By Roger ALLNUTT
The United States is a large country of many contrasts but one of the starkest is between Las Vegas in Nevada and St George in Utah. Yet they are only less than 200km apart.
Las Vegas in Nevada is undoubtedly one of the largest gambling/entertainment centres in the world drawing millions of people each year. It is a totally manufactured city dependent on a steady stream of tourists to keep its hotels, bars, restaurants, gambling casinos, shows and other attractions functioning and profitable.
By contrast St George in Utah is the second largest city dominated by adherents of the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and there is no gambling and relatively little alcohol available. Mormons do not drink alcohol or even tea and coffee.
It is over 30 years since I last visited Las Vegas and despite the enormous development some things haven’t really changed. The mass of tourists wandering along ‘the Strip’ is much the same and the punters at the tables and slot machines still have a slightly bored and desperate look. The number of casinos is mind boggling and the size and scope of the hotels overwhelming.
Among the many glittering and stylish hotels are household names such as Caesar’s Palace, The Mirage, New York New York, MGM Grand and Wynn.
The Venetian, like its counterpart in that other gambling mecca Macau, has canals and bridges replicating Venice while the Paris has its own Eiffel Tower the top of which can be reached by elevators. Some have unique designs such as Luxor shaped like a sphinx and Excalibur like a fairy tale castle.
My favourite is the stunning Bellagio surrounded by a huge ‘lake’ but it is the inside with its famous indoor garden and expansive use of glass by world renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. The garden changes with the season and the spring display was quite breathtaking.
Another major attraction is the shows which range from circus performances (Cirque Soleil is well represented) to Broadway type musicals and spectacles. Queues line up during the day at booths where tickets for the evening’s performances are often at half price.
Another drawcard is the shopping with all the top brands having flashy stores either along the Strip or in beautiful arcades as part of the hotels. However don’t miss the incredible ‘outlets’ where similar items are sold at a fraction of the price. Even I, a hopeless shopper, couldn’t resist the bargains. The two best outlets are Las Vegas Premium Outlets North and South.
You don’t have to spend all your time in Las Vegas itself as there are plenty of wonderful sights and scenery only a short drive away.
For example Boulder City and the huge Hoover Dam are less than an hour from Las Vegas and the size of the dam is staggering. You can even do helicopter flights from there to the Grand Canyon. Actually the Grand Canyon is offered as a day trip from Vegas by many companies with offices along the Strip.
To the north of Vegas you are heading past Death Valley and numerous American Indian reserves. Death Valley is not recommended in the heat of summer as the temperatures can be extreme.
Another national park well worth a visit is the beautiful and colourful Valley of Fire State Park and this can readily be including in your itinerary by a detour from Highway 15 en route to St George.
About half way to St George just before the border with Utah is the town of Mesquite. The large casino there provides you with the last chance for some serious gambling but more interesting is the development of these small towns as retirement places as retirees move out of the crowded cities for a lifestyle of gated communities and lush golf courses.
As mentioned St George is the second largest Mormon city after Salt Lake City. Many of the historic buildings are associated with the church. The lovely Temple set in extensive grounds was dedicated in 1877 and it a holy place where the Mormons still perform their most sacred ceremonies. You cannot go into the temple but the adjacent visitor’s centre has lots of literature.
The nearby red sandstone tabernacle where services are held has a lovely interior with fine woodwork and ornate organ.
During the three decades he led the church Brigham Young directed the establishment of more than 300 communities throughout the American West. His house where he spent the last winters of his life is also worth visiting. Brigham Young had 16 wives and 56 children!
The southern part of Utah is famous for its many wonderful national parks and St George is an ideal base to visit two of the most famous Zion and Bryce although the distance to Bryce makes it a full one day trip.
I only managed to get to Zion as an unseasonal snowstorm closed the road to Bryce Canyon. However Zion was open and is an area where you can spend days walking and cycling to the points of interest, watching the wildlife, and viewing the stunning scenery. As at most US national parks access for cars in limited unless staying at a lodge within the park boundary but a wonderfully efficient shuttle service is provided to the main sights. These electric environmentally friendly buses run around every three to five minutes so there is virtually no waiting and you can get on and off to explore the major attractions.
For most tourists the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive takes up most of your time with the chance to take side trails to key places such as The Grotto, Weeping Rock, Big Bend and Temple of Sinawava. The park is home to 69 species of mammals, 208 birds and 29 reptiles but you mainly see cheeky squirrels perched on rocks along the trails.
The cliff sides of the canyons are very steep and after rain the streams can rise quickly. The colour of the rock changes dramatically during the day providing endless photo opportunities.
If you only have a short amount of time the Snow Canyon Park on the outskirts of St George is a great place to also witness the change of colour on the red rock faces..