Neon Boneyard, Las Vegas – where good neon comes to die

I heard a story once. About how, during the prohibition, gambling rooms and bars had to be hidden from the law in Las Vegas. So they were housed in plain brick nondescript units, as boring and un-noticeable as possible. There were no windows so no risk that the cops would know there were people inside at night. By all accounts they flourished.
Neon Boneyard Golden Nugget

Going legal in Nevada.

And when prohibition was lifted, and then gambling relegalised in Nevada in 1931, the suddenly legal owners wanted ways to to advertise that they were there, to attract more clientele, without investing in new premises. Luckily for them, neon had been invented, and very quickly every bar and casino in Las Vegas was covered in brightly coloured neon lights and signs to attract the crowds. While the premises did indeed get replaced by ever newer and bigger and grander buildings, the neon has remained a constant image of Vegas.
Neon Boneyard Sin

And then in the 1990s it got overtaken by LED, and suddenly neon was expensive and temperamental and old fashioned. And one by one, the old signs and decorations got replaced, the old neon was scrapped.

Neon death and resurrection.

But some of those classic old neon signs live on, or at least are lying in limbo waiting for a saviour, at the Neon Boneyard, part of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. A passionate group of enthusiasts work on recovering as many of the old signs as possible (currently about 150 in the Boneyard), and look for sponsors to pay for their restoration. And the best bit is, we can go visit the Neon Boneyard and get right up close with all this colourful history. In a barren dusty lot just a bit north of the strip, a small fee of $15 will let you join a tour around the boneyard, led by one of those passionate volunteers that make this organisation work. This is a down-and-dirty tour, there’s plenty of debris and broken glass on the ground, and enclosed flat shoes must be worn for your own safety. 
Neon Boneyard Duck

The rawness of what is basically a neon dump, with the stories of old Vegas that each sign invokes from the volunteer guide, makes this an engrossing and fascinating afternoon in the sun, and my favourite attraction in Vegas.

Neon in working order.

And for a taste of what the neon looks like in working order, in situ, go to Fremont St in old Vegas. The Neon museum has a self-guided walking tour in their outdoor downtown “gallery” of restored working signs . The gallery begins in front of the Neonopolis at Las Vegas Boulevard near the Hacienda Horse and Rider and includes the original Aladdin’s Lamp.  The gallery extends to the 3rd Street cul-de-sac adjacent to The Fremont Street Experience canopy and includes The Flame Restaurant, Chief Court Motel, Andy Anderson, The Red Barn, Wedding Information, Nevada Motel, and Dots Flowers. So when you check out the Fremont St experience one night, don’t forget to do the walking tour of the Neon signs as well

My tip for the Neon Boneyard – book early, there are limited spots and it books out fast. To book, go to Neon Boneyard. Oh, and turn up on time, once the guide has taken the group through the barbed wire security gate into the lot, he locks it, and you can’t come in!

the birth of neon – early Las Vegas

The rat pack, the 1950’s and 60’s, the old classic movies, the original Ocean’s 11. When I visit Las Vegas now I can find it hard to find any trace of the old Vegas I absorbed as the backdrop to so many old movies and TV shows as I grew up. I first visited Vegas in 1989, on a long Greyhound trip from the Grand Canyon to LA. Arriving late at night at the bus terminal, we headed to  Circus Circus, the flashest place in town, ate cheap buffet, blagged free drinks and soaked up the entertainment until we jumped on another Greyhound in the morning and headed out of town. A fleeting and slightly dazed visit!
Old vegas - Fremont St Golden Gulch

So on a more recent trip to Vegas, I am lucky to have a local friend who re-introduces me to the old Vegas. To get in the mood, we start at the Peppermill Cafe & Fireside lounge, at the very northern end of the strip. The Peppermill is a classic 60’s diner, and the fireside lounge is a lush pink and purple neon classic cocktail bar – I think it is the brightest most colourful room i have ever been in. It’s all 60’s cool,  there is even a sunken circular lounge around a fire pool – hence the name. The perfect place to channel my inner Austin Powers and have a few classic martini’s. 
Old vegas - Fremont St Peppermill Cafe & Fireside Lounge

Then it’s on to Fremont Street, where the strip began!  This is old-school Vegas – definitely best visited at night. New Vegas, on the strip, is all LED these days – old Vegas is the original Neon Vegas. I feel like I am in a movie set, and of course I am because some of these casinos and signs have featured in many movies and TV shows over the decades.

