07/19/2001 12:00AM

Reno vs. Las Vegas is case of substance vs. style

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RENO, Nev. - The flight is only a little over an hour from Las Vegas to Reno, but even though you're in the same state, it's like entering another world.

The first thing you notice is the climate. Las Vegas might be hipper, but Reno is cooler. About 20 degrees cooler, on average.

The Flamingo Reno Challenge VII Horse Handicapping Tournament, which started Thursday morning and is ending Saturday, was the excuse for a summer getaway. Upon my bumpy flight's descent into Reno, the temperature was 83 degrees in the middle of the afternoon. That might be warm where you live, but it's an icebox compared to summer days in Las Vegas.

Gambling resorts are all about the green - however, in Las Vegas it's the color of money and in Reno and nearby Lake Tahoe it's the scenery. Las Vegas is a neon-concrete jungle, while northern Nevada has actual trees.

And Reno trumpets the distinction from every majestic mountaintop. A photo in a guide put out by the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority shows the casinos among the Sierra Nevada mountain range with the caption: "A blend of mother nature and human nature." Harvey's in South Lake Tahoe has an ad that proclaims: "Some lake. Some mountains. Some getaway." The Cal Neva Resort Spa and Casino bills itself as having "spectacular Lake Tahoe views from every guest room."

What kind of views do Vegas casinos brag about? Views of the Strip. You can look out your hotel room and see other casinos, plus tons of cars in a traffic jam.

Another selling point for Reno is its River Walk. There are locally owned shops that specialize in antiques, jewelry, and pottery. Reno is also home to the University of Nevada, which, as described in a travel guide, "looks like it belongs in the Ivy League." I've never heard that said of UNLV.

But not everyone comes to Nevada for the scenery. Gambling is still the main lure. While Reno has nothing to rival the glitz of the Strip, it makes up for it in gambling convenience (or as a gambler I met at the Flamingo, Steve Anderson, put it to me, "Las Vegas is style, Reno is substance").

Reno is more like downtown Las Vegas. The hotels are right next to each other, and it's a much easier task to walk from one to the other. On the Las Vegas Strip, you can go "next door," but if you walk in the summer you might be wishing there were people lining the sidewalks handing out water (instead, they hand out advertisements for escort services).

For years, Reno was considered the sports-betting capital of the world. And it's still easier to shop for the best odds here. You can get a half-dozen lines within an hour walking from the Flamingo Reno to Harrah's to Fitzgeralds to the Eldorado to the Silver Legacy to Circus Circus. You would be hard-pressed to get that many options in the same amount of time driving from casino to casino on the Strip. With so much consolidation in the industry, several next-door neighbors on the Strip post the same odds. For instance: Mirage-Treasure Island; Luxor-Excalibur; MGM Grand-New York New York; Bally's-Paris, with Caesars Palace and the Flamingo nearby.

Manuel Estevez, the Flamingo Reno limo driver who picked me up at the airport, prefers Reno over Las Vegas. Estevez, who has lived in Reno for 15 years, said he had a chance to transfer to Las Vegas when the Paris resort opened, but decided he liked the laid-back lifestyle.

"I've visited Vegas several times, but it's too much of a big city," Estevez said. "I prefer Reno and Tahoe. Here, you can do a lot more stuff, like fly-fishing. And look at that scenery," he said while pointing to a poster of Lake Tahoe, "you can't get that in Vegas."

But even though there is an underlying rivalry between the two regions of the state, the Nevada Department of Tourism embraces both.

And why not, it's the best of both worlds.