I’ll fess up now: the thought of going to Vegas filled me with a little bit of dread. What if I got drunk and got married by Elvis? What if I got even more drunk and got married to Elvis? What if I got drunk, married Elvis, then woke up in bed with a naked tiger? I mean, that’s what happens in Vegas, right? Well, yes and no. I ‘did’ Vegas but I didn’t really ‘do’ Vegas. I didn’t lose a single dollar in a casino, because I didn’t go to one. I didn’t spray champagne over a naked stag at a swanky nightclub because I didn’t meet a stag, or go to any famous nightclubs.
I didn’t shop till I dropped, because – yep, you guessed it – I didn’t go into a single mall. Don’t get me wrong, I partied. But instead of joining the masses to dance to a DJ I can’t remember the name of, I abandoned the strip – all 4.2 miles of it – and ventured beyond the neon lights, crowds and casinos to explore the other side of the famous Nevada city.
The one with the gritty bar scene, crazy and colourful art, and vast swathes of mountain and desert to play in. It turns out there’s a whole other world outside the strip’s crazy bubble, and you’d be mad to miss it…
The nightlife – If going out dressed in swimwear and cavorting with a load of cocktail-swigging stags/hens/youths is your idea of holiday hell, we could probably be friends. I was more interested in crawling Vegas’ dive bar scene, which is mega, and virtually untouched by tourists. Why wouldn’t you want to hang with some leather-clad, bom-and-raised locals? Exactly. No more than 15 minutes’ cab ride from the strip you’ll find a cluster of dives down in Fremont, aka the Arts District. Also known as ‘original’ Vegas, it’s a retro-lit neighbourhood where slightly tired old-school casinos and cool art work line the streets. I tried Atomic Liquors – a Vegas institution and former liquor shop, which now exists as a stool-lined bar with bare-brick walls and neon signs. Cocktails are solid and strong – drink them inside or, for prime people watching, on the outdoor terrace on a warm desert evening.
For something grungier, head to Beauty Bar, also on Fremont Street in Downtown, and a great place for catching musicians on the up. Leather seats come with over-the-head old-school hair dryers, plus there’s a linoleum floor and gold mirrors, while the outdoor stage is where Imagine Dragons got their break with Radioactive – the band are from the city. My favourite, though, has to be the Double Down saloon, which is so far from what you’d expect from Las Vegas nightlife, you’ll swear you’ve been transported to a grimy rock bar in the depths of Middle America. Bands come from all over the States to play the dimly lit room’s famous stage, and when you’re not shooting tequila or downing a $4 ass juice (yep, that’s a drink) while an emerging band plays, expect a jukebox soundtrack of punk and rockabilly. Forget paintings and photos – hundreds of stickers from past performers decorate the sticky walls.
The food – Michelin-starred tasting menus, champagne-drenched brunches and steaks thicker titan your forearm – you name it, Vegas has got it. And then some. But there’s a big old food scene that exists beyond the strip, one that is refreshingly cheap and accessible. Your best bet is Downtown Vegas, and Lite Downtown Container Park (look out for the giant grasshopper art installation outside). The area’s full of little food stalls, but my pick is Cheffini’s Hot Dogs, with its pineapple relish. If burgers are more your thing, try the award-winning Glutton’s in downtown, or close to the strip (but not on it, remember) is an In-N-Out Burger, which is rammed with locals at all times of day. Ask for a Double Double Animal Style, and thank me later.
The thrills – Most people visiting Vegas w ill get their thrills around the casino tables, which ain’t much fun when you don’t know how to play – and losing plenty of dollars is pretty much guaranteed. Instead, get off-strip – and off-road – with a skid around the Mojave Desert . You’ll be kitted out in helmets and strapped into a Polaris RZR XP1000 (essentially a really big engine in a cage-like car with massive tyres) before you tear up the empty, tawny landscape with some very, very fast accelerator-down, light-on-the-brakes driving. You’ll be coated in dust, but it’s 100% worth it for the chance to boon about in what feels like a giant toy car. On the way there, look out for Seven Magic Mountains – a desert-based art installation from Ugo Rondinone, featuring stacks of neon-spray-painted limestone boulders. From one dusty landscape to the next – do not leave Vegas without heading to Dig This, which is dubbed ‘America’s Heavy Equipment Playground’.
Oh, the fun I had here. I was breathalysed first (speeding around in a digger while drunk is no joke), shown a little model version of some diggers, then led out onto a big dirt plot packed with D5G Bulldozers, Side Trackers and Smartie-yellow 315C Excavators (my favourite). Prepare to be hooked up with a walkie talkie, so you can chat to your mates in other excavators, and hear an instructor on the ground signal your manoeuvres. Try your hand at ‘basketball’ with giant lorry tyres, spin your cabin or tilt your heavy-duty machine on to its rear end – trust me, you won’t laugh as much as this anywhere else. Plus, there’s something pretty special about passing a London building site and knowing you’d be able to handle a rogue, out-of-control excavator, should the event arise. You never know…
Continue the thrill-seeking mission over the Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the Richard Petty Driving Experience (named after the famous ex-racing driver). You can whizz Porsches around a comer-packed race track, but for some added Americana, try NASCAR racing instead. I was dressed in a giant boiler suit and led to a sun-baked oval track with scarily steep sides, where I watched impossibly loud red, white and blue cars tear up the tarmac. Then it was my turn. The only way into the car is via the window, which is best tackled head first. Your seat is adjusted, your steering wheel fitted, and then you turn to meet your instructor – mine was one of the only female NASCAR racing drivers in the country. They aren’t the simplest cars to drive (they pull to the side, and you have that giant, looming wall of concrete to get over), but your instructor will make an awesome, calm co-pilot, who’ll tell you when to accelerate, slow down and overtake. The whole tiling was over way too soon – probably because I was driving so damn fast (you get a certificate at the end with your lap times).
The sights – No, not a faux Eiffel Tower, a miming Britney or a room full of flashing, bleeping slot machines, but some real-life Nevada State. Turns out watersports on a Vegas trip can go beyond watching the Bellagio’s fountain show or lolling around on a giant flamingo at a pool party. Lake Mead is 24 miles south east of the strip, and it’s the largest reservoir in America. That makes it no less pretty to look at, but it does mean it’s impossible to see all of it at once. I rented a kayak and joined the locals on a peaceful paddle on Lake Mead. If you’re looking for a low-key getaway from the frenzied strip, this is it. But if you like your watersports high-octane, try jet packing in the shadow of Spring Mountain.
You’ll be fitted with a Ghostbusters-esque backpack, then you try to control your ascent from the water into the air using your arms. It’s 500 times harder than it looks, but you’ll end up with a LAD Bible-worthy video. Life goals achieved. The Grand Canyon may be in Arizona state, but one of the best access points is from Las Vegas – via helicopter, of course. You’ll be whizzed over the strip and the suburbs, before making your way towards the canyon, with your chopper pilot spilling facts at you along the way. As you approach the canyon you’ll be treated to a Jurassic Park music crescendo, deposited on a flat bit of rock, and left to absorb the tranquil landscape. Peace and quiet? On a holiday in Vegas? Stranger things have happened…