Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort: Gamble on skiing in Nevada

If anyone can turn a small ski hill in the middle of the desert into a big player, Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort can.

Tell people you are going on a ski trip to Las Vegas, and in my experience you can expect one of two responses. The first is the puzzled frown of someone who suspects that you may have turned over two pages at once; the second is the half-smile of a person who has just been told a joke that they don't understand. Both are reasonable responses. Who on earth would consider skiing in the Nevada desert? It is as absurd as going hill-walking in the South China Sea.

The fact is that you can't ski in Las Vegas, though the name of the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort suggests otherwise. It was known for most of its 48-year life as Lee Canyon, on the reasonable grounds that that is where it is located, but in 1995 it converted to what one might call the Ryanair school of geography, and changed its name to the mouthful commonly abbreviated to LVSSR. It is actually about 40 miles from the city. But one of the many things tolerated in Nevada (along with gambling and, in some counties, prostitution) is travelling at 75mph on a freeway; given that linear Las Vegas has such a road running its entire length, 40 miles means 40 minutes' travel time or less. Which isn't a bad commute from a city to the slopes.

After the name-change, the next important event in LVSSR's life occurred in November 2003, when its management was taken over by the US ski-resort owner and manager Utah-based Powdr Corp. (Powdr also owns the property, jointly, with a local family big in real estate.) The "resort" part of LVSSR's name is as misleading as the rest, since this is a small ski hill with just four lifts serving 11 intermediate trails and a vertical drop of only 860ft (unless you are prepared to hike up from the of the lifts). But Powdr is a company with big ideas; hence its "Master Development Plan" to expand LVSSR, a $35m project involving 10 new lifts and 50 trails.

It's one thing to make a plan, another actually to execute it. But last July, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, on whose land LVSSR is located, gave its approval to the expansion, which also involves increased snow-making facilities, bigger parking areas and new guest facilities. The co-owners also have the means to fund the project; does that mean it is actually going to happen? I put that question to LVSSR's director of business development, John Morelli. "Yes," he said.

That was one reason for heading off to into the Nevada desert. The other was to confirm something which seems self-evident: that Las Vegas has the best après-ski anywhere in the world.

The route out of Las Vegas starts with the usual lane-changing chaos of an urban highway, then settles into a fast, comfortable drive along a wide desert valley. Just before Route 95 reaches the vast airforce base at Indian Wells there is a turn-off marked "ski area", and the 15-mile climb begins. On either side of the road – blessed with official Nevada Scenic Byway status – are stubby cacti growing so densely that you would swear they were being cultivated as a cash crop. The route winds up into what is the biggest natural forest in the contiguous United States, until the roadway suddenly widens on a sharp bend. This is where skiers park their cars, at 90 degrees to the carriageway with the radiator grille up against the verge.

At the lift base there are offices, ticketing, equipment rental and a café/restaurant, plus two ski-school yurts. Beyond, a couple of middle-aged lifts climb to the upper slopes, and another – old and slow enough to be their father – labours up the nursery slope. This was real, old-school skiing; and I loved it.

The weather helped: it was beautiful, as it very frequently is in Nevada, and LVSSR – in a mountain bowl with north-facing slopes and a south-facing sun deck – gets the benefit of blue skies without compromising the skiing surface. In unusually dry early-season conditions, the snow was almost entirely man-made, but meticulously groomed. The fun park, a high priority on a hill where 75 per cent of tickets are bought by boarders (at $50 on weekdays, $60 weekends), was equally pristine. Crowded? Hardly: with barely 40 people on the slopes, we had almost two acres each. And the atmosphere was as relaxed and friendly as it usually is in small ski areas.

Currently the area gets fewer than 150,000 skier-visits per year, but LVSSR's management reckons that number should triple when the planned expansion (to 500 acres) is completed, in 10-12 years' time. Almost all the new terrain – including seven trails for advanced skiers – will be above the existing ski area, and from the snow deck Morelli showed me where the new top boundary would be. The pitches looked impressively steep at the top, although gradients are difficult to judge from below.

