Ziplining over Bootleg Canyon

Danger Vegas

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Travel Issue: October 2017
Group Free

Roll the dice on these perilously fun pastimes during your next Vegas vacation.

“The more dangerous it is, the more fun you have,” the lady from Edinburgh says to her companion. I’m eavesdropping, and not exactly sure what the sunburnt Scot is talking about, but I have a pretty good guess: She’s rationalizing the fact that we’re about to rocket down a 2,000-foot cable strung high over a rocky gash of desert called Bootleg Canyon just outside Las Vegas.   

Danger = fun. It’s hard to argue with the math, particularly in this legendary city of chance, where the danger/fun of losing your entire 401(k) – or doubling it! – on a single roll of the dice or spin of the wheel has informed the city’s risk/reward mystique for four generations. 

But folks are gambling less now – or so the publicists say – and Las Vegas has adapted by doubling down on other adrenaline-inducing, mortality-testing pastimes. You can leap off tall buildings, make like Rambo with a machine gun that costs as much as a condo, and eat things that would make a health-department inspector wince. You can ride, shoot and drink to perilous extremes, and literally swim with the sharks – not another Michael Phelps stunt! – if it suits you.

To put all this glorious risk in context, PHOENIX offers nine of our favorite – and perfectly legal – feats of daring in Vegas. Don’t forget: It’s all in good fun.

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Diving with sharks at Mandalay Bay

1. Go shark diving 
Backstage at the Shark Reef Aquarium deep within the bowels of Mandalay Bay (3950 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-632-7777, mandalaybay.com), I’m doing something that few besides Game of Thrones extras and medieval dinner-theater performers can personally relate to – donning chainmail. It’s part of the outfitting protocol for the resort’s Dive with Sharks experience, which invites certified scuba divers to enjoy a 90-minute meander through a 1.2 million-gallon aquarium and simulated shipwreck ($600-$1,000, sharkreef.com). Just you, the trainer and 30 large, meat-eating fish.

“[The chainmail] essentially functions as your dive belt, to weigh you down,” aquarium curator Jack Jewell tells me, leaving out the actual primary function of the head-to-toe metal suit – to prevent the tank’s inhabitants from dining on your lower leg like it was a Buffalo wing. 

Once in the water, we pose for pictures and wave to the folks on the other side of the glass – as a diver, you’re part of the show, after all – before getting down to the business of socializing with the sharks. There are curious, salmon-size whitetip reef sharks, which have a funny habit of curling up next to your flippers like a friendly golden lab; and sleek sand tigers, whose perpetual grimace and rows of barb-like teeth “make them look more aggressive than they really are,” Jewell says. Maybe so, but they also have an unnerving habit of swimming directly at you and swerving away at the last second. Pranksters.

There are also sawsharks – which can slice a tuna in half with quick, violent twitches of their sword-like snouts – along with wall-hugging shark rays and serene, spotted leopard sharks. We spend a few moments with the aquarium’s resident 80-year-old sea turtle, so long removed from the ocean that he probably no longer remembers it. “This place is its whole universe,” Jewell tells me later.

Ultimately, wrestling with such existential thoughts is probably the most dangerous thing about this once-in-a-lifetime dive experience – in 15 years of operation, Dive with Sharks has never had a single bite. Still, chainmail appreciated. 

2. Eat a scorpion
Looking to take the edge off after your shark-diving experience? Head to the downtown location of Nacho Daddy (113 N. Fourth St., 702-778-7800, nachodaddy.com) for a scorpion shot. It’s exactly as billed: a shot of booze with a scorpion at the bottom – pickled to the point of non-poisonousness, we presume. It has the texture of a soggy peanut shell. Bring a toothpick to pry out all the little bits of claw from betwixt your teeth.

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the raw goods at Bazaar Meat

3. Eat old meat
International super chef José Andrés (China Poblano, Jaleo) is not one to thumb his nose at A5 Kobe, chateaubriand and other luxe beef preparations – you’ll find them all on the menu at Bazaar Meat, his white-hot steakhouse at SLS Las Vegas (2535 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-761-7610, slslasvegas.com). But the cut that really stirs his meat-loving Spanish blood? Ten-year-old Holsteins.

Sourced from a dairy farm in California, Andrés’ “vaca vieja” rib eye ($65) has the impressive chew and meaty, mineral-forward flavor befitting an animal that spent its lifetime dining in wild grasslands instead of a feedlot. But its appearance on the menu is more about nostalgia than sustainability. According to our server, the mature beef is reminiscent of the cuts Andrés wolfed down as a boy in Asturias, Spain – farmer food, if you will. And if that’s not dangerous enough for you, there’s also the chef’s lovingly cured – but never cooked! – Ibérico ham ($70), hand-cut from the famed black-footed, acorn-fed pigs of Salamanca. These and other masterful touches make Bazaar Meat the protein-lover’s palace of choice in Vegas.  

4. More extreme eating
Sadly, I crapped out in my attempts to find fugu – or pufferfish, a poisonous breed that can kill you if it’s not filleted by a sushi chef who knows what he’s doing. Happily, there are plenty of other thrillingly pernicious things to consume in Vegas. Like it hot? Order the membrane-brutalizing habanero salsa at Bandito Latin Kitchen & Cantina just off the Strip (325 Howard Hughes Center Dr., 702-857-7550, banditolv.com), and chase it with a jalapeño-infused La Piñata El Cocktail. Like it unpredictable? Order the omakase (translation: “I trust the chef”) chef’s choice tasting menu at Tao Asian Bistro (3377 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-388-8338, taolasvegas.com) at The Venetian, where a seaweed-wrapped puddle of briny sea urchin is infinitely more likely to appear than a California roll. Finally, head over to El Dorado Cantina (3025 Sammy Davis Jr. Dr., 702-722-2289, eldoradovegas.com), which boasts, hands down, the tastiest chicken mole I’ve had outside of L.A. – here done as a trio with brown, green and red versions of the cocoa-and-nut-based sauce. It’s also next door to a gentlemen’s club. Dangerous, or dangerously convenient?

