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Long thought of as little more than a poor-man's Las Vegas or the airport for the Tahoe resorts, the city of Reno in recent years has made a startling transformation -- becoming a culturally diverse mecca that draws increasing numbers of annual visitors, as well as new residents and businesses looking for a beautiful and vibrant place to live.

A highway sign declaring OPEN RANGE with a silhouette of a bull lets you know right away that things are different here. Dating back to 1859, the city of Reno is the kind of place that challenges assumptions. A desert is a hot, sandy place with cacti and mirages, right? Wrong. At 4,500 feet, Reno is high-desert country, with flat valleys between low-lying ridged mountains, which, in winter time, may be covered in a dusty blanket of snow, with scrubs of bushes peeking out as far as the eye can see.

Nevada (Ne-VAD-uh to locals, not Ne-vah-DUH) is the fastest growing state in the union, which keeps city planners busy trying to attract a younger clientele to their ever reinvigorated downtown.

With an annual average snowfall of nearly 300 inches, 18 world-class ski resorts, and more than 22,000 acres of skiable terrain, all within 90-minutes of the airport, Reno-Tahoe offers something for everyone, from heart-pumping snow sports to fine wine and dining -- and of course, 24-hour gaming.

With 11 feet of fresh snow falling this March, there's still time to play before you bid winter a proper farewell.

Getting There &amp Around

Reno is at the base of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, 13 miles east of the Nevada-California state line on Interstate 80. Spanning both Nevada and California, Lake Tahoe is 38 miles southwest of Reno in the Sierra Nevada. If you are driving from Reno, don't stick any fruit in your bag from the breakfast buffet before crossing into California, where you have to stop at a border-crossing checkpoint.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport (www.renoairport.com) provides service to and from most major destinations in the United States. The region is also well-served by Amtrak trains (www.amtrak.com), Sierra Nevada Stage Lines, Greyhound buses, and the usual host of national car-rental agencies.

Ski packages from hotel/casinos in Reno-Tahoe often include transfers to the resorts, and North Lake Tahoe Express (tel. 530/581-3922; www.northlaketahoeexpress.com) shuttles passengers to the ski resorts and hotels.

Where to Eat

Charlie Palmer Steak (2500 E. Second St.; tel. 775/789-2458; http://www.charliepalmer.com/Properties/CPSteak/Reno/) is a stunning restaurant in the Grand Sierra Resort (www.grandsierraresort.com) that doesn't disappoint those in search of ultra-fine dining. With a wine list to match, it dishes out equally tasty seafood dishes -- try the Butter Poached Main Lobster paired with a glass of Schamsberg Blanc de Blanc -- to complement the mouth-watering meat dishes promised in its moniker.

Lone Eagle Grille (111 Country Club Dr., Incline Village, North Lake Tahoe; tel. 775/886-6899; www.loneeaglegrille.com) at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort and Casino (www.laketahoe.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels) in North Lake Tahoe, has an elegant, clubby ambience that brings in both well-heeled locals and vacationers.

Pinocchio's Bar & Grill (551 E Moana Ln., Reno; tel. 775/826-5151) is a kid-friendly restaurant in a strip mall that offers a casual environment for enjoying basics like good burgers and fries, and the locally popular spaghetti night (Tuesday) and prime-rib Fridays. With a large selection of salads (salads for two come in big bowls meant for sharing), this casual eatery is both kitschy and eclectic with cozy red-leather and flower-upholstered booths, and a bar next-door.

Sushi Pier (1290 Plumb Ln., Suite J, Costco Shopping Center, Reno; tel. 775/825-6776) offers fast efficient service and a good variety of quality sushi and maki. Sit at the sushi bar or one of about a dozen café tables with barstools. The place bustles with locals who come in droves for the popular all-you-can-eat sushi specials ($12.95 lunch; $17.95 dinner) served with steaming cups of miso soup. A second location (1507 S. Virginia St.; tel. 775/825-5225) maintains the same hours and prices.

What To See & Do in Reno-Tahoe

Reno still has everything the "Biggest Little City in the World" is known for -- like slot machines and gambling opps in pharmacies and grocery stores -- but you'll now also find full-service spa treatments at the likes of the luxurious Siena Hotel Spa Casino (www.sienareno.com) and water sports at the $1.5-million Reno Truckee River Whitewater Park. The narrow river, once an eyesore trapped between two sea walls, now opens to picturesque natural banks on both sides. Locals come on weekends and lunch breaks to sunbathe, swim, kayak, and fish in nice weather, or simply to walk along the riverside promenade. In winter, Rink on the River, is a good place to rent skates or take skating lessons.

