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snowbird trail

The Cascata golf course in Las Vegas features nearly 1,000 metres in elevation changes – and a waterfalls, no less.Adam Stanley/The Globe and Mail

Snowbird Trail is a 12-part series on unusual or different attractions for snowbirds in the sunbelt.

There was once a time when people came to Las Vegas just for gambling – and various other sins. But times have definitely changed. The lights still burn brightly along The Strip, illuminating iconic hotels and casinos such as The Mirage and Caesars Palace, but the glow has spread much wider.

In 2013 alone, Las Vegas resorts, hotels and other partners invested more than $3.6-billion (U.S.) into new attractions, experiences and refreshed amenities across the Nevada city.

Long known as the "entertainment capital of the world," Las Vegas has been transformed. It's a luxury destination now, and travellers (snowbirds included) who are looking for a weekend getaway or an extended stay are rethinking Sin City.

A wild ride in Vegas could now include whipping around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 270 kilometres an hour in a stock car, or playing golf at the ultra-exclusive Shadow Creek, with a locker next to regular visitor Wayne Gretzky's. To cap off the day, Adam Sandler may surprise his friends Ray Romano and Kevin James on stage at the evening's comedy show.

With gambling revenue in decline, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Las Vegas and its attractions have looked at new ways to bring people to town.

Famous chefs have become the new stars of Las Vegas, with 66 celebrity restaurants on The Strip, the most in one place in the world. Dining options of all kinds are available, with menus created by Bobby Flay, Guy Fieri or Giada de Laurentiis (the Food Network host's only restaurant in the world is in Las Vegas, and opened in early 2014).

Some specific dining highlights include BLT Steak and Stripsteak – both traditional U.S. steakhouses with robust menus, elegant cocktails and luscious desserts. But one of the neatest gastronomic stories in Las Vegas belongs to restaurateur Steve Martorano.

Martorano, a former DJ who grew up in South Philadelphia with an uncle in the mob, started a sandwich shop in his apartment. Eighteen years after moving to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and opening his first Café Martorano, he's taken his brash but delicious cooking style to Las Vegas. Don't be surprised if Martorano himself is there on a Friday night spinning tunes for his diners.

In order to work off all that food, Las Vegas has become a hot spot for golf, as well.

Although it may never be able to match nearby Arizona or California for quantity of courses, Las Vegas has plenty of quality tracks, many within proximity to The Strip (which, let's face it, is one of the most important factors).

Shadow Creek is on the top of the list. Once nearly impossible to get access to, with rumours of $1,000 tee times and closures whenever Michael Jordan was on the property, the Tom Fazio design is now (just) $500, including a cart, caddy and limousine transportation from your hotel.

Jordan still has a locker at Shadow Creek – along with Gretzky, former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and numerous other high rollers in business and sports. Current President Barack Obama played there just last week with retired New York Yankees star Derek Jeter. If you see Jordan there, he gets the courtesy of being able to play through other groups – but the course is no longer as untouchable as before.

It's still an incredible feat of design, including lush grasses and exotic vegetation transplanted into the desert, thanks in part to the financial backing of MGM Resorts International (there are 15 of its resorts in Las Vegas, including the brand new Delano Las Vegas, and one must be a guest of one to play).

With Shadow Creek ranked No.1 in the state – and No. 6 in the United States (according to Golf Digest), what could even come close to matching it?

Well, Cascata can.

Located 30 minutes from The Strip, Cascata is a $69-million project that is desert golf at its finest. For $245 (including cart), travellers might even consider it a bargain.

Arriving at the 32,000-square-foot clubhouse – via limousine, of course – the first noticeable thing is a stream running through it. You realize, quite quickly, this isn't your neighbourhood municipal course.

Golfers traverse nearly 1,000 metres of elevation going around the Rees Jones-designed masterpiece. It is, very simply, stunning.

Not to be outdone by the golf and the dining is Las Vegas's entertainment, much of it appropriate for families.

Long known for its shows of all kinds – from magic to music and circus to comedy – Las Vegas is continuing this tradition, even as it enters a new era.

There's something for everyone, and that's a big part of what makes the new Vegas so attractive.

The new Vegas can mean that, tired from a day of golf or shopping, one can relax with a massage, or watch Cirque de Soleil acrobats fly through the air, their act set to some of the greatest pop music in history, such as The Beatles or Michael Jackson.

And after all that, if someone still wants to put $25 on red, that's still an option. It's just not the main one any more.

The writer was a guest of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. It did not review or approve this article.

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