By Aaron Rasmussen | June 28, 2013 | Lifestyle
Take a break from steamy Vegas with a trip to Napa, where average summer 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 Grand Canyon.
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.
The Delicate Arch in Arches National Park
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.
North Fork Virgin River in Zion National Park.
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.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAN BALCIOGLU; laurin rinder; krzysztof wiktor (zion); darren j. bradley (arches)