5. Zipline over a canyon 
Led by a cadre of wisecracking lads with a comedy routine as tight as Jillian Michaels’ abs, the Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon Zipline Experience (1644 Nevada Hwy., Boulder City, 702-293-6885, flight-linezbootleg.com) is a fun, convenient, low-hassle way to take a break from the Strip and flirt with death a little bit. In truth, it feels quite safe – for all their cheeky puns and irreverent anecdotes about the moonshine-making miners who once inhabited these desolate mountains overlooking Lake Mead, the zipline techs are a by-the-books lot, following a strict checklist of safety protocols before sending you hurtling over the desert at 60 miles per hour. Each 800- to 2,000-foot segment of the zipline only takes a few seconds to traverse, but what a pulse-raising few seconds they are. And it’s only 20 minutes from the Strip.

6. Operate large machinery
One of the emerging extra-gambling trends in Vegas is enhanced vehicular experiences, including Dig This Vegas (3012 S. Rancho Dr., 702-222-4344, digthisvegas.com), where you can operate bulldozers, backhoes and excavators in a purpose-designed dirt pit right off the Strip. 

7. Jump off a tall building
Want to feel like Superman – or Supergirl? Step onto the 829-foot-high SkyJump platform at Stratosphere (2000 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 800-998-6937, skyjumplv.com). You will look down on the Vegas skyline and its twinkling constellation of lights. A warm sirocco will rustle your hair. Then you’ll step off the ledge and plunge to the earth with nothing to stop you – well, nothing but a system of harnesses, pullies and braking devices that slow your descent to a few miles per hour over the final few feet. Less bungee jump than a vertical zipline, the Sky Jump holds the Guinness record for the world’s highest controlled descent, and is a screaming good time.

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target practice with Vegas Outdoor Adventures

8. Shoot some big guns
The fellows at Vegas Outdoor Adventures (vegasoutdooradventures.com) know as well as anyone that shooting – even recreational shooting – can be a dangerous proposition. In a well-publicized accident three years ago, one of their instructors was fatally wounded when a young client lost control of an Uzi during a firing session. Safety protocols were changed, policies updated, and the White Hills, Ariz., shooting range remains in business – largely due to its truly singular collection of exotic assault weapons and 50-caliber firearms. Shooting packages are constructed like tasting menus, from the relatively modest “copper” package (20 rounds on the Uzi, another 20 on the MP59 submachine gun, and three shots on the 9mm Glock, $149) to the premium “ultimate platinum” package ($999), which includes a selection of eight machine guns, plus three rounds on the legendary Barrett .50 sniper rifle (used in Afghanistan by a British shooter to score a then-world-record 2-mile kill, the instructor tells me) and another 25 rounds on the $200,000 M2 Ma Deuce – the .50 machine gun used famously by Sylvester Stallone in Rambo to obliterate half the Myanmar army.

Talk about visceral – each time I shoot the Ma Deuce, it’s like trying hold onto a bull going into conniptions. Luckily, the gun barrel is fixed, so even an amateur shooter like myself is rendered decidedly non-dangerous.

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helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon

9. ATV to the Colorado River... then take a chopper to the grand Canyon.
You’ve earned your Danger Vegas bachelor’s degree, and you’re ready for the Ph.D. program. How about a dual land-air excursion to two of the region’s most impressive natural treasures? The Grand Canyon Heli & ATV Adventure with Sundance Helicopters (sundancehelicopters.com) starts with a 30-minute shuttle ride from your hotel to the Hoover Dam, where a tour guide will give you the fascinating CliffsNotes version of the history of the 86-year-old hydroelectric wonder. Then you’re off on a three-hour ATV excursion through Lake Mead National Park to the Colorado River – an exhilarating, dusty romp with a cooling 20-minute interlude in the middle to take a dip.

Afterward, you could climb back into the shuttle and return to your hotel room, but why not take a quick tour of the Grand Canyon instead? It might seem counterintuitive to visit Arizona’s most famous attraction during a Vegas vacation, but it’s a mere 25-minute flight from the Lake Mead area to the Hualapai tribe’s portion of the canyon, where Sundance operates a staging base with picnic tables and shade about halfway down the side of the canyon. After we touch down, the pilot pops a bottle of sparkling wine and pours flights for the passengers. None for him, obviously.

Statistically speaking, this is probably the most dangerous leg of my “danger Vegas” journey, but it’s also the most rewarding – a dazzling, 30-minute respite from the craps tables and bottomless Long Islands, with the staggering scale of the canyon laid out before you. My 401(k) may not survive the day, but this memory surely will.

 

Play It Safe
Reached your fill of risk-taking? Bet on these sure things.

The Venetian Las Vegas
Hate feeling cramped? Every room at this beloved mid-Strip resort is suite-like, with a split-level layout and plenty of room for lounging. 3355 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 866-659-9643, venetian.com

SLS Las Vegas
Built over and around the bones of the old Sahara Hotel and Casino, this newly refurbished property wisely rallied its remodel around upscale food-and-beverage concepts, while maintaining an affordable price point (rooms start at $139/night). 2535 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-761-7000, slslasvegas.com

RM Seafood
Eating fish in the desert needn’t be a dicey proposition. Responsibly sourced, the seafood offered by celebrity chef Rick Moonen at this Mandalay Bay eatery is unfailingly first-rate, including a bicoastal oyster menu and Moonen’s famous swordfish sloppy Joe. 3950 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-632-9300, mandalaybay.com