For the millions passing through on their way to California, their image of Nevada is of long, empty roads and dusty ghost towns, often little more than a gas station and 24-hour store with a few slot machines in the corner. Lacking any natural assets, it is fortunate that 'Lady Luck' descended on this state to give hundreds of thousands of people a man-made reason for visiting. This is casino country, centered on the capital of kitsch, 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 - but not much more. Reno is a smaller and less glitzy version of Las Vegas, packed with casinos and pawnshops, and has easy access to Lake Tahoe, over the border in California.
The state does have a few scenic attractions of 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.
The summers in Las Vegas get hot and the winters cool, making spring and autumn the best, and most popular times to visit. Between June and September the temperatures can climb up to 100°F (38°C), and from December to January they drop to around 55°F (13°C). The weather is fairly dry most of the year, but thunderstorms are frequent in the summer.
- Las Vegas
Things started to change in March 1931 when the State of Nevada legalized gambling; one month later the City issued six licenses. Then in 1946, Mafia don Ben 'Bugsy' Siegel opened the sensationally lavish Flamingo Hilton on Highway 91. Las Vegas Boulevard was born and the city would never be the same again.
Soon stars like Elvis, Liberace and Sinatra were making the pilgrimage to what was fast becoming America's premier entertainment Mecca. In the early days the Mafia dominated the gambling industry but in the 1960s their influence waned and soon all the large hotels and casinos were controlled by big business.
Las Vegas has 18 out of 21 of the largest hotels in the world and walking down 'The Strip' visitors will see the skylines of New York and Paris, discover the canals of Venice and the Pyramids of Egypt and, at Treasure Island, see a full on-sea battle between a Pirate ship and a British Galleon. Despite these excesses, room rates and restaurant bills are the lowest in the western world - all subsidised by gamblers intent on a free holiday.
Although the principal draw card is still gambling, Las Vegas is now marketed as a family destination and there is no shortage of theme parks, shopping malls or golf courses. However, the vast majority of visitors come to gamble and the incredible displays are mostly designed to lure passers-by into the casinos, and once there it's hard to leave; the exits are discreetly hidden.
Getting Around: Most visits to Las Vegas are confined to the Strip and downtown, so it is not necessary to hire a car as both are easily navigable by foot and there are several forms of transport that can be used. Public transport is limited to buses, but private trolley services, taxicabs, monorail links and free shuttle services, courtesy of the casinos, are also available. Local buses run the length of the Strip and into downtown and operate 24 hours a day with a flat fare including transfers. The old-fashioned Las Vegas Strip Trolley also runs the length of the Strip from 9.30am to 2am, and the Downtown Trolley circles between the Stratosphere and downtown from 7am to 11pm. A state-of-the-art monorail runs above the streets, operating from 7am to 2pm daily between the Sahara Hotel and the MGM Grand. Taxis are plentiful and can be found lined up outside every hotel and casino and at taxi stands. Car hire is popular with visitors although it is best to avoid driving along the Strip as traffic is heavy and there is little parking available. Cars are the most practical way to explore outside Las Vegas, although there are bus tours offered to Hoover Dam. Visitors need a valid driver's license and must be 21 years old; under-25s are usually subject to surcharges. To really fit in, why not consider hiring a limousine? Although not entirely practical, it can be a fun way to feel part of the glitz and glamour and there are several limousine agencies in the city.
Nightlife: There's a reason they say 'what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' and the nightlife and entertainment may well be that reason. With bars, clubs, strip clubs, casinos and world-class international shows running for months on end, it's little wonder why Las Vegas has earned itself a reputation, albeit not always favorable, as one of the world's party capitals.The world-famous strip is bland and dingy-looking during the day, but the minute the sun sets over this desert oasis the city springs to life with neon illuminating just about every inch of this infamous city. The real problem when heading out for a night on the strip is choosing where to begin.The current trend regarding shows is towards big name headliners and Big Broadway productions all of which can be seen at the main hotels throughout town. Many hotel lounges and bars have been replaced with DJs and go-go dancers and those in search of a drink need look no further than the hotel bars. Hotels worth checking out while in Las Vegas are the Bellagio, the Venetian, Caesars Palace, Palms Palace, Trump Hotel and the MGM Grand. Here you will find endless hours of entertainment, if not in the bars and lounges, then perhaps in the slots and on the tables.
