Golf, resorts, gambling making Reno a destination

By Michael Pramik, Staff Writer

RENO, Nev. -- This self-proclaimed biggest of little cities may live in the shadow of Las Vegas, but it'll always have No. 15 at Lake Ridge.

The stunning 228-yard, par-3 features a 140-foot drop to a green surrounded by water. It's one of the best holes anywhere, enough to help you forget the paycheck you just blew at the casino and that fact that you're not in Vegas.

But here, that's a good thing. While Reno is facing increasing competition from other gambling cities and Indian reservations, this city on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas still boasts of its reputation as "The Biggest Little City in the World."

Reno is a city of 184,000 on the Truckee River that serves as a major distribution center and has a thriving arts scene to go along with 24-hour gambling.

Part of the city's allure is that it's near Lake Tahoe, and indeed it is the starting point for most people who fly to the Tahoe area. Is it a destination? For conventioneers looking to avoid the high prices of Las Vegas, yes. For gamblers and golfers seeking an alternative to the glitz of Vegas, affirmative again.

There are three very good courses in Reno, and several others that have some merit. However, the best golfing regions near Tahoe -- the California destinations of Graeagle and Truckee -- are more than an hour away.

Still, settle in for a few days in Reno and experience high-desert golf, high-rise gambling and some highly kitschy attractions.

Reno was named after Gen. Jesse Reno, a Civil War hero who had never stepped foot in the place. It was a major part of the Emigrant Trail in the mid-1800s, and like other cities around Tahoe became a link in the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. The city honored that history by building an arch over Virginia Street in 1987 that displays the city's catchphrase in lights.

At the turn of the 20th century, Reno was a gambling town and continued that way even after gaming was outlawed in 1910. It had the nickname of "vicious Babylon" by the time gambling was legalized again in the 1930s.

Reno today is a little like Vegas: quieter, but still a playground. Don't look for quaint bed and breakfasts here. The best places to stay are the casinos.

And they are here in number: 19 of them in Reno and neighboring Sparks. There are some on a "strip" of downtown Reno and others off the downtown strip.

Harrah's (950 rooms), Circus Circus (1,572) and the Silver Legacy (1,720) dominate the downtown area. Away from the strip, the biggest include the Reno Hilton (2,000 rooms), Atlantis (1,000) and Peppermill (1,070). The biggest casino hotel in neighboring Sparks is John Ascuaga's Nugget (1,600).

Step outside the casinos and check out the 100,000-square-foot National Automobile Museum, one of the most varied collections of cars in the country. Don't miss the National Bowling Stadium, an 80-lane kegler's Xanadu that greets you with a tacky statue of a family rushing, bowling balls in hand, to the lanes.

But all this Americana is in stark contrast to the latest of Reno's attractions, the Art Museum of Nevada, a glimmering, black steel building that was inspired by the Black Rock Desert some 100 miles north. With 60,000 square feet of space, the museum is big enough to house permanent and rotating exhibitions.

The four-story structure opened in June. It has a stunning sculpture garden on the roof that harkens to the old Mapes Hotel, the first high-rise to house a casino, hotel, restaurant and entertainment all in one place. Because of this, the art deco Mapes revolutionized gaming when it opened in 1947. It was demolished in true Nevada style, on Super Bowl Sunday in 2000.

The signature of the Mapes was the Sky Room, a four-sided glass enclosure that saw a bevy of stars come through the doors, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Mae West. The art museum's rooftop is a tribute to the Sky Room.

Visitors get there by entering the airy atrium, which has a 60-foot black staircase, propped up by a single pole. Skylights illuminate the short walk through glass doors to the garden, where high extensions of the exterior walls create portholes to view the surrounding mountains.

These hills provide scenic backdrops for golfers, one of the main outdoor attractions on the eastern side of the Washoe Valley. Here it's "desert golf," where the land outside fairways and greens is left in its natural state.

Golf has been shaping up here in the past several years with the additions of D'Andrea in 2000 and the Golf Club at Red Hawk in 1997. There are about 10 public courses in the Reno/Sparks area, and many more in Carson City and the greater Tahoe region.

Where to play

D'Andrea Golf and Country Club
2900 S. D'Andrea Parkway
Sparks, Nev. 89434
(775) 331-6363
Web site: dandreagolf.com

D'Andrea is regarded as one of the top three courses in the Reno/Sparks area, and no wonder. Its architect was Keith Foster, a master of traditional design who has done renovation work on Southern Hills in Oklahoma and Colonial Country Club in Texas. Foster didn't trick up the layout or go overboard on landscaping. The result is a brawny beauty that uses the natural elevation changes and gobs of space, confirming the desert location. Even the tee boxes are big squares.

The front nine plays downhill along a meadow and uses the Sierras as a background. Only No. 8 and No. 9 run parallel to each other, giving golfers the feeling they're on a journey. No. 6 is a 196-yard par-3 that's almost all carry over water. Watch the right pin placements, because there's more water to hit over the farther right you aim.

The back nine features more elevation and is hillier. No. 18 is a tough finishing hole, a 475-yard par-4 that plays into the prevailing wind.