There’s the Golden Nugget casino and the Glitter Gulch girlie bar, the Plaza hotel and the big neon Malborough Man.There’s the $1 shrimp cocktails at the Golden Gate casino. There are old school steakhouses and slot machines and roulette wheels and cheap souvenir kiosks – in fact everything is a whole lot cheaper than down on the Strip. It’s busy and bustling and visited by an average 25,000 people a day, (so they tell me). 
Old vegas - Fremont St The Fremont St Experience

And from sunset onwards, every hour on the hour, there’s the Fremont Street experience. This is a ‘sound and light show’ like no other I have seen. It’s massive. It’s projected onto the huge curved roof over my head, 1500 feet in length – that’s about 500 metres people, half a kilometre of sight and 555,000 watts of sound! It goes for six minutes each time which is just about long enough for me to not get a crick in my neck and to not get dizzy and fall over (just). It’s bright and loud and very Vegas – lots of hot girls and even a few hot boys. Ahhh… the nostalgia of it all! Go there and party like it’s 1959.
Old vegas - Fremont St The Fremont St Experience

Old vegas - Fremont St the old strip

PhotoFriday: Street: The eye-popping Folsom Street Leather Fair, San Francisco

There’s no shortage of colourful neighbourhood street festivals in San Francisco every summer, but the most eye-popping is definitely the Folsom Street Leather Fair – and no, this is not some industry apparel convention!

I wondered whether the festival patrons might be a bit annoyed having a camera toting tourist in their midst, but I didn’t have to worry, this was a friendly crowd – very friendly! They welcome anyone, any gender, any age, any dress code, and people come from round the world to join in. And there’s not too many shrinking violets in this crowd, most people were very happy to be photographed and very offended if they weren’t! These photos in no way give a real picture of the festival, these are the most tame photos of the day – the rest are better suited to a XXX-rated site.

Walk like an Epicurean – in Portland, Oregon

Today is all about FLOSS  – no, I am not on my way to the dentist, this is about exploring the Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonable, and Sustainable local produce of Portland. Portland, and indeed all of Oregon, has a reputation of being a clean, green, wet and rainy kind of place, populated by mountain biking, snow boarding, beer and pinot drinking locals. As I walk down the street to the meeting point for my epicurean walk, this stereotype seems confirmed by the rows of mountain bikes tied to the fence near where the queue of people are slowly inching their way into this weekend’s beer festival – but it is a bright sunny day, no rain, so that at least is beating the odds. I am looking forward to the treats in store on this small group walk – walking, drinking and eating being three of my favourite things to do.

Epicurean walk, bikes, Portland, Oregon
Epicurean walk, bikes, Portland, Oregon

The edgy Pearl District, Portland.

We start at the Flying Elephant deli with a sample of their award winning Tomato Orange soup, and then jump on the tram and head to the other end of the Pearl District. This is the once-rundown dodgy light industrial area long since transformed into the edgy, trendy, hipster, and expensive area of town. I had dinner here last night at the large communal table in an upmarket bar/restaurant called Clyde Common – delicious cocktails and locally sourced food, and lots of friendly ’20 something years younger than me’ hipster types to chat with around the communal table. I’m not convinced about the edgy tag though, it may have been originally, but now? I explored the area some more after dinner and found a number of homeless people, but not like homeless people anywhere else I’ve been – these ones  had trendy hairstyles and clothing (but maybe not very clean), their tatts looked very artistic, and I would not have been surprised if they had their mountain bikes stashed behind the rubbish bins. Maybe I had it all wrong and they were just actors taking a break from filming?

What’s brewing in Portland?