Climate: Located in the middle of the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas is hot and dry during summer with mild winters, and plenty of sunshine all year round. In the height of summer, during July and August, the mercury often soars above 100°F (38°C). Winters are cooler and bring winds and cold nights, with daytime highs of around 60°F (16°C) and chilly nights averaging 40°F (4°C). What little rain there is usually falls in winter, between January and March. In summer though there are sometimes late afternoon thunderstorms that move in from Mexico.
- Las Vegas Weddings
- Venetian Hotel and Casino
No expense was spared creating the Venetian Hotel, in fact two billion dollars was spent recreating 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 hotel - 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 2,500 slot machines and 125 gaming tables. For guests taking a break from the tables, there are five swimming pools, a fitness center, 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.
Hours: Hotel and Casino: daily 24 hours. Madame Tussauds: opening hours vary depending on the season, but generally daily 10am to 11pm
Admission: Hotel and Casino admission is free. Madame Tussauds: $5 (adults), $15 (children 7-12)
- Bellagio Hotel and Casino
The Bellagio is one of Las Vegas' 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 over 3,000 rooms and hundreds of slot machines and gaming tables, however its best-known attraction is its amazing water show - a breathtaking 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 color. The hotel also has a new fine arts gallery that hosts contemporary art exhibits; it is currently exhibiting a series of celebrity portraits by Andy Warhol.
Hours: Daily 24 hours. The art gallery opens daily 10am to 6pm, 7pm on weekends.
Admission: Free (hotel and casino); $15 (fine art gallery)
- The Mirage
Another MGM mega-casino, the showpiece at the Mirage is a Volcano that shoots flames 100ft (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 naff, but great entertainment. Siegfried & Roy's White Tigers are the other signature attraction at the Mirage (unfortunately the Siegfried & Roy show has been cancelled indefinitely due to the near-fatal attack on Roy Horn by one of the tigers during a performance). Unlike conventional tigers, which have black and gold markings, the white tiger is white with black stripes, pink paws and ice-blue eyes. There are only a few dozen white tigers in the world, which makes them rarer than the panda bear. The open-air Tiger Habitat features a swimming pool with fountains and simulated mountain terrain for the tigers' enjoyment and the public's entertainment. Another popular attraction 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.
Hours: Daily 24 hours
- The Luxor
The Luxor is themed on ancient Egypt and is one of the most prominent sights on the Strip. It is a massive black-glass pyramid containing 36 floors of hotel rooms, and shining through it up into the night sky is the world's most powerful light beam, 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 Tutankhamun's Tomb. Other than gambling, entertainment at the hotel includes an IMAX theater, gyms, swimming pools and exhilarating shows by comedians, dancers and singers.
Hours: Daily 24 hours
- Liberace Museum
The Liberace Museum was founded in 1979 by the late entertainer and features 'Mr Showmanship's' dazzling jewelry, outfits and other memorabilia. Liberace was a massively popular musician in America and best known for his outrageous outfits and stage sets. He was a regular visitor to Las Vegas. The museum houses his vast collection of pianos and cars, which include a custom-made Rolls Royce, covered with tiny mirrors. His costumes, stage props and jewelry can also be seen. His 'crown jewels' include a spectacular piano-shaped watch with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, and a piano-shaped ring containing 260 diamonds in a white and yellow gold 18-carat setting with ivory and black jade keys. Proceeds from the not-for-profit museum support scholarships for the performing arts.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm; Sunday 12pm to 4pm
Admission: $15 (adults), children age 10 and under free. Concessions available
- Imperial Palace Auto Collection
With over 250 classic antique cars on display (all available for purchase), 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; once a car is sold it is replaced by another. Exhibited are rare models, racecars, muscle cars, touring roadsters and dozens of vehicles once owned by the rich and famous.
