A decade ago, after a rainy Thanksgiving desert camping trip with our five children, my wife Kristin and I went to the next available place, the now-closed Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Kristin and I watched our brood eat their Thanksgiving meal while cigarette smoke and slot machine noise billowed over their cheeseburgers. We looked at each other with an unspoken message: We are the worst parents in the world.
We’ve avoided Las Vegas with the kids since then, but an aborted trip to Aspen in April with three of our heirs stopped us in Vegas. At the time, the city was just waking up from its Covid slumber, with mandatory masks and limited capacity in most interiors, so little traffic that cars sped down the normally crowded Strip, and one lingering, worrying question all over the place: will this Really be sure of reopening?
But extraordinary things happened during that slumber, and while we only wanted to spend one night there, we had so much fun that we ended up staying four. At first we spent most of our time in the relative safety of nature, but then we relaxed along with the rest of the city, drowning our hands under the ubiquitous liquid disinfectant dispensers, masked ourselves, and went inside.
I knew things had changed in Sin City when I saw an eye-catching mural depicting the seven Vivian Girl warriors of cult outsider Henry on the back alley wall of a hair salon while maneuvering the minivan through a seemingly tricky neighborhood between downtown and the Strip Darger noted in her typical yellow clothes. What were the Vivian Girls doing here?
Farther away, Vegas’ adult ghost town shops, shutters and shutters, and other buildings also featured increasingly elaborate murals: a blood-spattered horned lizard spanning half a block of town; a dog with an impressively drooling tongue piloting an open cockpit plane; A colorful phoenix and a dragon rise like fireworks from an empty parking lot – all collectively produce surprised “Wows!” From our minivan.
Las Vegas appears to have emerged from the Covid crisis as a place of spectacle and creativity, especially outside the air-conditioned gaming ghettos of the Strip.
Over the next four days we ran, crawled, flew and even rode the train a lot, all away from the casinos. We explored the Arts District, an area that has gotten into hyper-drive – so much so that we waited 30 minutes to get into my once “secret” Colombian breakfast joint, Makers & Finders – and wandered down Spring Mountain Road which Center of the city’s Chinatown, expanding rapidly to the west. In the mid-century Mecca of East Fremont Street, a $ 350 million investment by tech titan Tony Hsieh, who died last year, has created a boulevard of fantastic art installations, restored buildings, and a sculptural playground surrounded by stacked shipping containers that have been converted into boutiques and cafes, all guarded by a huge, fire-breathing steel mantis.
“Vegas is experiencing a cultural renaissance,” a former city art commissioner Brian “Paco” Alvarez told me in a recent telephone interview. “Much of the local culture, coming from a city of two million unusually creative people, hasn’t stopped during the pandemic.”
A mysterious, windowless building
The most noticeable newcomer is Area15, which opened in February in a mysterious, windowless, airport trailer-sized building two miles west of the Strip. Imagine an urban Burning Man mall (in fact, many of the sculptures and installations are from the annual arts festival in northern Nevada) with around a dozen tenants offering everything from virtual reality travel to non-virtual ax throwing of Day Glo color schemes. electronic music, huge interactive art installations and guests flying overhead in seats on ceiling rails. Face masks are currently only mandatory in Area15 for self-identified unvaccinated individuals, although some of the attractions it includes still require face masks for everyone. Everywhere we came across the constant presence of cleaners spraying and wiping surfaces.
On the second floor of Area15’s art riot, I met an old friend from New York, Chris Wink, one of the co-founders of the happily weird Blue Man Group, who brought his creative magic in the form of “Psychedelic Art” to Area15 House Meets Carnival Funhouse “called Wink World (Adult tickets start at $ 18). Wink World focuses on six rooms with infinity mirror boxes reflecting slinkies, plasma balls, fan spinners, Hoberman balls and ribbons that dance to an ethereal soundtrack of electronic music, rhythmic singing and heavy breathing.
“I worked on these installations in my living room in New York for six years,” Wink told me. “I tried to evoke psychedelic experiences without medicine.”
My non-drug children were spellbound as if these familiar toys that romped into eternity were totems for their personal nirvanas. I’ve never seen her stand so still in front of an art exhibition.
Caves filled with lava and artificial turf
Omega Mart ($ 45 adult admission, face mask and temperature check mandatory), the complex’s biggest attraction, lines one side of the complex’s atrium and at first seemed like a mundane break from Area15’s sensory overload. Along the aisles I found nut-free salted peanuts, Gut Monkey Ginger Ale, and cans of Camels Implied Chicken Sop.
