I've been to Las Vegas so many times it would be difficult to count the number without a bit of calculator work. Truth be told, I haven't spent as much time exploring the dark or glitzy side of Vegas as much as I have the city as a convention hub.
For over two decades, I've annually made the trek to the city of slot machines, often more than once or twice a year with tens of thousands of others who make the pilgrimage to the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and countless other over-hyped technology events. I'm among the hoard of people who stand in long taxi lines, pay a 10x mark up on hotels, wear out their voice and bodies all while eating atrocious fast food -- all that on top of the aching swollen feet you have by the end of the second day because you end up walking to meetings and "hot spots" since facing the queues and horrific traffic gets a little old after you've done the same drill for more than two decades.
That said, amidst the chaos I endure on my annual Vegas pilgrimage, there are moments (which sometimes have turned into hours or several days) where I've had the opportunity to explore the "other side" of Vegas. Since I have a handful of friends who have made the often unexpected decision to make this desert sprawl their home, I have stayed in the suburbs, watched movies and swam in pools with their kids in homes whose window views can't even see the bright glittery lights of the strip.
I have eaten off the strip and spent time drinking beers with locals in downtown Las Vegas, which is historically where it all began and will has remnants of forgotten wild west days where saloons and pool halls were the order of the day.
I have hiked the beautiful and desolate skies and dry sand on the outskirts. I have photographed the surreal and yet serene windmills as you head out of the city to the west and taken in the beauty of Red Rock Canyon a mere 15 miles west of Las Vegas, a great day trip option for visitors.
Vividly beautiful red rock fills up close to 200,000 acres in the Mojave Desert, an area where you can drive your car or hike a 13 mile loop. Spectacular natural rock formations of unusual red and yellow sandstone hills reside next to flat lands and are filled with desert flora such as yucca, cactus and Joshua trees.
Hoover Dam is also a great day trip option outside the city, a dam which was constructed during the great depression to contain the Colorado River from its source in the Rocky Mountains. The water used to overflow and ruin all crops and even take lives on its path to the Pacific. Seven states were affected so this spectacular dam was created to curtail those problems. It is now a historica national landmark and claims to have a million visitors each year. It is also called the eighth wonder of the world and weighs more than 6,600,000 tons.
The extreme highs and lows of Vegas don't really exist within the "convention circuit," for they belong to the locals and the non-business travelers. The highs of Vegas can be extraordinary and include things like experience the city's top restaurants which were few and far between 10-20 years ago and the addictive energy of any of the city's umpteen shows, which range from renowned musicians, Cirque du Soleil and magic acts to dance troupes, Cabaret and quirky off-the-wall on-stage creations. It's hard to beat the impact of a Vegas show unless you head to New York City for Broadway or opera and even then, New York doesn't have the predictable moderate temperatures or four and five star hotels which give rooms away for $20-75 when there's not a major convention in town.
Las Vegas also "gets service" and the people in the industry, whether they work at hotels, at an adventure experience, in the food and wine sector or entertainment, there's a level of graciousness and friendliness that is far beyond what other American cities deliver. Even the taxi drivers are happy.
The lows of Las Vegas stem from the city's tagline: "What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas." I often see this side of the city of sin at the wee hours of the morning when I'm coming back from a late night networking party or event. Single men and women wander around casinos, a cigarette dangling from their mouths, red blurry eyes glaring at the slot machine in front of them as they pull the lever again and again in anticipation....and hope. Sometimes hope comes via a loud clanging of coins that spill out from their last lever pull and even if it amounts to a mere $10, the excitement of it results in more gambling, an addiction that afflicts an estimated 2 million people in the United States according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
To many people, gambling is a simple form of entertainment but for others, it is an uncontrollable behavior that destroys families and often their health. Beyond an innocent diversion, gambling can become pathological for some and the addiction can be so severe that it can be on par with other addictions like drugs and alcoholism.
It's hard to turn a blind eye to the sadness you see wandering in the casinos, especially at three in the morning. That said, if you want to head there for a celebration or girls/boys weekend away and want to try your hand at the slot machines or on the blackjack table for the thrill of it, it's there for the taking and there's no shortage of casinos on and off the strip to take your money.
There are so many highs that you can avoid the lows if you so wish. Las Vegas continues to ramp up their level of service and attractions and options for food, wine and other culinary pleasures. There are even a number of top notch spa offerings for the taking.
From someone who has seen the city change dramatically over the years, my best advice is to explore outside the main strip, splurge on a few top notch restaurants (world class chefs are no longer strangers to the Las Vegas food scene) and take a couple day trips to balance the "glitz on the strip" with the stunning nature and serenity that lie just outside the city center.
Photo credits: Hoover Dam from h-construction.com, Red Rock Canyon from sagarmatha.com, Slot machine gambling shot fromￂﾠuscasinosbonuses.blogspot. com , windmill shot from sciencebuzz.org. Photo of entertainment girls from VegasNews.com and Fremont Street Downtown Vegas from LasVegas.com.ￂﾠ