Hours: Daily 9.30am to 9.30pm
Admission: Free entrance vouchers are easily available at the Imperial Palace casino, otherwise tickets are $6.95
- Fremont Street Experience
The downtown area of Las Vegas is where it all began and is known as the Fremont Street Experience or '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 nations 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 just off, the Freemont Street Experience Mall.
- Roller Coasters
There are four roller coasters on The Strip: the Manhattan Express at New York NY, the Canyon Blaster at the Adventuredome, the roller coaster at MGM Grand Adventures and the High Roller at the Stratosphere. The MGM theme park is probably the best, although for sheer terror factor head for the High Roller. At 1,149ft (350m), the Stratosphere Tower is the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States and the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, and thrill seekers can enjoy excitement over 100 stories above the ground on the Big Shot thrill ride and the High Roller roller coaster. There is also a revolving restaurant at the top of the Stratosphere, which offers great views but pretty average food.
- The Grand Canyon
A mile deep, 277 miles (446km) long and up to 18 miles (29km) wide the breathtaking grandeur of the Grand Canyon is so impressive that pictures or 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 colors 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 and is a landscape not to be missed, however one chooses to see it. The park receives hoards of visitors from around the world, who cannot fail to be transfixed by the sculpted rock shapes, the shifting colors 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 center to the other and the South Rim, being the most accessible and possessing more facilities, sees over 90 percent of the park visitors. The North Rim is higher in elevation and wetter, with thicker surrounding forests; it is further to get to and is usually closed by snow from October to 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 over four million visitors a year to the South Rim, especially during the busy summer months, has its negative influences on the park, with overcrowding and traffic congestion, but despite the hoards it is a positively memorable experience to have visited one of the most spectacular examples of erosion in the world.
Transport: It is possible to reach the Grand Canyon in a full-day excursion from Las Vegas, but ideally travelers should stay overnight unless flying there. Scenic Airlines (tel: (702) 638 3300; e-mail: email@example.com; website: www.scenic.com) offers various tours, including overnight stays and two-day hikes
Hours: South Rim is open 24 hours daily, all year round. The Information Plaza is open from 8am to 5pm. The North Rim is open from 15 May to 14 October 8am to 6pm
Admission: $25 per vehicle, $12 for pedestrians and cyclists, valid for both rims for 7 days
- Hoover Dam
Stretching 1,247ft (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 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 supplies Nevada and its neighboring states with electricity. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area is popular with water sports enthusiasts as well as those just after a bit of sun and relaxation.
Transport: The Hoover Dam is an hour's drive from Las Vegas. Coach tours can be arranged through most hotels and tour operators
Hours: Daily 8.30am to 4.30pm (visitor center)
Admission: Hoover Dam Discovery Tour: $11; Lake Mead Recreational Area: $5 per vehicle, or $3 per individual, for 5 days
- Red Rock Canyon
Red Rock Canyon is a dramatic valley ten miles (16km) west of Las Vegas and is a good excursion to escape the neon lights and jangle of the slot machines. Its defining feature is the steep Red Rock escarpment, which rises 3,000ft (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 barren as you might think; it teems with life and beauty that is rare and unique - waterfalls cascade into the canyons and high above red tailed hawks search for their next meal.
Transport: The park has a 13-mile (21km) scenic drive. Coach tours can be organized through most hotels
Hours: Visitor Center: 8am to 4.30pm. Scenic drive: 6am to 5pm (November to February), 6am to 7pm (March and October), 6am to 8pm (April to September)
Admission: $5 per vehicle