My children, good campers, immediately ducked into a small demonstration tent that was erected in the back of the store. They never came out again. A hidden entrance led them through the wall into a world of artificial lawns, caves filled with lava, cloudy offices, a desert canyon, changing rooms, a secret bar and other divergent rooms, which are often connected by hidden entrances. “Pull every button and open every closet you see, Dad,” advised my daughter Vivian breathlessly as she whizzed past me in this 52,000 square meter maze for the fourth time.
Omega Mart was created by the renowned Santa Fe artist collective Meow Wolf (the name is derived from the drawing of two random words from a hat during their first meeting) and is a merger of 325 artist creations linked by different overlapping storylines, the you can follow – or not.
For a brief period I followed the story of an incredibly manipulative New Agey daughter taking over Omega Mart’s corporate headquarters, and then got caught up in the story of a teenage herbalist who led a rebellion into something else. I have no idea what I experienced, except that Brian Eno composed the music for one of the installations. None of my children could explain what they were experiencing except something that expanded the mind. If it wasn’t for dinner, we might still be there.
Feast in Chinatown
Dinner! The choice is staggering and there are now 10 Michelin-starred restaurants in town. We didn’t go to either of them.
Leaving Area15, even the distant lights of the strip were relatively calming. But we drove in the opposite direction to Chinatown.
A decade ago, Chinatown was mostly a small enclave of restaurants and shops behind an ornate red gate overlooking a mall called Chinatown Plaza, which served Vegas’ growing wave of Asian immigrants. Chinatown has now stretched into the distance of Spring Mountain Road, a Hong Kong desert with neon signs in Mandarin, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean, promotional restaurants, coffee shops, foot massage parlors, and a lot of things I couldn’t read.
Our destination was an unlikely corner of a mall that the Jones family believes is home to the best Japanese restaurant in North America, Raku. Step behind a subtle white-lit sign and step into an old wooden interior of an intimate restaurant that you might find on a Kyoto alley. We slipped into the familiar tables behind the main dining room and began to feast. There’s a $ 100 tasting menu if you’re feeling adult, but my tribe ordered creamy tofu with dried fish, foie gras skewers, and a dozen other items.
Chinatown became our go-to spot for snacks and boba tea between adventures. A popular spot became Pho 90, a low-key Vietnamese café with excellent noodle dishes and exquisitely layered banh mi sandwiches for picnics in the wild.
Beyond the city
The growing web of Las Vegas suddenly surrenders to the desert, which could be the most overlooked part of family Vegas vacation.
Red Rock Canyon, 17 miles west of the Strip, is like a road runner cartoon with a technicolor ballet of tectonic formations. We grabbed our admittedly reluctant brood on a 2.4 mile circular hike on the Keystone Thrust Trail through a series of canyons until we emerged over epic white limestone cliffs soaring through the ocher mountains. Here we had our Vietnamese picnic with a view of the monolithic casinos in the distance.
Our last excursion into nature didn’t convince us: half an hour’s drive south of Boulder City, a company called Rail Explorers has organized rail bike tours on the abandoned tracks that lead to the construction site of the Hoover Dam. We booked a sunset tour (from $ 85 to $ 150 for a tandem quad). After a brief briefing, we and three dozen other visitors climbed into an 800-pound Korean-made four-person bicycle rig and began peddling the group in front of us a three-minute head start for some space.
Our route was along a four-mile desert trail that sloped gently into a narrowing canyon pass. As we drove effortlessly at 10 mph, we found that the spikes holding the railroad ties in place were often crooked or missing. “I bet these were all hand-retracted,” remarked my teenage son Cody, a history buff.
In the enveloping twilight we saw shadows moving along the mugwort brush: bighorn sheep, goats and other creatures that appeared for their nocturnal wanderings. But the most surreal sight was at the end of the drive when a huge backlit sign for a truck stop casino appeared over a desert stump – Vegas waved us back, but now we greeted the summons. Here we were, trotting into the sunset, feeling sportier, cooler and (gasping for air!) Enlightened than we did four days ago when we were in Vegas for the first time. Oh, what good parents we were!
“The nickname” Sin City “is completely wrong,” Alvarez told me, “if you know where to look.”