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Desert Companion

I, tourist

My poor brother. He had barely stepped off the plane from Chicago, still shaking off jet lag, before the whirlwind began. His annual holiday visit had typically been a weeklong power-laze whose most strenuous activities were living-room wrestling with our twin nephews and staging pre-Christmas raids on mom's traditional Hungarian pastries, maybe a face-to-face status update with a stray friend or two. This December's visit, however, rapidly morphed into a dense, encyclopedic near-frenzy of drinking, eating, playing and gawking. My brother, a fellow born-and-raised Las Vegan, returned to his hometown as a tourist. And I was a tourist right by his side, experiencing both the new and old through fresh eyes (and stomachs and, yes, livers). We toasted at the Huntridge Tavern, my thuggy old downtown hideout finding new life as a bohemian haunt. We sampled the vertigo on offer at the Colorado River Bridge, one of Southern Nevada's latest architectural triumphs. We shopped the Strip for grown-up-man clothes and tested our brotherly bonds in head-to-head matches at the Pinball Hall of Fame. (I also seem to recall us drinking the famously potent mai tais at Frankie's, but need documentary evidence before I admit to anything I said or did. Allegedly.)

Tourist/local, visitor/resident, newcomer/native - who cares? These terms are as passé as the simplistic view that Las Vegas is some Janus-faced duplex city cleanly divided between the Strip and the "real" Las Vegas, between the movie set we peddle to visitors and the real community we create. Truth is, there's a lot of community and culture in that so-called movie set; and there's a good dose of grand spectacle and pure fun in our workaday Vegas. In this protean city, we're all tourists.

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No, no, no, not that kind of tourist. Not shambling fannypackers who sheepishly seek the familiar amid the new. I mean a more muscular definition of tourist: a connoisseur of the new experience, an acolyte of surprise, an explorer who ventures inward as much as outward. Indeed, if Desert Companion's inaugural Best of the City edition needed a motto, it would be something like this: Be a true local - by becoming a tourist.

Confession time: I used to take a twisted secret pride in knowing Las Vegas - the bars, the art galleries, the sceney hangouts - and knowing all-too-well the familiar faces that frequented them. This pride entailed a sense of smug mastery, a smirk at the city's inability to surprise me. It was a mean little shrivel-hearted feeling, and I'm glad to be rid of it. I have to credit the city with that: Over the last decade, a booming economy has fueled a cultural, commercial and artistic growth spurt whose energy we're still reaping. Now we're confronted by promise we can hardly keep up with - an upstart artist here, a new hangout there, a new cultural kick-start or community endeavor bringing people together. In our own hometown, we are tourists confirmed anew, fervent acolytes of surprise.

Whether you're a longtime Las Vegan or a newcomer, our Best of the City is sure to surprise you - and maybe even cause some debates between you and your friends. That's because it's penned by avid newcomers who want to share their discoveries and natives who boast beloved favorites they'll defend to the hilt. Whether they're longtime Las Vegans or new locals, they're both urban pioneers whose raves are sure to introduce to you something new - or reignite a spark with an old mainstay.

My brother will likely be back in the spring. I'm already planning his next trip. Or, rather, our trip.

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