Given its big fairways, D'Andrea shapes up as a test of golfers' iron play. The fairly fast, sloping greens penalize shots hit too far uphill.

Lake Ridge Golf Club
1200 Razorback Road
Reno, Nev 89509
(775) 825-2200
(800) 815-6966
Web site: lakeridgegolf.com

Everything about this course designed by Robert Trent Jones (yes, there are numerous dogleg-right tee shots, one of his signatures) builds up to the dramatic No. 15. Perhaps the most curious thing on this relatively short course (only 6,715 yards from the back tees) are the dozens of marmots that burrow among the rocks lining parts of the course. Their continual scampering near the golfers would give Bill Murray fits.

The course has to handle 42,000 rounds per year, so the greens were a bit hard and slow in early June. But the sights made up for the lack of perfect conditioning. Lake Ridge offers impressive views of Reno and the Sierra Nevadas, culminating with No. 15. The highlight of the gently rolling front nine is the 536-yard, par-5 No. 8.

The tee is set near a grove of cottonwood trees, and the hole requires a tee shot over a pond. In the background golfers can see the Atlantis Casino Resort, and the Sierras even farther back.

The highlight is a three-hole stretch beginning with No. 14, a 360-yard par-4 that plays to an elevated green framed by houses on the hill overlooking the dramatic No. 15. Make it in one? Exhale and try to make par. Then tackle No. 16, a downhill par-4 with a slight bend to the left.

Red Hawk at Wingfield Springs
6600 N. Wingfield Springs Parkway
Sparks, Nev. 89436
(775) 626-6000
Web site: wingfieldsprings.com

Red Hawk is a housing community that has two golf courses, both of which are usually in fine condition. Hale Irwin's design group laid out the private Hills Course in 2001. Many locals prefer it to Lake Ridge because of its fine condition.

The Lakes Course, which opened in 1997, winds through a wetlands and features water shots on 13 holes. It's the tougher of the two and has been named the best course in the area by newspaper and magazine readers.

The Robert Trent Jones Jr. course is punctuated by cottonwood trees, springs and more than 100 bunkers. And, as head pro Michael Sizemore says, the long par-3s are "nasty." Like No. 17, which requires a backbreaking 240-yard shot over water from the tips.

Hale Irwin's design group laid out the private Hills Course in 2001. While it's a private course, there are a handful of tee times available daily for the public.

The course is a bit tame compared with the Lakes Course. Its most unique feature is its bunkers, which are filled with crushed granite. That's the same stuff as in the bunkers at Augusta National, Sizemore says.

Where to stay

Peppermill Hotel Casino
2707 S. Virginia St.
Reno Nev. 89502
(800) 282-2444
(775) 826-2121
Web site: peppermillreno.com

The Peppermill is away from Reno's downtown, only a few minutes away from Lake Ridge. It has 1,100 large, comfortable rooms keenly decorated in blue and gray crushed velvet, as well as 185 suites. Throw in 12 bars, seven restaurants, daily entertainment, a spa and health club, and it qualifies as full-service by Nevada standards.

With its interior design of glowing blue and yellow lights and lots of mirrors, the Peppermill looks something like a disco out of the '70s. The place also rocks. Players at the table games can watch music videos on several big screens, a smart alternative to piped-in music. There's even a stage where you can gawk at live music while you play.

Silver Legacy Resort Casino
407 N. Virginia St.
Reno, Nev. 89501
(800) 687-8733
(775) 325-7401
Web site: silverlegacy.com

The Victorian-themed rooms of the Silver Legacy are in a 38-story tower that provides great views of the city and Sierra Nevadas. It's in downtown's "strip" district, near several other big casinos.

Don't miss the 120-foot-high antique silver mining rig, housed in the world' s largest composite dome near the middle of the casino. It's designed as an example of Victorian era mining wealth, although there most likely weren't many laser lights at the turn of the 20th century.

Where to eat

Roxy El Dorado Hotel and Casino
345 N. Virginia St.
Reno, Nev. 89501
(800) 648-6966
(775) 786-5700

This place near the El Dorado's Fountain of Fortune recently changed its name, and its focus. It used to be Bistro Roxy and featured creative, slightly experimental cuisine. Now, as Roxy, it's gone to a simpler, steak, chops and seafood lineup.

But the food is still great, and entrees are in the $15-$20 range. Try the steak Diane, broiled Atlantic salmon and wood oven-roasted rack of lamb. Oh yes, don't forget to order one of Roxy's 102 martinis before dinner to help kick off the gambling fever.

MonteVigna Italian Ristorante
Atlantis Casino Resort
3800 S. Virginia St.
Reno, Nev. 89502
(775) 825-4700

The theme here is not complicated. MonteVigna has become one of Reno's favorites overall by laying claim to two consecutive Wine Spectator "Awards of Excellence."

MonteVigna offers a well-rounded (how could it not be?), 4,000-bottle wine cellar that includes many boutique labels from Europe, Australia and the United States. Grilled salmon with artichoke hearts, thinly sliced New York steak and veal chops in herbs accompany a variety of pasta and sauces.

Michael Pramik, Staff Writer


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