Las Vegas is the gateway to a lot of things, but it’s never
been considered the ideal place to start your summer
travels—until now. Tourists from around the world are
increasingly choosing our city as a launchpad for
exploring the region. “It is an iconic destination that
sets the perfect tone for the rest of a guest’s holiday,”
says Gavin Tollman, global CEO of the international
tourism company Trafalgar. “We utilize Las Vegas as
a round-trip gateway to start and end trips because of
the fantastic availability of flights and the ease of accessibility for both our
domestic and international markets.” Trafalgar and other travel companies
now arrange hassle-free multiweek tours out of Vegas that explore
everything from California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys to Nevada’s Great
Basin, one of the nine national parks within a seven-hour drive of the city.
And with all these new options, locals hoping to escape the intense desert
heat of late summer are also increasingly taking advantage of nearby offerings
(which are often inaccessible during winter) rather than jetting off to
some faraway beach. But regardless of the destination, once Vegas is out of
sight, it’s never out of mind, with travelers coming full circle—whether
returning to the city to enjoy another night or two of gambling or to tuck
the kids in bed after their first visit to a breathtaking national park.
Take a break from
steamy Vegas with a
trip to Napa, where
temps are in the 70s.
Take a Sip Too hot in Vegas? Cool down among the
idyllic rolling hills of Napa.
As temperatures in Las Vegas reach their almost unbearable late-summer
heights, the lush, sunny valleys of California’s Napa and Sonoma Counties beckon with consistent temperatures in the 70s. And a getaway there feels
worlds away from Sin City—despite being just a quick 90-minute flight and
an hour shuttle away. Downtown Napa is really taking off, so book three
nights at Andaz Napa, where General Manager Greg Nomura’s contagious
enthusiasm will put you in the best of moods for a long weekend in
wine country (707-687-1234). Start your day at St.
Helena’s Trinchero Napa Valley (707-963-1160),
where the family’s Italian heritage seeps into everything from the décor to
the focus on food (Grandma Mary’s recipe for bagna cauda is written on
the walls of the hospitality center). Test your wine knowledge with a sensory
guessing game, including a spin of the Aroma Wheel, then savor a
tasting of rich Cabernet Sauvignon, petit verdot, and Cabernet Franc.
Finish your day at the famed Oxbow Public Market, where Hog Island oysters
are a must, but don’t get too full. You’ll want to have dinner at
Morimoto, with its lively, sophisticated scene and creative dishes like a
toro tartare that comes with paddles so you can add your own toppings.
On day two, drive out to Sonoma, which is just as cool as Napa in the summer,
to Benziger Family Winery (888-490-2739) Its four
vineyards are Demeter-certified biodynamic, the highest certification
level for organic farming, and the luxuriant grounds are the perfect backdrop
to a tasting from an eclectic wine list that includes Pinot Noir and
Chardonnay. For dinner, head back to St. Helena, to Cindy’s Backstreet
Kitchen, a locals’ hangout from Top Chef: Masters’s Cindy Pawlcyn. Save
Yountville for day three: After sipping Champagne on the patio of
Domaine Chandon (707-944-8844), dine à la Thomas Keller,
at Ad Hoc, Bouchon (sister restaurant to the one in Vegas), or the worldfamous
French Laundry. If you’re still kicking after dinner, save your
nights for the brand-new lounge Empire, which is already earning buzz for
its late-night (for Napa) scene, plus its small-plate menu and its wine board
of the finest regional vintages.
For adrenaline junkies,
a helicopter tour of the
Grand Canyon holds its
own against the action
on the Strip.
A Ride to Thrill Champagne and cliff landings add
excitement to an already fabulous
excursion: a helicopter tour of the
Tourists planning a Vegas itinerary for the first time always ask locals one
thing: “Is it worth it to squeeze in the Grand Canyon?”
Not only is the answer a resounding “Yes,” but our favorite helicopter
tour companies have added so many exciting activities that exploring
the Grand Canyon by air is something that can be done again and again.
“Most people aren’t used to having that much visibility and looking
straight at the ground when they’re flying,” says Joe Muñoz, chief pilot of
Maverick Helicopters (702-261-0007), who promises
that his tours more than compete with the action on the Strip. “It’s
definitely a thrill and a rush.”