The new terrain will certainly make the journey up from Las Vegas well worthwhile. And what about the drive down to Las Vegas? That's not so much worthwhile as essential, because LVSSR has no lodging and (barring a dramatic change in US Forest Service principles) never will. Las Vegas, on the other hand, is said to have more than 12,000 hotel beds – a lot for a place that prides itself on burning the candle not only at both ends but in the middle, too: it's the only place I know that has a nightlife and a "daylife", which is frequently just more of the same thing.

On a first visit to the Strip, the southern part of the city with most of the notoriously excessive hotels, there's a lot to take in, some of it hard to keep down. The architectural pastiches – Eiffel Tower, black pyramid, Italianate lake and canals – are much bigger than I expected, clumsier and less playful. Pumped out on to the sidewalks, "classic rock" is perpetually in your ears and sex in your face.

Clothes cling to the girls out on the town, their high hems and heels making them look like Pretty Woman hookers. And half-naked women are advertised for sale on the hoardings-on-wheels being driven along the Strip, and on fliers handed out by hawkers. All these women could, apparently, be in my room in 20 minutes; for what purpose is not stated, though small print on the leaflets has a helpful reminder that "prostitution is against the law in Clark County", Las Vegas's local authority.

The city famously advertises its amorality with the slogan "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas". I know what that means, but while wandering around the lobby of the Wynn hotel I was cheered by the thought that what happens in Vegas stays there rather than coming to a neighbourhood near me. A mood swing started, and I began to get on to the city's wavelength.

Wynn is the classy Las Vegas resort hotel: its owner Steve Wynn collects artworks by Rembrandt, Turner and Picasso and hangs them in his hotels. The hotel's shops are pure Bond Street – Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Cartier, plus Ferrari and Maserati – but they share the lobby with the sort of garish one-armed bandits that you'd see in an amusement arcade on a pier. Somewhat to my regret I was booked to dine there at the Sinatra, which – sure enough – plays and displays the singer to excess. The food in this Italian "theme restaurant"? Absolutely first rate.

Such confusion of tastes reached its apogee at the Cosmopolitan hotel, in which I stayed. Upstairs it's all high style and design; in the lobby there's just the low life of gamblers smoking, drinking and playing the slots, night and day. My preferred way of crossing the vast lobby was to drop down a level and walk through the parking garage.

The point about Las Vegas is that it is utterly indiscriminate, a giant bazaar which sells everything, good and bad. You just have to find the good stuff.

I found the Marquee, a fabulously animated dance venue in the Cosmopolitan, with retro styling and thunderous electro music. I found Dig This, a construction-machinery driving experience curiously appropriate to a city whose buildings have a short lifespan, and also curiously thrilling. I found the old Downtown area, so much more engaging than the the Strip. I found the romantic Neon Boneyard, a museum of historic Las Vegas signage. And I found, to my great surprise, that it's not the après-ski scene that is so good, but rather the pre-ski scene: Las Vegas and the surrounding desert are sensational in the dawn light.

Travel essentials: Nevada

Getting there

* Stephen Wood travelled with Ski Independence (0131-243 8097; ski-i.com) which has a one-week Las Vegas package including non-stop flights on BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow and room-only accommodation from £969 per person, based on two sharing.

* Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Vegas from Gatwick and Manchester.

Staying there

* Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (001 702 698 7000; cosmopolitanlas vegas.com) has doubles from $160 (£107) for Terrace Studio. Marquee opens 10pm-4am, Mon and Thurs-Sat; cover charge from $20 (£13).

Visiting there

* Dig This (001 888 344 8447; dig this.info). Bulldozer or excavator drive is $210 (£140) for 90 minutes.

* Neon Boneyard (001 702 387 6366; neonmuseum.org). Tours at noon and 2pm, Tues-Sat, $15 (£10).

More information

* Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort (001 702 385 2754; skilasvegas.com)

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