Nevada Museum of Art (160 West Liberty St.; tel. 775/329-3333; www.nevadaart.org) is not only the state of Nevada's only art museum, it's Reno's cultural hub, hosting events and anchoring a vibrant arts community in the region. featuring small but valuable contemporary exhibits, is popular for First Fridays and school tours, among other cultural and social events. There's a pretty deck on the top floor, but it's closed in winter. In the heart of the newly revitalized downtown arts district just behind the row of mansions perched above the river, nearby dining, strolling, and shopping options abound. The beautiful new building, built by Will Bruder is a work of art in itself.

Cabela's (8650 Boomtown Rd.; tel. 775/829-4100; www.cabelas.com) opened in late 2007, this outpost of "the World's Foremost Outfitter" of hunting, fishing and outdoor gear, is just off Interstate 80 west of Reno. As each Cabela's throughout the country, this mecca draws a reliably steady of stream -- to the tune of thousands of visitors per year. The massive 150,000-square-foot store showcases products from its catalog, and features educational and entertainment attractions including animals in dioramas reminiscent of a natural history museum, a two-story monument to conservation with running waterfalls and streams, and a walk-around 26,000-gallon aquarium. You can even play hunting video games and try your hand at the crossbow (and maybe buy one if you like).

While Tahoe is more well-known for its other attractions, culture junkies may enjoy Thunderbird Lodge (tel. 800/GO-TAHOE; www.thunderbirdlodge.org; children under 6 not permitted), an historic site that exists as an ode to American individualism and the oddity of the human spirit. The life and legacy of the notorious early-20th-century playboy George Whittell, Jr. can be explored via guided tour Tuesday through Thursday from June through mid-September.

Where to Stay, Play & Gamble in Reno

There are endless opportunities for 24-hour, Nevada-style gaming throughout the region, whether up the mountains in Tahoe, or down on the city streets of Reno.

The dramatic Peppermill Hotel Casino (tel. 866/821-9996; www.peppermillreno.com) with its seemingly endless series of themed rooms, restaurants, recently expanded gaming areas, and mountain views unveiled its $400 million expansion in 2008: the Tuscan-themed, all-suite hotel tower adds 600 rooms to raise the property's total room count to 1,635. Honoring the old-world tradition of restorative spa treatments, the property also debuted Spa Toscana (tel. 775/689-7190) a new three-story, European-style spa and salon in summer 2008.

The Silver Legacy Resort Casino (tel. 800/687-8733; www.silverlegacyreno.com) boasts a Victorian theme that may come across as somewhat dowdy in the guestrooms, some of which need a bit of an update. Light sleepers should request a room away from street traffic as it can get rather noisy. In the atrium, both big and little kids alike will goggle at the gigantic working machine that simulates a Gold Rush mining operation.

Families might especially appreciate the Sands Regency Casino Hotel (tel. 866/FUN-STAY; www.sandsregency.com), which has basic rooms that are surprisingly serviceable for the extremely budget-friendly prices. Look for particularly enticing mid-week deals.

In addition to the previously mentioned dining opportunity, the Grand Sierra Resort (tel. 800/501-2651; www.grandsierraresort.com) offers a two-night package that includes a day of skiing on the slopes of Diamond Peak or Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe. The packages start at $159 mid-week and $179 on weekends per person.

Family owned and operated, John Ascuaga's Nugget (tel. 800/648-1177; www.janugget.com) offers a variety of ski packages, combining the area's world-class skiing and the resort's top-notch gaming and entertainment into one memorable experience. Packages start at $75 per person and give travelers a choice of 10 world-class Lake Tahoe-area ski resorts. Enjoy luxurious Deluxe Tower accommodations, food credits at Rosie's Café, and amenities such as complimentary access to the Nugget's year-round Atrium pool, Jacuzzi and health club. Trader Dick's restaurant (www.janugget.com/restaurants/trader) delights with its Polynesian-influenced dishes.

