Nevada: Bright lights of Reno

By Rob McFarland

The biggest little city in the world has spruced up its act, as Rob McFarland discovers.

Lake Tahoe, a 90-minute drive from Reno, is perfect for kayaking, sailing and hiking. Photo / Rob McFarland
Lake Tahoe, a 90-minute drive from Reno, is perfect for kayaking, sailing and hiking. Photo / Rob McFarland

If Reno and Las Vegas were siblings, Las Vegas would wear a white suit and drive a convertible. He would be the cad who is always late, but is still fussed over. Reno would drive a dilapidated Datsun. He would have scruffy hair, an untucked shirt and a coffee stain on his tie.

Reno has always suffered in comparison to its more glamorous neighbour. Though it can't compete in scale or opulence, it does have a rough-around-the-edges charm. It is trying to spruce up its act through several rejuvenation projects. Not only has it tucked in its shirt and bought a new tie, but the once-dodgy downtown area has been transformed into a welcoming destination.

Instrumental to this rejuvenation has been a kayak park on the Truckee River which flows through town. It has revitalised the area, luring outdoorsy types to the riverfront parks and open spaces.

A river festival is held every May, at which kayakers from around the world tackle the course's 11 drop pools and class-three rapids. If you're keen to have a go, Tahoe Whitewater Tours offers guided kayak trips.

One big advantage Reno has over its flashier brother is that it is pedestrian-friendly. Stay somewhere central and you'll find most of the main attractions are within a 15-minute stroll. Although you could easily wander around on your own and get your bearings, if you're game for something different and don't mind a bit of attention there's an entertaining tour that's well worth a look.

George W. Bush made the Segway famous by falling off one. It was an impressive feat, given this futuristic-looking, two-wheeled device is one of the most intuitive modes of transport I've ever tried.

We start our two-hour tour outside the Silver Legacy hotel, a grand old building whose Gold Rush-era architecture harks back to a simpler gaming age, when casinos weren't built to resemble pyramids.

From here, we whiz around the corner to see one of Reno's most-famous sights - the Reno Arch. Its slogan, The Biggest Little City in the World, was the winning entry in a competition held in 1927 and our guide claims it's the most-photographed structure in the world (I'd say the Eiffel Tower may have something to say about that).

Opposite is the National Automobile Museum. Started by Bill Harrah of Harrah's casino in 1989, it has more than 200 classic cars.

We take a break in funky cafe Java Jungle and, over a surprisingly good cup of coffee (this is the US), our guide provides an insight into some of Reno's colourful history.

In an attempt to lure people to the state during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Nevada legalised gambling and introduced liberal divorce laws - earning Reno the reputation as the divorce capital of the US. Legend has it that after couples had their divorces settled in the courthouse, they would kiss the courthouse pillars and toss their wedding rings into the Truckee River.

If you're an outdoorsy type, one of Reno's biggest drawcards is its proximity to the stunningly beautiful Lake Tahoe.

This 35km-long lake is only a 90-minute drive away and offers a range of activities year-round. Visit in winter and you have 22 world-class ski resorts; visit in summer and you have limitless opportunities to hike, bike, sail, kayak, fish and golf.

Mountain-bike enthusiasts are particularly well catered for with the world-famous Flume Trail. Regularly voted one of the US' most scenic mountain-bike rides, this 21km trail winds along the route of an old aluminium flume used to transport water from the lake.

It's not for the faint-hearted - at many points I find myself close to a 480m drop - but the views across the lake to the snow-capped mountains are spectacular. For a less nerve-racking perspective, hire a kayak and take a paddle around the lake while marvelling at the outstanding clarity of the water. It may look inviting, but with an average water temperature of 16C, you're unlikely to stay in for long.

Although there are dozens of fancy lake-front resorts to choose from, a more environmentally sensitive option is the Cedar House Sport Hotel in the nearby town of Truckee. Energy efficiency was integral to the design of this boutique 42-room property and it's a masterclass in green building techniques.

The California-Nevada state line bisects Lake Tahoe, which means there are casinos on the Nevada side of the lake's north and south shores. They feel out of place in this pristine environment, so I decide to drive back to The Biggest Little City in the World for one last flutter. Although Lady Luck abandons me at the blackjack table, she seems to be smiling on Reno. It's a city whose fortunes are turning.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: V Australia flies daily from Auckland to LA via Sydney. Reno is then a short internal flight or an eight-hour drive. Phone 0800 828 782.

Staying there: In Reno, the plush Grand Sierra Resort has a casino and a high-end steakhouse run by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer. The 42-room Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee has impressive green credentials.

Touring there: The two-hour Reno Segway Tour costs US$65 ($82). A half day of guided kayaking with Tahoe Whitewater Tours in Reno costs US$48.

Mountain bike hire for the Flume Trail costs from US$45 a day.

Tahoe Adventure Company hires out kayaks for US$15 an hour.

More information: See visitrenotahoe.com, gotahoenorth.com and visitcalifornia.com.au.

The writer was a guest of the North Lake Tahoe Visitors and Convention Bureau, the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority and California Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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