Las Vegas. Being in business in the same spot since 1958, and still a favourite with thousands of loyal diners. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Elvis Presley frequented the Steer to enjoy the large and perfectly grilled traditional steaks, especially the Diamond Jim cut of prime rib. Fish, chicken, and some Italian dishes are on offer too, and a selection of interesting appetisers, particularly the seafood stuffed mushrooms. Lunch and dinner Monday to Friday, dinner Saturdays, and Sundays.
Exotic and exciting dining is offered in a cosy Middle-Eastern tent where diners lounge on cushions on the floor, or on low couches, to enjoy a traditional Moroccan meal. Robed waiters explain the six-course fixed-price menus, while belly dancers dance around. The meals are accompanied by homemade Moroccan bread. Be sure to try the filet mignon, marinated and grilled in Moroccan spices. Algerian wines are available. Open for dinner nightly. Reservations required.
Mon Ami Gabi, emulating a Paris brasserie, claims a sidewalk space on the famous Las Vegas Strip with not only an outdoor section, but a glass conservatory and several indoor dining rooms as well. The cuisine on offer is mainly classic French steak frites and fruits de mêr with flavoursome sauces. Their braised pork shank, and the steak with blue cheese sauce, are sublime. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Italian restaurants abound in Las Vegas, both on and off The Strip. But for really good home-cooked food and excellent value, the unimposing brick building housing Chicago Joe's, in the residential downtown area, is a sure bet. The pasta sauces are renowned among locals, all recipes handed down by the owner's family through generations. Try the pasta with eggplant (aubergine/brinjal) or white clam sauce, or perhaps the Lobster Joe. Open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Friday; Saturday dinner only.
With just about as much Mexican flair and spice that can be conjured up, Gonzalez y Gonzalez is the perfect place to knock back a few margaritas, dive into a plate of tacos, tamales, or quesadillas and enjoy the Mexican energy in the outdoor dining courtyard decked with lanterns and piñatas. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Bookings recommended.
Amid the sea of $5 lobster that is buffet dining in Las Vegas, Wicked Spoon Buffet comes out tops. The restaurant serves a huge selection of dishes ranging from pizza and tacos to sushi and pad thai, all portioned out in attractive single-serving dishes rather than scooped from serving bowls. Make sure to save some room for dessert, which is highlighted by a fully-staffed gelato bar.
It's well worth leaving the Strip for dinner at Roy's, considered the best seafood restaurant in Las Vegas. The menu is Hawaiian fusion, with mouth-watering options like Crunchy Golden Lobster Potstickers and Boursin Cheese-Stuffed Chicken. There are a few sushi choices, and Roy's even has special vegetarian and gluten-free menus.
Le Cirque, which is located in the luxurious Bellagio Hotel and winner of the prestigious AAA Five Diamond rating, is decked in vivid orange, reds and pinks with elaborate and colourful artworks, conjuring a unique and accurate feel of what it must be like to dine under a big top. Boasting a world-class wine list of more than 900 international selections highlighting wines from France's best wine regions, you can be sure the food is just as mouth-watering. Try the Coeur de Filet de Boeuf served with sautéed foie-gras, smoked serrano potato Croquette and sweet onion compote, while those with a sweet tooth will love the classic Tahitian vanilla bean crème brulée. Open Tuesday to Sunday for dinner only. Bookings essential.
If there's one place in Vegas you're going to find a Rock 'n Roll themed restaurant, it'll be in the Hard Rock Hotel. Diners can enjoy a good, old-fashioned American hamburger while gazing at the restaurant's 50s and 60s rock memorabilia. A good place to grab a greasy bite to eat, like the Sirloin Burger, after a long night at the slots or tables. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Valley of Fire State Park is Nevada's oldest park, and is so named because of its red sandstone formations which look like they're on fire when the sun reflects off them. The rocks were shaped over 150-milllion years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the area. Apart from the rugged beauty of the surrounding Mojave Desert, the main attractions in the park are the well preserved petroglyphs that adorn many of the red sandstone structures, left there by the ancient Pueblo people, also known as the Anasazi. This rock art dates variously from 300 BC to 1150 AD. Visitors should head to Atlatl Rock for some of the finest examples of ancient Indian rock art or petroglyphs, including a depiction of the atlatl, which was a notched stick used to propel spears, a predecessor to the bow and arrow. Other activities here include hiking, camping, and picnicking.
A mile deep, 277 miles (446km) long and up to 18 miles (29km) wide, the breath-taking grandeur of the Grand Canyon is so impressive that words simply cannot do it justice. One of the great natural wonders of the world, it was formed by the cutting action of the Colorado River over millions of years, the harder rock formations remaining as great cliffs, pinnacles and buttes, and the different layers of rock possessing colours that range from purple, fiery red and pastel pink, to yellow, brown, grey and soft tones of blue.
Whether by foot or on horseback, from a plane or helicopter, aboard a raft down the mighty Colorado River or by merely gazing in awe from the rim, the canyon's seemingly infinite depths can be experienced in a variety of ways. The park receives hordes of visitors from around the world, who cannot fail to be transfixed by the sculpted rock shapes, the shifting colours that change with the light and a tiny glimpse of the Colorado River far below.
The Grand Canyon National Park comprises two separate areas, the South Rim and the more remote North Rim. Separated by the 10-mile (16km) width of the canyon, it is a 215-mile (346km) drive from one visitor centre to the other and the South Rim, being the most accessible with more facilities, sees about 90 percent of the park visitors. The North Rim is higher in elevation and wetter, with thicker surrounding forests; it is farther to get to and is usually closed due to snow between mid-October and mid-May, but many people prefer the comparative peacefulness of its less crowded lookouts.
At both rims there are several drives and walkways along the edge with numerous lookout points for views from different angles, as well as a few hikes down into the canyon where one can overnight at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. The impact of millions of visitors a year to the South Rim, especially during the busy summer months, has a negative influence on the park, with overcrowding and traffic congestion common. Despite the hoards it is a memorable experience to have visited one of the most spectacular examples of erosion in the world.
Stretching 1,247 feet (380m) across the Colorado River, the Hoover Dam holds back the waters of Lake Mead and is a fine example of the engineering of its time. One of the world's most famous dams, the Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression in the 1930s - one of many vast public works projects commissioned by the US government to get people back to work. The dam employed thousands of men from all over the country, and its hydroelectric power generator continues to supply Nevada and its neighbouring states with electricity. Engineering feats aside, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is popular with water sports enthusiasts as well as those just after a bit of sun and relaxation.
Red Rock Canyon is a dramatic valley 10 miles (16km) west of Las Vegas, and is a good excursion to escape the neon lights of the slot machines. Its defining feature is the steep Red Rock escarpment, which rises 3,000 feet (914m) on its western edge. Today, the dramatic landscape is peppered with cacti and Joshua trees and is a good spot for walking, rock climbing, cycling, or simply a scenic drive. The Mojave Desert is not as barren as you might think; it teems with rare life and beauty - waterfalls cascade into the canyons and high above red tailed hawks search for their next meal. For a taste of Nevada's natural beauty there is no better place to explore.
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