The Atlantis Casino Resort Spa (tel. 800/723-6500; www.atlantiscasino.com) recently completed a $50 million expansion that included a 20,000-square-foot casino addition (that brought a new sports and race book and an enlarged poker room), a "New YorkÂ?style" deli and restaurant, and an expanded ultra-modern spa and fitness center facility. Not to be outpaced, Circus Circus Reno (tel. 800/648-5010; www.circusreno.com) significantly renovated its North Tower, bringing clean lines, subtle colors, and all-new artwork to the property's guest rooms. Renovations, estimated at $5 million, include a swimming pool atop the skybridge that crosses Sierra Street.

Sports & Outdoor Activities

Alpine Meadows (www.skialpine.com) was voted No. 1 in the United States for Backcountry Terrain by Skiing Magazine and boasts phenomenal views of Lake Tahoe and the high Sierra. Its terrain engages and challenges any level skier or rider offering a total of 14 ski lifts, a snowboarding terrain park and a halfpipe.

Heavenly Lake Tahoe (www.skiheavenly.com) is a 4,800-acre playground filled some of the most unforgettable views at Lake Tahoe. Heavenly is the region's largest mountain resort and features the highest elevation and longest vertical drop. Guests are also offered a Gondola that whisks them from the hotel/casino resorts on South Lake Tahoe's main strip directly to the top of the mountain. In addition, the resort boasts the "Village" which includes two Marriott Hotel/Clubs, a cinema complex, shops, restaurants and a welcoming gondola plaza. Heavenly Mountain Resort ranks among Ski Magazine's Top 20 Ski Resorts in North America.

Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe (www.skirose.com) is Lake Tahoe's highest base ski area at an elevation of 7,900 feet. The Chutes, a 200-acre playground for advanced and expert skiers and snowboarders, recently increased the resorts' skiable terrain to 1,200 acres. Mt. Rose's advanced routes and snowboarding terrain parks offer spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe and Nevada's surrounding high desert terrain.

The Northstar-at-Tahoe (www.northstarattahoe.com) resort tempts visitors with 2,420 acres of terrain and a total of 16 lifts designed for all level skiers. Its vertical drop is 2,280 feet and its longest run out of 70 available is nearly three miles long. Guest accommodations include luxury multi-bedroom condos that may tempt you to never go outside, but Northstar's "village" features plenty of restaurants and shops to keep you busy while taking a break from the slopes.

Squaw Valley USA (www.squaw.com) is one of America's premier destination ski resorts providing seemingly endless terrain spanning 4,000 skiable acres, via 34 lifts. Nonskiiers can enjoy alternative activities such as dog sledding across the pure glittering meadow below the runs (see "Other Outdoor Activities," below).

Reno After Dark

If you enjoy a trip to the comedy club now and again, you can get your fix of up-and-coming comedians at Silver Legacy's Catch a Rising Star (www.catcharisingstar.com/reno) or take in a stand-up show at the Funny Bone comedy club at the Sands Regency Casino Hotel (www.sandsregency.com).

Adults and older kids will enjoy the quirky magic shows, hypnotists, and other entertainment offered up at the Pioneer Underground (www.pioneercenter.com/Underground.htm) in downtown Reno. There are daytime performances to accommodate younger children as well (see website for details).

The Chocolate Bar (www.thechocbar.com) in downtown Reno features drinks and desserts made from chocolate. The Truckee River Arts and Culture District also serves up its fair share of watering holes, including Satellite Cocktail Lounge (www.myspace.com/satellitereno), home of the best mojito in Reno, and trendy nightclubs such as Vino (240 N. Sierra St.; tel. 775-322-4864), Tonic www.myspace.com/tonicrocks), Liquid Lounge (474 E 7th St.; tel. 775/337-8861) and the Green Room (144 West St.; tel. 775/324-1224). Other nightcrawlers head for the exotic island drinks and dueling pianos at Rumbullion's Island Bar, Reno's only rum bar, inside the Silver Legacy Resort Casino, or taste their way through the 102 flavored martinis at Roxy's Bar and Bistro at the Eldorado Hotel Casino. Also a hopping night spot is Brew Brothers (www.eldoradoreno.com/dining/brewbrothers), a microbrewery in the Eldorado that hosts live music in a casual atmosphere.

Resources

For tourist information, contact the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority (RSCVA) at tel. 800/FOR-RENO; www.visitrenotahoe.com.

This trip was sponsored by VisitRenoTahoe.com, Fly Reno-Tahoe & RKPR Inc.

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