I always thought I'd only visit Las Vegas once. That was back in 1996 as a three-day stop over after time in Northern California, Colorado and New Mexico and before heading home to New Zealand.

We stayed in a hotel designed as a mock mediaeval castle across the road from a pyramid. We flew to the Grand Canyon, walked the strip, shook our heads in bemused amazement and left.

In the early 2000s, close friends, Jane and Robert, moved there for work (unrelated to the casino business) and the relatively inexpensive real estate. It's a great base for travelling to Utah, Arizona and California. Get off Las Vegas Boulevard and there are superb restaurants that won't break the bank.

There's also a rich cultural life, especially with the benefit of local knowledge. On one visit we went to a house party in the neighbourhood. Most guests were from the various Cirque de Soleil shows in town. It was a multinational mix and the impromptu entertainment and talent on display were extraordinary.

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The whole region gets very hot in summer, but it's dry heat so much more tolerable than humidity. I've mainly visited in autumn and early winter, when it can get chilly overnight and the days are fine and comfortably warm.

The strip is still a visceral assault on the senses – more so with the arrival of supersized LED screens that probably can be seen from the moon.

What impressed me most, last November, was the transformation of downtown around Fremont St, the original strip. A down-at-heel district is slowly being modernised with old, classic-style motels renovated and industrial buildings transformed into fashionable bars, craft breweries and restaurants.

The surrounding countryside is dramatic and very beautiful with stark, desert landscapes stretching to the horizon under big blue skies.

And there's great hiking and mountain biking. We rode Bootleg Canyon above Boulder City and the Blue Diamond trails in the Spring Mountains, both around half an hour out of Las Vegas.

Boulder City was where the workers who built the Hoover Dam in the 1930s lived. Casinos are not allowed, so it's retained a sleepy charm that is seductive. The canyon trails were fine for a short blast.

However, it was the Blue Diamond bike park that really spun my wheels – and those of the Trek Fuel 9.8 27.5+ I hired from the friendly folk at McGhie's Bike Outpost. The first part of the ride, with Robert and another mate, Sean the Attorney, was an 8km climb out of the sweet, little village of Blue Diamond. Apart from a couple of sharp, slick-rock, pinch climbs it was steady going. Elevation gained only became apparent when we reached the top and looked back to Blue Diamond in the valley below.

What goes up must come down and the return to town was significantly faster. The trails were a mix of fast and flowy (pedally, no braking), punctuated by steep rock gardens, staircases and chutes. Drop the seat, hang on and cane it territory. Exhilarating – and it made me realise that maybe I've been riding a bit too conservatively back here in Rotorua. And maybe an old dog still has some skills…