Culture / Travel

Four Days in Reno and Lake Tahoe — Eccentric Luxury Land is Full of Surprises (and Secret Tunnels)

Wild Horses, Casinos and Mark Twain Nature Galore

BY // 12.05.19

Luxury and eccentricities. Those might not be two qualities travelers can often find in one place, but during a fall four day trip to Nevada, I discovered for pure splendrous weirdness, for lux-centricity, perhaps no place beats Reno/Lake Tahoe.

With an invite from Fly Reno-Tahoe on the occasion of United Airlines taking its Houston to Reno nonstop to year round, seven days a week status, I expected two days lost amid the gaming tables and two at 6000 feet amid the lake pines, but instead I found a region rich in high end living but tempered with an outré pioneering spirit that anyone can achieve their dream to live their best freaky life.

Art Walking Through Reno

While gamblers will find much to do inside, getting out to explore Reno can become its own winning hand, especially for connoisseurs of the beautifully odd. Though a few decades older than Las Vegas, Reno feels like its artsy younger sibling going through a hipster phase.

Taking just a few steps away from my casino hotel, I immediately got that keeping-it-weird vibe I knew so well having lived in Austin for several years.

The sights and sounds of downtown Reno seem heavily influenced by its new tech economy. Tesla’s Gigafactory in the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center made records as the largest building in the world. But the annual desert art festival Burning Man has left an innovative art mark on every street with the multitude of outdoor installations and wall murals painting the town.

For my first day in Reno, I was invited to brunch at Liberty, a funky fusion upscale diner, to enjoy its shakshuka speciality, a North African vegetable chili with poached local eggs on a house made flatbread. Liberty has the added distinction of supplying their gourmet wood-fired pizza through a shared window to their next-door neighbor, Reno Axe & Bar, whose name succinctly says it all.

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Meanwhile, underneath both restaurant and axe throwing facility is the maze escape room Dark Pursuit. Just a few blocks away, the city also boasts the world’s largest outdoor rock climbing wall, on the one side the Whitney Peak Hotel.

Later I took an art walk to see some of the Burning Man installations in City Plaza and then along Riverwalk District where the Truckee River cuts downtown onto two and then onward into the Midtown District. Both shopping areas possess their share of murals, boutiques, coffee and craft beer houses. Taken together, the city becomes a playground for millennials wanting very different types of gaming.

That afternoon I wanted a bit of pampering, so I headed back to my hotel the Silver Legacy, one in a trio of casino resorts, along with Circus Circus and Eldorado — each with its own personality — making up The Row. After spending a day throwing axes or climbing hotel walls, I recommend unwinding with a therapeutic massage at the newly renovated Silver Legacy Spa.

I could have hung out in the three relaxation rooms and the salt inhalation chamber all day, but it was then on to sumptuous baked “in caroccio” salmon dinner at La Strada, which seemed the favorite for locals within The Eldorado’s cluster of restaurants.

Horsing Around Virginia City

The next morning I headed to Tahoe, but my search for Nevada oddities called for a side trip to Virginia City. I was told by a few of its inhabits that in its gold and silver mining heyday it was one of the riches towns in America. Western fan and those who love strange spectacles will find it worthy of a day’s exploration, especially on one of the many festival and parade weekends including camel and ostrich race days and Rocky Mountain oyster cookouts.

In 1862, young journalist Samuel Clemens arrived to chronicle the gold and silver rush and left a few years later as Mark Twain. I didn’t feel the need to visit the Mark Twain Museum because his spirit seemed subsumed within the whole town. Instead, I wandered back in time along the main thoroughfare, C Street, home of few bars but many saloons and took a ride on a Virginia & Truckee Railroad train for tour through mine country.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a picturesquely ornery place in my life, from the lady in the candy story who complained at length about her boss’s credit card minimum rules to the train conductor’s serving up so many corny jokes during his history lecture, I felt I had consumed a full basket of chips.

The highlight of the day and the whole trip was my encounter with a herd of wild mustangs meandering along a side street, causing what passes for Virginia City traffic jam. Two pickup trucks crawled behind them, while the majestic horses stopped to eat apples and flowers from yards along the way, completely indifferent to the human world they sauntered through.