I am delighted to find our first stop in the Pearl District is at the iconic Bridgeport micro brewery (although pretty large in relation to the rest of the Oregon microbrewery scene I suspect). They have impeccable green credentials, recycling everything from the grains that form the base of the beer (into breads and pastries in their on-site bakery), to their glasses and bottles, to the fat from their kitchen. So while we sample their range of beers, the charming beermaker tells me the story behind IPA (Indian Pale Ale) beer – something I had never known in my ten years in the UK. He says that many people order it thinking they are getting a lite beer, and are then surprised by its dryness and bitterness. It all dates back to the days of colonial India, when the British found that too many of their soldiers were getting ill from the local water supply in India. So they instructed the soldiers to drink beer instead of water. But they had the problem of getting enough beer from Britain to India to supply their daily needs. Because of the long boat trip from Britain to India, around the coast of Africa and through a lot of heat, the beer was spoiling before it arrived. The solution they came up with was to add more hops as a preservative, and this is where the bitter flavours and dry aftertaste come from. So now I have a taste rule of thumb for ordering beer: dark beer is sweeter, amber beer is balanced, and pale ales are more dry and bitter.

What’s baking in Portland?

All that beer sampling has me ready for the next stop, the Pearl Bakery. Here we don hair nets and slippers to go behind the shop counter and into the bakery proper for some bread tasting to soak up a bit of the alcohol consumed so far. Their baguettes are crunchy with a soft centre that melts in the mouth, the sourdough is an interesting and healthy chewy wholegrain version, and the croissant is of perfect buttery flakiness. They also have some super sweet treats, a sweet bread with flavours of orange peel and anise, and a dark chocolate mini muffin, although I think the sweetness overwhelms the flavours a bit in both of these, a little bit less sugar would be a good idea. Maybe they just don’t mix well with that super dry IPA. One of the chefs explains that although they would like to be completely organic, all the best grains available in the US for breadmaking are grown in the mid west – not an area with a groundswell of organic farmers, so they just have to go with the best grains and make sure all the other ingredients are local and organic.

Portland Tea and Mustard anyone?

Escaping from our hair nets, and grateful that there’s no one who knows me here to see that particular look, we visit a specialist cookware shop for a glass of refreshing pinot and some mustard tasting. The mustard tasting was disappointing as each of the samples was busily disguising the mustard taste. One was  mixed with orange and egg and tasted like a mild mayonnaise, one was a lemon, mustard and dill sauce that tasted like mild sweet vinegar, and one was a mustard and curry paste that actually tasted like a nice strong curry paste (but also overly sweet – I am starting to worry about this trend of too much sugar added to things that should be savoury). This isn’t a problem at our next stop for a cuppa (of tea). The Tea Zone is one of those wonderfully cosy cafes with an extensive collection of quality teas from around the world, so I was able to refresh myself with samples of Lapsang Souchong, Camomile and a delicate white Green tea.

Portland Pizza divides opinion.

Now we get to sit in the sun outside Hot Lips Pizza in the Eco Trust building – yes, an environmentally friendly pizza place with vegan pizza bases and the source of each of the possible toppings listed by their farm and even paddock of origin, and located in the greenist 6star rated building in town. I like this place, they are of the “thin crust, no more than three ingredients on top simplicity” school rather than the “load it up with as many toppings as possible and then inject more cheese inside the crust” school of thought. Listening to the comments of my walking companions though, it seems I am in the minority on this. If only they didn’t go and spoil it by bringing out the pizza on trays about a metre in diameter – this isn’t Texas, there’s just no need for this kind of ridiculous oversizing – are you listening Hot Lips Pizza?

Portland’s cupcake sweetener.

And we finally fizzle out at Cupcake Jones, just down the street, where I mainline on more over the top sugar in the form of their organic mini cupcakes (from locally sourced ingredients) – at least these are supposed to be sweet, and these ones were not skimping on the sweetness. My head buzzing with the sugar high, I decide I need a lot more walking, so I head for the riverfront and start by strolling through the weekend market stalls. Plenty of spicy but not sweet organic soaps to sniff, and some pretty interesting jewellery as well. Then I find the beer tent, a tradition that too many markets miss out on, and I am able to grab another bitter IPA to keep me cool as I walk south along the riverbank for a couple of hours on this hot sunny day, watching the locals taking their kids swimming in the public fountains that pop up all around this city. On reaching the Downtown Waterfront area, I find an outdoor table, overlooking the river, and order a selection of baked olives with a flight of Oregon Pinot Noir, and settle in for some much needed savoury bliss. Which just goes to prove that one epicurean’s savoury special is another epicurean’s sweet nightmare.