Jae C. Hong  /  AP
Red Rock Resort guest Cindy Manouge, far right, of Wisconsin, joins other hotel guests as she takes a horseback ride with the Red Rock Canyon in the background at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park in Nev.
updated 4/10/2007 3:14:42 PM ET 2007-04-10T19:14:42

No one thought Las Vegas was my kind of town.

"You wouldn't last 24 hours!" friends warned. "You, of all people, would absolutely haaate it."

I'm the type who prefers the mountains to the mall. I cringe at the oversize and artificial. I get lost in crowds. Cry in traffic. And so, naturally, I always agreed: Sin City was not for me.

But then, here I was, a Vegas virgin at 32 years old. And, I admit, I was curious. Maybe it was time I learned what all the buzz was about. I'm young; I'm fun; I'm a travel writer, for crying out loud! I called my friend Raina, the one other person I knew who'd Never Been, and we booked our flights.

And then we booked a room — intentionally off the Strip and away from the chaos — at the swank new Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, located 10 miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard and five minutes, tops, from the entrance to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. With an "adventure spa" and a view of the red rock from my big cushy bed, how bad could it be?

We'll spend our days outside — in the wilderness, I told Raina. At night, we'll hit the town. If, honestly, only because we were dying to try chef Joël Robuchon's new eponymous restaurant, which elevated the local, already-on-the-rise dining scene. And then we'll retreat safely back to our rooms, Cinderella-style. After all, if we were going to make the most of our days, we couldn't sleep through them.

Fish-eye view of Hoover Dam
"Vegas doesn't typically attract, uh, out-doorsy people," says my cabdriver, on the way out of McCarran International Airport.

Perfect, I think. More room for me.

I'd heard all about Red Rock Canyon: It is climbers' heaven, with hiking and horseback trails galore. But I didn't know the relatively untracked Valley of Fire State Park is only an hour away; nor did I realize I could kayak down the Colorado River from the base of Hoover Dam. Vegas, baby, Vegas.

Our very first night, we wrap ourselves in the hotel's plush white robes, order room service, and watch America's Next Top Model. Off to a lame start, we realize. But what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! Plus, we have an early morning on the Colorado River.

Before we catch even a glimpse of glitter, we see a trio of bighorn sheep moseying along a grassy hillside near the base of Hoover Dam — our launching pad for the day's paddle. I'm happy.

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At the suggestion of our Red Rock Casino adventure activities guide, David Bert, we sign up with Evolution Expeditions Kayaking — a new outfitter with the best boats in town.

Given the tight security at the Southwest's landmark power source, only 30 water permits are issued daily. "Even without that rule, though, there wouldn't be many folks out here," says Evolution's owner, Dan Cameron. "Locals who've lived here forever have no idea you can do this! Took me 20 years to find out."

Feeling fortunate to get a bottom-up view of the monolithic dam in the early-morning light, we slip quietly down the glassy class I river and past the volcanic red rock of Black Canyon. Our first stop is Sauna Cave, where our guide, Aaron, leads us into a pitch-black 60-foot-deep, geothermally heated tunnel. We walk cautiously and ankle-deep in soothing, steamy water.

Then we paddle on peacefully under the big blue sky, past peregrine falcons, our eyes peeled for more bighorns. I forget I'm in Las Vegas until Aaron informs me that his dream job is to be an aerial artist in a Cirque du Soleil show. "I'm worried I don't have the body," he admits, "but this kayaking gig should hopefully help my muscle tone."

At Boyscout Canyon, we wade through a series of natural hot springs until we reach a big turquoise-clear pool, tempered by a rushing cold waterfall, and jump in. "This sure beats gambling!" says the one other guest on our trip. Agreed.

That evening, we shift gears: Cruising down Interstate 15 in our Chevy Impala, we channel Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in Swingers. A surge of excitement hits us as we near the Strip. We're dwarfed by the gaudy skyscrapers, shining by the light of the setting sun. The sky is pink, the traffic converging. Signs, signs, everywhere are neon signs. We're trapped in a real-life Lite-Brite, starstruck and overstimulated.

An all-glass elevator shoots us to the top of Thehotel at Mandalay Bay, to Mix Lounge, where we toast our trip from a patio table with a bird's-eye view of the entire Strip. Lights crawl like caterpillars along the edge of the Luxor Las Vegas pyramid. So many hotels. So many parking lots. The long, narrow bar, with its disco feel, deep booths, and dim light, is almost too cool.

