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Sin City is now a place your family can leave feeling more enlightened — provided they avoid the casinos

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Visitors walk through Fremont East district in Las Vegas last month.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Visitors walk through Fremont East district in Las Vegas last month.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                A decade ago Chinatown in Las Vegas was mainly an enclave of restaurants and shops behind an ornate red gate, but it has expanded to the far reaches of Spring Mountain Road.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    A decade ago Chinatown in Las Vegas was mainly an enclave of restaurants and shops behind an ornate red gate, but it has expanded to the far reaches of Spring Mountain Road.

  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                Visitors walk through Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Visitors walk through Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Rail Explorers set up rail bike tours on the abandoned tracks leading to the Hoover Dam construction site in Boulder City, Nev.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Rail Explorers set up rail bike tours on the abandoned tracks leading to the Hoover Dam construction site in Boulder City, Nev.

A decade ago, after a rained-out Thanksgiving desert camping trip with our five kids, my wife, Kristin, and I headed to the nearest available lodging, the now-shuttered Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Watching our brood eat their Thanksgiving meal as cigarette smoke and slot-machine clamor wafted over their cheeseburgers, Kristin and I locked eyes with an unspoken message: We are the world’s worst parents.

We have avoided Las Vegas with the kids since then, but an aborted drive to slushy Aspen, Colo., this past April with three of our heirs caused us to pause in Vegas. At the time, the city was just awakening from its COVID-19 slumber, with mandatory masks and limited capacity in most indoor spaces, traffic so light that cars were drag-racing down the normally packed Strip, and a lingering, troubling question over the whole place: Will this reopening really be safe?

BUT EXTRAORDINARY things have been happening during this slumber, and while we were only going to spend one night there, we had so much fun that we ended up staying four. At first, we spent most of our time in the relative safety of the outdoors, but then we started to relax along with the rest of the city, drowning our hands beneath the ubiquitous liquid-sanitizer dispensers, masking up and heading indoors.

I knew things had shifted in Sin City when, while maneuvering the minivan through some seemingly dicey neighborhood between downtown and the Strip, I noted on the back-alley wall of a hair salon a striking mural depicting cult outsider artist Henry Darger’s seven Vivian Girl warriors in their trademark yellow dresses. What were the Vivian Girls doing here?

Farther along, Vegas’ ghost-town adult stores, shuttered warehouses and other buildings were also sporting increasingly elaborate murals: a blood-squirting horned lizard spanning half a city block; a dog with an impressively slobbering tongue piloting an open cockpit plane; a colorful phoenix and dragon rising like fireworks from an empty parking lot — all producing collective surprised “Wows!” from inside our minivan.

LAS VEGAS, it seems, is emerging from the COVID-19 crisis as a place of spectacle and creativity, especially outside the air-conditioned gambling ghettos of the Strip.

Over the next four days, we did a lot of walking, crawling, flying and even railroading, all of it away from the casinos. We explored the Arts District, an area that has gone into hyperdrive — so much so that we waited 30 minutes to get into my once “secret” Colombian breakfast joint, Makers & Finders — and wandered along Spring Mountain Road, the hub of the city’s Chinatown, rapidly expanding westward. In the midcentury mecca of East Fremont Street, a $350 million investment by tech titan Tony Hsieh, who died last year, has produced a boulevard of fantastical art installations, restored buildings and a sculptural playground surrounded by stacked shipping containers converted to boutiques and cafes, all guarded by a giant, fire-spewing, steel praying mantis.

“Vegas is going through a cultural renaissance,” Brian “Paco” Alvarez, a former member of the city’s Arts Commission, told me in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the local culture that comes out of a city with 2 million unusually creative people didn’t stop during the pandemic.”

A mysterious, windowless building

The most striking newcomer is Area15, which opened in February in a mysterious, airport-­hanger-size, windowless building 2 miles west of the Strip. Imagine an urban Burning Man mall ­(indeed, many of the sculptures and installations came from the annual arts festival held in northern Nevada), with about a dozen tenants providing everything from virtual-reality trips to nonvirtual ax throwing, accompanied by Day-Glo color schemes, electronic music, giant interactive-­art installations and guests flying overhead on seats attached to ceiling rails. Face masks are currently only mandatory in Area15 for self-identified unvaccinated people, although some of the attractions inside still require face masks for everyone. Everywhere, we encountered the constant presence of cleaning attendants spraying and wiping surfaces.

