We knew we were taking a bit of a gamble, my wife and I, making a visit to Reno that wasn't centered on A) casinos or B) a speedy end to our marriage.
Still, we had heard of efforts to transform the Biggest Little City in the World from a gambling and quickie-divorce mecca into a more urbane center of arts and outdoor adventure.
As Cynthia and I saw last month, not only has the snazzy new $16-million Nevada Museum of Art opened barely four blocks from the heart of Reno's casino district, but a full calendar of concerts and festivals each summer is another part of the payoff for visitors not glued to the roulette wheel.
This year's arts and entertainment choices include performances by Mikhail Baryshnikov (weeks ahead of when he'll do the same program at UCLA), a jazz concert by saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a two-day Celtic festival and a show by Louisiana's renowned Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band.
Not bad for a fledgling arts scene.
Through Sept. 21, the Museum of Art has works by muralist Diego Rivera and other contemporary Mexican artists in an exhibition that was so popular in Seattle, some visitors there had to be turned away. Another exhibit explores the Paris output of American painter Edward Hopper in a substantial collection of 45 canvases.
We braved the height of summer swelter to check it all out.
Despite talk of a new promenade of shops and cafes along the Truckee River, we really didn't see many signs of a face-lift downtown after flying in Friday. We spotted a few signs touting art events and one banner at the Celtic festival promoting the city's artown.org Web site. But the casinos weren't going out of their way to hype the new museum or the Marsalis gig over their own Vegas-type floor shows.
That set up a low-key tension between the Reno of old, represented by the National Bowling Stadium, and the would-be cosmopolitan one, as symbolized by the Nevada Museum of Art, the 74-year-old institution that reopened in its new home in May.
The museum itself is a striking piece of modern architecture by Will Bruder, whose models of the building and other projects are featured in one of nine galleries constituting 13,500 square feet of exhibition space.
The museum's fourth floor is mostly given over to the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of contemporary Mexican art. It encompasses not only mid-20th century works by Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, but also some newer, provocative works, such as Miguel Calderón's photos of a crazed-looking man pointing a gun at the head of a dog or into the mouth of a roaring tiger.
The museum might fit into the Getty Center's parking structure, but its artistic spirit is certainly willing.
Another element of Reno's slow evolution is the Siena Hotel Spa Casino, touted as the city's first full-fledged spa hotel. The $70-million, 2-year-old facility has 185 rooms and 29 suites, with half of the units overlooking the modest yet scenic Truckee River, which cuts through town.
With an auto club discount, we got a standard room for about $100 a night. It was decorated in soft earth tones, with attractive maple-finish furniture that, though not exactly luxurious, was as comfortable as we could have expected at this price. One downside was the air conditioner, whose vents were directly under heavy drapes that blocked early morning light, forcing us to choose between a cool room or a dark one.
The Siena has a wine cellar, Enoteca, with one of the best wine lists in town, and a jazz lounge. Saturday night we popped in and found a three-piece combo playing a mix of smooth jazz and melodic R&B. (We found a more interesting jazz group playing nearby in the Sapphire Room at Harrah's.)
The fourth-floor pool and Jacuzzi — the site of party mixers each Friday evening — seemed a rarity for Reno. A couple we chatted with said they had encountered quizzical looks or ridiculing stares when they canvassed the city's hotels searching for one with a pool. Apparently most lodgings want their guests plunking money down in those casinos, not lolling in bubbly water.
Kayaking down the Truckee River on Sunday provided our ideal respite from the clatter of slots and the glow of neon — to say nothing of the 96-degree heat.
Michael, our guide, explained basic safety rules and the principles of maneuvering our kayaks, reassuring us that the river was shallow enough that if anyone did get stuck on one of the many rocks we would be encountering, we could just step out of the kayak, reposition it, climb back in and be on our way again.
Moving at 2 to 3 mph, we sped up at nearly a dozen rapids and three pronounced drop-offs that tested our newly acquired navigation skills.
A leisurely float
Along the way we passed people fly-fishing and rod-and-reel casting for trout, some kids riding floaties, one fellow trapping crawdads and a few folks wading into the refreshing 72-degree water simply to cool off. We also spotted a pair of deer. Michael told us this sight was pretty unusual, because we weren't that far from housing developments. It showed just how quickly you can get from the Biggest Little City in the World into the Sierra countryside.
Tahoe Whitewater Tours, which runs the kayaking trips, also rents bikes for exploring miles of trails along the river or tooling around town. For our other major outdoor adventure, though, we chose to drive less than an hour north to Animal Ark, a wildlife preserve and rehabilitation facility.
The self-guided tour through about 30 enclosures can take as little as 20 minutes or as long as a few hours, depending on how long you care to watch magnificent creatures that, for one reason or another, can never be released into the wild. The big attractions are a rare white Bengal tiger, a pair of gorgeous cheetahs, 400-pound male and 200-pound female black bears, an Asian snow leopard and an arctic fox.
Back in town, our luck was better with food than with video poker (me) or classic bar-bar-bar slots (Cynthia). Our best meal easily was dinner at Bertha Miranda's Mexican Restaurant, three blocks east of the Siena. I ordered El Puerco Llorón (the crying pig), perfectly cooked pork slathered in green serrano chiles, onions and spices. Cynthia had a beef chimichanga that was equally tasty. The fresh salsa and chips alone could have made a satisfying meal.
We also had an excellent, albeit pricier, dinner at Lexie's, an upscale restaurant in the Siena. The imaginative menu surpasses the steak-and-lobster fare typical of Reno's high-end hotel restaurants. I chose a spicy horseradish-encrusted salmon, and Cynthia had the spinach-walnut ravioli.
Another favorite restaurant was Rapscallion Seafood House, where we had a relaxing Sunday brunch. The tree-shaded patio and attractive brick-and-slate building were set in a quiet neighborhood, and the excellent food lured us back for a late lunch on our way back to the airport — not much of a gamble, but then again, gambling isn't what the new Reno is all about.
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Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Orange County-Reno $341.00
Two nights, with tax $202.25
Two days $65.52
Nevada Museum of Art $14.00
With tip $100.00
Animal Ark $12.00
Bertha Miranda's $46.80
Final tab $932.11
Siena Hotel Spa Casino, 1 S. Lake St., Reno, NV 89501; (877) 743-6233 or (775) 337-6260, fax (775) 321-5866, https://www.sienareno.com .