Next stop is dinner at Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn Las Vegas. Arguably the hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard since its splashy 2005 opening, the Wynn boasts a $2.7 billion price tag, a collection of van Goghs and Picassos that will bring you to tears, $500 greens fees, and a flashy website that takes two minutes to load. We allow a good half-hour to make our way 3 miles, but still we're late for our reservation. The effects of the long day in the desert sun kick in as we devour our steak frites and crispy duck confit, mesmerized by the changing colors of the "Lake of Dreams" light show outside.

Bedtime. Twenty-four hours down — and, surprising myself, I'm actually looking forward to tomorrow.

From red-rock hound to jet-setter
We grab a cup of coffee and a couch in the lobby, and stare through the doors tinted fire-engine red at a view of fountains, non-native palms, and surrounding construction that will soon create an urban center, complete with residences and shops. We meet up with David Bert, the adventure activities guide who'd steered us to the kayak trip, so he can show us around Red Rock Canyon, the national conservation area he's long considered home.

"Are you ready to get spanked?" he asks. I'm startled, but then quickly realize it's only innocuous hiking-speak. We tell him we'd prefer to take it easy, after yesterday's invigorating paddle. He whisks us 15 minutes from the resort, yet seemingly worlds away, to Sandstone Quarry. I'm surrounded by yellow sandstone cliffs, ruins of an agave-roasting pit, and crazy red rock formations. I ponder how these pancake layers came to be.

"People come here for the whole what-happens-here-stays-here thing," says David. "I tell them, 'Take a bunch of photos, show your friends! Spend a few bucks on a horseback ride and actually get your money's worth — you'll blow a whole lot more at the blackjack tables.'?"

We scramble up to Calico Tanks, one of David's favorite respites — and a unique juxtaposition. Standing among 150-million-year-old rock, touching the earth in its purest form, I can see, looking at a distant Emerald City, the exact antithesis: a 6-mile stretch of nothing but stuff, spanning from the Stratosphere to Mandalay Bay.

We're back by noon and head straight for Salt Lick for real-deal Texas barbecue: jalapeño-stuffed shrimp wrapped in applewood bacon and tender smoked brisket. Trying our best to save room for dinner, we hold back on the berry cobbler.

And then we hit the pool, the hotel's 3-acre centerpiece encircled by private cabanas and umbrella-shaded chaises. The scene is tamer than I'd imagined, with more gray-haired folks than bikini-clad 20-somethings. Next, I treat my desert-dehydrated skin to the "Crystal Caviar" facial. After an indulgent sequence of exfoliation, creams, masks, and wraps, I emerge glowing — and ready for our next splurge, Robuchon.

Dining at Joël Robuchon's restaurant, for us, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with the full tasting menu priced at $360. So we savor each of the 16 courses, every sip of wine, and every pampered moment of the three-hour dinner. We treasure the over-the-top touches, from the dizzying choice of 14 kinds of fresh-baked levain to the truffled langoustine ravioli to the purple ribbon–tied napkin that appears upon return from each trip to the ladies' room. Only in Vegas.

Après dinner, we head over to the Mirage for Love, Las Vegas's latest Cirque du Soleil production. An acrobatic show unfolds, set to a remix of the Beatles' greatest hits. We silently sing along, awestruck by the tumbles and trapeze — and then I, uh, nod off. Just briefly. It was late … We had all that wine … Raina nudges me. By the heartening "Love Is All You Need" finale, I'm revived.

Downstairs, we see a snaking line by a velvet rope. It's Jet, the hottest club on the Strip — or so we'd heard. Enough with the good-night sleeps. We're in Vegas! The music is hypnotizing, as is the people-watching. We make it through two of the three sound rooms in the laser grid-lit space. But we can only handle so much. Around 3 a.m., we call it a night.

We wake way too late for the sunrise horseback ride we'd planned. "This must be how people normally do Vegas," I grumble, as we wander aimlessly around the MGM Grand. I slap five bucks down on the Wheel of Fortune — and win five more! This is kinda fun, but I'm no fool and quit while I'm ahead.

And we rally. We leave the Strip for a drive through Lake Mead National Recreation Area to Valley of Fire State Park. An endless stretch of mind-boggling boulders erupts from the creosote bush. The red rock looks superimposed against the stormy sky. Terra-cotta sand seeps into our sneakers along the White Domes Trail. Eventually, we tear ourselves away.

Four days and 100 hours later, it's all over.

"Checking out just for the morning?" the valet asks, opening the car door. He sees my suitcase. "Or checking out forever?" he smiles.

I pause, unsure at first how to respond. "Actually. No. Not forever," I reply, laughing. "I'll be back."

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Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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