The perfect trip: Southwest USA
Like Colorado’s mining ghost towns, there is something spectral about the way this city rises from the haze of the Nevada desert, a mirage of suspended morality and taste. And the architecture of the Strip is just as illusory – a planet-load of simulated landmarks jammed together within yards of each other: the Eiffel Tower bumping heads with the Statue of Liberty, the Bridge of Sighs overlooking classical pillars from the Roman Empire. Even the cavernous casinos themselves – battalions of slot machines, endless rows of felt-topped card and craps tables, high-heeled waitresses dishing out watered-down whiskey to bleary-eyed gamblers – are ephemeral. Once an ageing casino’s time is up, little time is wasted before it is lined with dynamite and imploded; this is a town obsessed only with the eternal “now”.
But Las Vegas is building up history whether it likes it or not, and the place to find it is at the Neon Museum. Not far from Fremont Street, once Vegas’s main drag and home of famous winking cowboy sign Vegas Vic, the museum was set up in 1996 to save the icons of Vegas’s past. Starting out with just eight signs, it is now piled high with gigantic words and letters of every colour and style. A huge grinning skull lies beneath a massive silver slipper, a giant leprechaun rests against a three metre-tall palm tree. The entire sign of the old Stardust casino, each jagged red letter weighing 450 kilos, leans against a wall.
Danielle Kelly is operations manager at the museum. She has seen first-hand the emotional connection many visitors have to the old signs. “This is a place of projection for people’s memories,” she explains. “Perhaps a particular sign will remind someone of a picture they have of their grandfather standing in front of that casino. These signs are cultural icons embedded with thousands of intimate memories.”
Another place loaded with recollection is the Graceland Wedding Chapel, a small, baby-blue building staffed by no fewer than five Elvises – or Multi Elvii, as they are referred to here. Vegas weddings have a reputation for being drunken, shotgun-style affairs, much regretted in the morning – but there is a real charm to these ceremonies. Elvis, aka former opera singer Jeff Stanilus, resplendent in a black sequined jumpsuit, shimmies down the aisle belting out Love Me Tender, arm in arm with the bride. He has the couple repeat some Elvis-flavoured vows (“I’ll always love you tender. I’ll never have a suspicious mind. I’ll always be a hunka-hunka burning love.”). And then it’s over. The couple are politely shepherded out – preparations have to made for the next wedding party, due in 10 minutes. “This is the most fun job,” says receptionist-cumusher Deb McGroarty as she prepares a lei for the next Blue Hawaii-themed ceremony. “Elvis is our boss – how bad can that be?”
Where to eat
The best burgers in town are to be found at Mandalay Bay – toppings include lobster and truffles (from £5).
Where to stay: Aria Hotel
Most hotels on the Strip are of a similar high standard, with staff catering to every whim and the layout always ensuring you walk through the casino. The Aria has views over the Strip, luxurious rooms, a lovely pool and Elvis-themed Cirque du Soleil shows in the evening (from £80).
Palm Springs: Best for architecture
From Vegas, take a 4 1/2-hour drive on the I-15 into the desert