Yours truly visits Sin City’s sister and re-discovers treasures you thought had long disappeared….
Last week, three downtown Boyd properties quietly began charging resort fees. Popular Main Street Station, California and Fremont hotels were three of the last four to avoid the reviled mandatory daily charges. Now only Four Queens remains as the sole truly value-laden destination in what was once considered a refuge for those avoiding Strip-style gouging.
To make today’s Vegas seem even more frustrating, our friend Scott Roeben of VitalVegas.com recently exposed a sneaky, expensive trick being played on patrons at nightclubs like Tao, Omnia, Hakkasan and Wynn’s XS. It’s not unlike the bogus CNF charge he warned us about two years ago. And yet, Sin City continues to find new ways to rip you off.
You’d think that all this bull-shittery would have pushed Vegas fans passed the tipping point long ago…yet they continue to flock in. Those of us who are savvy and sick of being gouged may be seeking out more value-laden destinations for our Vegas fix, and rightly so. It never hurts to discover new places…or in my case, to rediscover an old one.
Nearby Laughlin, an easy two-hour drive from the Strip, boasts an old-time atmosphere you may be craving. Smokey casinos, cornball shows, sticky slot machines, cheap buffets and oceans of blue hair vie for your attention.
Hotels with familiar names like Golden Nugget, Tropicana and Harrah’s still have that out-of-the-seventies feel (brass, glass and tacky carpeting). Alas, Laughlin’s version of the Strip is quite small, with only nine hotels to choose from. In its favor, they all line up along a scenic riverside location.
Reno, on the other hand, is a full city of adventure. Nicknamed “The Biggest Little City In The World”, it’s very much like the Las Vegas I discovered over a decade ago….right before everything started to go to shit for the sake of “upscale” improvements.
Once downtrodden and decaying, Reno still carries a sad reputation. Some of it is deserved, as certain sections of the city remain sketchy and unattractive. Yet at its heart, “Little Vegas” is alive and thriving. And lots more fun these days than you’d expect.
My most recent visit to Reno was last weekend after a three year hiatus. The experience was positive from arrival to check-out time. There was an intense feeling of deja-vu during the entire stay. It felt as though I’d been transported to my first Vegas visit…and all of that excitement of discovering Sin City came flooding back.
Even if you’ve never been to Reno, you’re likely to feel right at home immediately. The local airport is small but efficient and well-equipped and it’s an easy drive to the heart of the city. You’ll recognize familiar names like El Cortez, Circus Circus and Harrah’s. In fact, the current Caesars Entertainment Corporation began life right here in Reno.
Cool, overcast days are part of the seasonal weather variety in Reno…
For this stay, my hubby and I decided to try Whitney Peak Hotel, a newly-renovated building that was once known as Fitzgerald’s Casino Hotel. Yes, the same as THAT Fitzgerald’s on Fremont Street (now known as The D – a stupid rebranding that I still can’t make myself say out loud). Despite being less-than-impressed with the Whitney Peak website, we were curious to finally see the inside of this long-shuttered tower, so we took a chance. And what a breath of fresh air it was.
Before getting into details of Whitney Peak, I want to focus on what made Reno such a great alternative. First off, the ambiance was fantastic…very much like “lost Vegas”. The neon is bright and blinding, the tackiness is more atmospheric than literal (things in every major casino appeared to be polished and well-maintained) and employees were uniformly pleasant if not outright endearing.
When I first started visiting in 2011, Reno was in a really sad state. Casinos were shuttered, businesses were boarded up and vagrants lined the sidewalks. These days, those elements are disappearing at a rapid pace…and in their place are fun new restaurants, shops and hotels. Street fairs and events are commonplace and an eclectic vibe has moved into the area.
After storing our luggage at the Whitney Peak reservation desk (we had driven overnight from northern Oregon and arrived around breakfast time), it was off to the casinos to play while waiting to be notified of early check-in availability.
Hubby quickly ate through a few twenties at the slots (as is his norm), but I quadrupled my cash while enjoying some very tasty Bloody Marys at Eldorado Casino. And yes, just like in Vegas, your cocktails are free as you play.
Silver Legacy is Downtown Reno’s most popular hotel. Blame the Bloody Marys…
Next we strolled through adjacent Silver Legacy, a spacious and slightly more luxurious offering than its neighbor. Cocktail service was speedy here as well and the Bloody Marys were abundant with celery stalks, green beans, olives and lime. While scoping out dining and entertainment options for the weekend, we realized we were quite hungry. So, it was back the way we came for lunch at the Club Cal-Neva.
The Cal-Neva originally opened in 1962 and is one of the longest-running and most historic casinos in the downtown area. For a while it also operated the adjacent Virginian Hotel. The sixteen-story Virginian had 125 rooms that were shuttered in 2004. In that way and many others, the casino’s history and resemblance to Binion’s Gambling Hall on Fremont Street are remarkable.
Along with a large and popular William Hill Sportsbook, the biggest draw at Cal-Neva appears to be the Top Deck diner. If you’re a fan of the former Binion’s Original Coffee Shop in Vegas, (the basement location, not the current casino cafe) you’ll love Top Deck.
The interior design is all hunter green and brass…very reminiscent of the Paradise Buffet at Fremont Hotel in Vegas. Open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays and from 6am to whenever the rest of the week, Top Deck has portions and prices that are insane.
