They say what happens in Vegas, stays. But Vegas has a FOX affiliate, 1,000 flights a day, and streets full of people with good cell service. Mess up in Vegas, and the world will know before you wake up. Just ask Britney Spears. You wanna go somewhere full of gambling, unbridled partying, and inhibition-less visitors? Do you also need the privacy of being 16 hours from the nearest city you've heard of?
You should head to the Yukon.
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Your new year-round escape is called Dawson City. It was base town of the Klondike Gold Rush, at the junction of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. At its height, 40,000 people lived there, fueling rowdy, dirty streets, gambling houses, brothels, and saloons galore. But 120 years later, only 1,300 souls still call it home. Yet the city's slogan -- "Where the North Comes to Play" -- recalls those debauched days at the edge of creation. Every weekend it's full of folks who make the long trip from all over Canada, Europe, and the US to cut loose in the middle of nowhere.
It's also a place where Canadian college students who want to say "screw the man" come to work in the bars, casinos, and hotels for a summer while living in a tent across the Yukon River in West Dawson. They're joined by 20-somethings looking for direction, who come to get away from it all and figure out their futures. What results is a city is packed with uncommitted young people and tourists, which is never not a recipe for a party.
Dawson City's appeal lies in its distance, figurative and literal, from the rest of life. The Yukon may be remarkably well-designed for travel -- unlike Alaska, nearly all of its settlements are accessible by road -- but none of its commutes are short. It'll take you five hours hours to reach the nearest major airport in the territory's capital, Whitehorse. It's nine hours from the cruise port in Skagway, Alaska. And while Fairbanks might look close, the pesky mountain range between the two cities makes it a 16-hour drive on the Top of the World Highway.
The bars feel like the kinds of places miners would stop after two weeks panning in the bush. And in some saloons, you'll actually still find them.
But the numbing, breathtaking drives through towering green and gold mountains will unplug you from your reality. The first turn down Front St looks as it must have to a gold miner arriving from California. Only some of the old wooden buildings have been restored; others are dilapidated. Only the town's main road has been paved, and when it rains, the dusty streets turn to mud (hence the town's wooden sidewalks). Despite the late-model cars on the road, you've effectively arrived in 1896.
This is how the town differentiates itself from other historic North American mining towns, which usually feel updated, with paved streets and Starbucks. Dawson, still rough around the edges, feels like a trip back in time. You can't call it a theme town because what you're experiencing is real, save maybe for the showgirls.
Yep, showgirls. They're the main attraction at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada's oldest casino. It's a two-level, wood-walled structure with a balcony overlooking the casino floor, which is essentially gaming tables surrounding a theater. Once an hour the gamblers take a break from the tables and watch the dancers perform.
At some point the crowds spill out of the casino and moves the party to any number of quality dive saloons where it rages on. Music pours out of the Midnight Sun Hotel, home to a live-music venue and a dark, seedy lounge. The Westminster Hotel's two bars are also packed. All these joints are throwbacks. Sure, they're populated by women now too, and have electricity and drinks that aren't 130-proof whiskey. But they feel like the kinds of places miners would stop at after two weeks panning in the bush. And in some saloons, you'll actually still find them.
Mines still operate around Dawson, so dusty, tired miners can be spotted roaming the bars and saloons. They mingle easily with tourists and summering college kids, even at places like the Downtown Hotel, the closest thing to a tourist trap as you'll find.
This wallpapered bar is home to the Sourtoe Cocktail, essentially a shot of liquor poured over a preserved human toe. It dates back to 1973, when Captain Dick Stevenson cleaned out his cabin and found a jar containing an amputated, frostbitten toe. He brought it to the bar and entertained himself by daring people to take a shot with the toe in the drink. Today, tourists line up near to bar to join the "Sourtoe Cocktail Club." The toe has changed over the years, but the rules are the same: "Drink it fast, or drink it slow, but your lips have got to touch the toe." If your shot of choice is tequila, you can even lick the salt off the toe.
The city's slogan -- "Where the North Comes to Play" -- recalls those debauched days of old at the edge of creation.
That's typically not the last drink of the night in Dawson City. After touching the toe it's a short walk to Bombay Peggy's, a brothel-turned-boutique hotel with a bordello-themed bar. Appropriately, Peggy's is the town's end-of-the-night-bar, where loud crowds of young people glare at each other through the bar's red lights, deciding how their evenings should end. It's an eerie, hazy way to keep you in a miner's state of mind right up until you trip upstairs and pass out.
Dawson City isn't completely off the grid. Most of it has cell service. There's fairly reliable internet, when the fiber-optic cables in Alberta that service it aren't broken. There are phones and grocery stores and even a tiny airport with a handful of flights. Dawson City's youth and character have attracted hipsters who knock out some rockin' vegetarian food and gourmet coffee at Alchemy.
But a few nights in Dawson will echo with raucous frontier life. There's really nowhere quite like it in North America, where you can escape and indulge so far from the rest of the world. It's the rare uncontrived historic town, updated enough to be fun, funky enough to feel real. Go, and you'll find yourself putting off the long drive back back through the mountains for as long as you can.
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