Virginia City wild horses
Going wild with the horses in Victoria City. (Photo by Tarra Gaines)

In those moments I felt I grasped the true Twainian essence of Virginia City, when those two drivers stuck behind the horses rolled down their windows to chat with me. The first gave his appraisal of this herd’s lineage, and shared a local legend of a matriarchal mare in the mountains who supposedly ruled over the various herds in the region. The second pickup driver was incensed to wait on the horses and then a gaggle of students crossing the street from a nearby elementary school.

“I don’t know what’s worse the kids or the horses. At least you can eat the horses,” she exclaimed.

Cruising the Sky Lake

As soon as I arrived in Tahoe, I hit the water, hopping aboard the M.S. Dixie paddle wheel boat. Sailing into Emerald Bay, one of Tahoe’s most photographed lake-scapes, I learned many region facts such as: Lake Tahoe, the largest Alpine lake in North America was formed two million years ago, and nicknamed the lake of the sky since the water is so clear it reflects the blue above. But the lake trivia that resonated throughout the trip was that Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in North America.

There’s a lot going on underneath. I came to believe beneath the surface, the exhilarating tourist activities – the skiing, hiking and all kind of boating – lies the perfect habitat for the glamorously strange.

Divided into North and South Tahoe, instead of California/Nevada, I was told by North Tahoe tourism experts that when it comes to resorts, gaming is the focus in the South, but an additional amenity in the North. Staying at the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village in North Lake Tahoe where beach life and outdoor activities rule and the lodge-like casino room is hidden behind the enormous fireplace in the reception area, I’d give truth to the description.

Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe
The lakefront retreat at the Hyatt Lake Tahoe. (Photo by Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe)

That night I had dinner at Crystal Bay Steak and Lobster House in the old school Crystal Bay Casino a few steps into the Nevada side of the border and five decades into a Rat Pack time zone all its own. The restaurant used to be a favorite of Frank Sinatra’s back when he was a shareholder in the next-door Cal Neva Lodge.

Sinatra had his own booth and according to lore passed down through generations of maitre ds, Marilyn Monroe had her own favorite booth in prime proximity for throwing wine bottles at Sinatra whenever that had a tiff. I also heard tales involving Marilyn/JFK meetups and Sinatra running his Chicago “friends” into Nevada through underground tunnels. Our waiter, a magician at table-side dish preparation, told many a tale as he tossed up an authentic Caesar Salad and then Bananas Foster (yes as tasty as Brennan’s) for dessert.

The Rat Pack sagas paled in comparison to the legend of George Whitell Jr. whose story I learned the next day on a tour of Thunderbird Lodge. Inheriting millions from his parents, Whitell took it all out of the stock market right before the great crash. He bought up 40,000 acres of land on the Nevada side including 27 miles of shoreline. Much of the forest had been stripped by lumber companies for wood to build those Virginia City mines.

Whitell sat on the land refusing to sell and set up a small rustic Tudor Revival style lodge, his own paranoid palace. When not inviting various girlfriends to visit when his wife was away, Whitell spent his days and nights playing cards with fellow eccentrics like Ty Cobb and Howard Hughes and taking walks with his pet lion, Bill, and elephant Mingo.

The highlight of the tour was a trip through the underground tunnels – a Tahoe trend–that linked the separate estate buildings. The tunnels served as perfect escape route for when he was losing those card games or if the IRS ever came calling and also offered space for a panic room/opium den. The whole story and estate is a wonder to experience but Whitell’s purchase and stubborn refusal to sell the land until Nevada’s eminent domain insistence is the reason so much of Lake Tahoe exists today as a forest wonderland to explore.

I thought about ole George and his animal pals as I took a final hike along the new multi-use East Shore Trail. Breathing in the stunning views of the mountains, I then followed the path to shoreline to once more contemplate the Lake’s depths.

With about a 45 minute drive from the airport to the slopes, Reno-Tahoe might be the perfect alternative to Aspen for Texans wanting a winter wonderland getaway in 2020. But don’t forget to make time to follow in the footsteps of Mark Twain, Sinatra, George and Mingo and find those weird lux-centric Reno/Tahoe experiences off the beaten trails.

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Exclusively offered by Erin Cluley Gallery on Culture Place. Left to right: Nic Nicosia, Nathan Green, and René Treviño

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