If you’re a fan of Hash House a Go Go, you can get your Sage Fried Chicken Benedict fix at Harrah’s Reno. That hotel casino also has their own buffet named Carvings. While similar in size and quality to Flavors of Harrah’s Vegas, the prices are way lower (dinner is $20 vs. up to $33.99). There’s also Bavarian World for you Hofbrauhaus aficianados.
La Strada Italian Restaurant is an outstanding choice…
If fine dining is your thing, there are plenty of steakhouses and higher-end international options. We chose La Strada inside Eldorado Casino for our anniversary/Saturday-night pre-show meal. Ranked as one of the top ten Italian restaurants in the country with an award-winning wine list, La Strada was definitely a top-notch experience. And our tickets to Cirque Paris in the main showroom entitled us to 50% off our entrees.
Speaking of the show, Cirque Paris is a new variety production at Eldorado that can give nearly any similar Vegas show a run for its money. A brilliant cast, excellent acts and clever production design was a little Zumanity, a slice of BAZ and a whole lot of Absinthe.
Cirque Paris evokes a turn-of-the-century Parisian cabaret. Sexy courtesans and muscular ushers help guests to their seats and mingle with patrons at a full-service circular bar in front of the main stage. If you’re lucky, one of them might slap a gold seal on your shoulder, which upgrades you to front-row seating that magically appears when the bar transforms into part of the stage.
It turns out that the ushers and bar staff are actually performers. They bring in a row of lounge chairs to surround the stage before taking their places on the set. The effect is dazzling, as is the show itself.
Former members of Cirque du Soleil, along with other world-class acrobats and comedy acts, mix sexy flirtation with astounding athleticism. And at $59.99 for top-tier seats (which include champagne), Cirque Paris is one of the most outstanding entertainment deals you can find.
Today’s Las Vegas seems intent to scrub away or tear down its own history, but Reno casinos embrace it. Walls are festooned with plaques commemorating legendary performances. The Cal-Neva is celebrating 56 years of operation by charging its customers even LESS than normal. And hotels don’t strip away their themes but boast about them.
Whitney Peak may be a newly-opened hotel but it dares to have a theme of its own. Unlike the office-building blandness of Aria, Whitney Peak offers a unique theme that appeals to sports enthusiasts of the literal kind. Armchair quarterbacks might feel at home in the city’s sportsbooks, but adventurous Spiderman wannabees are encouraged to climb right up the side of Whitney Peak’s exterior wall.
The second floor of the new hotel is home to Base Camp Climbing Gym, an indoor rock-climbing facility and workout center. Guests of all ages can challenge their abilities with boulders in varying degrees of difficulty, all in a safe and monitored environment. Group workout classes, climbing instruction, fitness center and steam room/sauna combine into one unique experience.
The rooms at Whitney Peak have been gloriously refitted and decorated with modern yet rugged appeal. We were kindly upgraded to a top-floor suite that included a top-of-the-line Keurig coffee maker, kitchen with microwave oven and fridge, dining counter and expansive seating area. Wi-fi is included in all rooms, it’s pet-friendly, purified water dispensers are located on each floor and the entire resort is smoke-free. And the most innovative thing of all? NO RESORT FEES!
Whitney Peak doesn’t have a casino…but it does have its own excellent restaurant called Roundabout Grill. Despite the top-notch service, excellent ambiance, live music and delicious cuisine, the prices aren’t a dollar more than you’d expect to pay in your own home town. And I dare say that Whitney Peak is LGBTQ-friendly, as we were treated with the utmost respect.
The hotel offers a selection of Club Level rooms on the fifteenth floor. An accompanying lounge provides a small breakfast buffet, private sitting areas, computer access, board games and a happy hour every evening.
Atlantis Casino (above) evokes an underwater city theme with large domes…
Peppermill is Reno’s most luxurious resort and features a rich Tuscany flavor…
If bigger resorts are your thing, the town is surrounded by modern, larger casino hotels. The Atlantis rivals most anything you can find on the Vegas Strip. Reno does Sin City one better by turning Peppermill Restaurant into an epic casino resort. The signature bright pinks, purples and ultra-high-def visuals of the popular north-Strip diner are amplified to the Nth degree at Peppermill Reno. It’s blinding, dazzling…and delicious.
For nostalgic moviegoers, the beloved West Wind 6 Drive-in Theater of Las Vegas has its own twin in Reno. Operated by the same company, West Wind El Rancho 4 offers four screens of first-run double-features (yes, two new films back-to-back) for only $7.50 per person ($5.50 on Tuesdays). Compare that to the typical price of a film at Century Theaters Orleans Casino, where a single evening movie costs $11.00 or higher.
If watching films, enjoying great shows or gambling aren’t your thing, Reno has plenty of outdoor activities to relish like skiing, boating, hiking, camping, golfing, mountain biking and more. Gorgeous and glorious Lake Tahoe is a short day trip away and Tahoe has its own collection of hotel casinos like Harvey’s, Hard Rock, Biltmore and of course, another Harrah’s.
With all these positives, it’s no surprise that Reno is starting to get renewed media attention…and population growth. Vegas ABC affiliate KTNV-TV recently reported that the city outranks Las Vegas as a great place to live, citing cultural events, outdoor activities and job opportunities.
As you can see, there’s a whole lot to enjoy in Reno. A vacation there won’t drag your wallet through the mud and you’re sure to have a blast. There’s still nothing to replace the actual Las Vegas. But as the city you love continues to re-invent itself ad nauseam, you can still get your nostalgic “old Vegas” fix in Nevada’s other Sin City.
You may find yourself returning to Reno again and again.
Photos: Sammasseur, LaughlinNevada.net, WhitneyPeaks.com