Passengers on any of Maverick’s 35 ECO-Stars—$3 million helicopters
that are the quietest, roomiest tourism choppers in the world—especially
love the four-and-a-half-hour Wind Dancer Sunset tour. The trip begins
at the company’s private airfield, in the shadow of Mandalay Bay. Guests
fly over the sights of Vegas and away from what Muñoz calls this “island
in the desert.” Throughout the flight, the pilot narrates the adventure,
answers questions, and calms any jittery nerves. Arriving at the Grand
Canyon, the helicopter flies over the rim before gently descending almost
3,500 feet to a bluff 300 feet above the Colorado River. “Only by helicopter
can you get to the bottom of the canyon,” Muñoz says. “It’s the total
opposite of Vegas when you get there. It’s peaceful and quiet.”
Those with nerves to quell especially appreciate the chilled Champagne
that’s served on the bluff with hors d’oeuvres, while everyone takes pictures
and soaks in the view before heading back to the city. For those left
wanting more, the company can arrange custom packages, including weddings,
at the bottom of the canyon. Maverick once flew some 50 guests in
eight helicopters to a private landing site for an extravagant sushi feast.
Sundance Helicopters (702-736-0606), another
popular tour operator, provides limousine service to a private terminal at
McCarran International Airport, where it keeps its fleet of 25 six- and
seven-passenger helicopters. Guests, about 75 percent of them from outside
the United States, often opt for the company’s best-selling Grand
Canyon Picnic tour, in which pilots fly over the canyon’s rim and descend
3,200 feet to a secluded area overlooking the Colorado River. Another
popular option is the Grand Voyager Exclusive, which takes passengers
over Hoover Dam and Lake Mead before whisking them down to the
Colorado for a boat ride through deep chasms, then back up to see the
Grand Canyon’s famous glass Skywalk.
Arch in Arches National
Nature's Finest Trafalgar’s national parks tour means no more excuses for never having visited the
west’s most magnificent natural wonders.
Neither locals or tourists can help but be struck by the stark contrast
between Vegas’s man-made attractions and the West’s natural wonders,
especially those on full display across the region’s vast tracts of protected
wilderness. “It’s kind of fun to juxtapose the bright lights and the craziness
of Las Vegas against the national parks,” says Trafalgar travel director Joel
P. Smith, who has led tours of the area for more than a decade. “This tour
shows you the two extremes.”
Trafalgar offers the most convenient way to experience an incredible
seven states—and at least seven national parks—with its 14-day Scenic
Parks Explorer package, which appeals to both foreign travelers itching to
see the Wild West from a Vegas base and locals who have never gotten
around to visiting the scenic wonders in their backyard. Trafalgar travel
director Carolyn Sorgenfrei, a Vegas resident, refers to the two-week getaway
as a “sample platter” because it offers “a little taste of everything.”
Sorgenfrei isn’t kidding. The first day is reserved for hitting the slots,
shows, lounges, and everything else Vegas has in its arsenal of temptations.
For locals (and there are many), a first-night welcome reception provides a
fun way to get to know your travel companions. Guests then board a luxury
motor coach, kick back, and embark on their Western
adventure. Driving through the enormous, diverse Great
Basin, the tour stops first at Southern Utah’s Zion National Park
and Bryce Canyon National Park, which Smith calls “one of
the most beautiful places in the world.”
On day four it’s off to Wyoming and the first unforgettable
glimpses of Grand Teton’s massive peak, which juts almost
14,000 feet into bright blue skies. The next several days are spent exploring
the state, including Yellowstone National Park. The activities can be as
strenuous as hiking for miles or as leisurely as floating down the Snake
River or taking a short excursion to see bubbling hot springs, mud paint
pots, or the geyser Old Faithful, with its steaming water rocketing more
than 100 feet into the air.
The expedition continues north through Cody, Wyoming, home of
Buffalo Bill Cody, and into Montana. Trafalgar prepares special events
along the way, like day seven’s “Be My Guest” dinner of down-home cooking
hosted by a harmonica-playing local cowboy who spins yarns of life in
Big Sky Country.
On day eight, the group stops at Little Bighorn, the site of Custer’s
Last Stand. The next three days deliver South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore
and Crazy Horse Memorial, with an optional excursion to Badlands
National Park. Then it’s time to begin meandering back toward Las Vegas,
as the tour scales Colorado’s awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains and descends
into Arches National Park, outside Moab, Utah.
The last couple of days deliver just as much punch, with Mesa Verde
National Park’s ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings and
Monument Valley’s towering sandstone buttes.
The journey comes to a dramatic close with an optional
sunrise hike of one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural
World—the majestic Grand Canyon. Then historic Route
66 delivers weary vacationers back to the energizing
sights and sounds of Vegas.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAN BALCIOGLU; laurin rinder; krzysztof wiktor (zion); darren j. bradley (arches)