Lava-filled caves and artificial lawns

Omega Mart (adult admissions start at $45; face mask and temperature check mandatory), the biggest attraction in the complex, lines one side of the complex’s atrium and seemed — at first — to provide a banal respite from Area15’s sensory overload. Along the sale aisles, I found Nut Free Salted Peanuts, Gut Monkey Ginger Ale and cans of Camels Implied Chicken Sop.

My kids, good campers, immediately ducked into a small demonstration tent erected in the back of the store. They never came out again. A hidden entry brought them through the wall and into a world of artificial lawns, lava-filled caves, drab ­offices, a desert canyon, locker rooms, a secret bar and other divergent spaces often linked by hidden entrances. “Pull every knob and open every closet you see, Dad,” my daughter, Vivian, breathlessly advised as she whizzed by me for the fourth time in this 52,000-square-foot maze.

Chinatown feasts

Dinner! The choices are dizzying and there are now 10 Michelin-starred restaurants in the city. We weren’t going to any of them.

As we left Area15, even the distant lights of the Strip seemed relatively calming. But we were driving the opposite direction, to Chinatown.

A decade ago, Chinatown was mainly a small enclave of restaurants and shops behind an ornate red gate overlooking a strip mall called Chinatown Plaza, catering to Vegas’ growing wave of Asian immigrants. Chinatown has now expanded to the far reaches of Spring Mountain Road, a desert Hong Kong of neon signs in Mandarin, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean, advertising restaurants, coffee-houses, foot-­massage salons and lots of stuff I couldn’t read.

Our goal was an unlikely corner of a strip mall, where hides — in the Jones family’s collective opinion — the best Japanese restaurant in North America, Raku. Step behind an understated white backlit sign and you enter an aged wood interior of an intimate restaurant that you might find off a Kyoto alley. We slid into the family-style tables behind the main dining room and commenced to feast. There’s a $100 tasting menu if you are feeling adult, but my tribe ordered creamlike tofu with dried fish, foie gras skewers and a dozen other items.

Chinatown became our go-to spot for snacks and boba tea between adventures. A favorite spot became Pho 90, a low-key Vietnamese cafe with outstanding noodle dishes and exquisitely layered banh mi sandwiches for picnics in the wild.

Beyond the city

Las Vegas’ expanding grid abruptly surrenders to the desert, which might be the most overlooked part of Vegas family vacations.

Red Rock Canyon, 17 miles west of the Strip, is like walking into a Road Runner cartoon with a Technicolor ballet of clashing tectonic formations. We grabbed our admittedly reluctant brood on a 2.4-mile, round-trip hike on the Keystone Thrust Trail through a series of gullies until we emerged above epic white limestone cliffs jutting through the ocher-colored mountains. Here we had our Vietnamese picnic overlooking the monolithic casinos in the distance.

Our last night’s excursion into nature didn’t take any persuasion: Half an hour’s drive south to Boulder City, a company called Rail Explorers has set up rail-bike tours on the abandoned tracks leading to the Hoover Dam construction site. We booked a sunset tour (from $85 to $150 for a tandem quad bike). After some quick instruction, we, along with three dozen other visitors, climbed into an 800-pound, four-person Korean-made bike rig and, giving the group ahead of us a three-minute head start for some space, started pedaling.

Our route was along 4 miles of desert track gently sloping into a narrowing canyon pass. As we effortlessly pedaled at 10 mph, we noticed that the spikes holding down the railroad ties were often crooked or missing. “I bet these were all driven in by hand,” my teenage son, Cody, a history buff, noted.

In the enveloping dusk, we glimpsed shadows moving along the sagebrush: bighorn sheep, goats and other critters emerging for their nocturnal wanderings. But the most surreal sight was at the end of the ride, where a giant backlit sign for a truck-stop casino appeared over a desert butte — Vegas was beckoning us back, but now we welcomed the summons. Here we were, pedaling into the sunset, feeling more athletic, cool and (gasp!) enlightened than when we first rolled into Vegas four days ago. Oh, what good parents we were!

“The moniker of ‘Sin City’ is totally wrong,” Alvarez told me, “if you know where to look.”

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