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.

nugget neon graveyard Las Vegas
nugget neon graveyard Las Vegas

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.

sin neon graveyard Las Vegas
sin neon graveyard Las Vegas

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.

Duck neon graveyard Las Vegas
Duck neon graveyard Las Vegas

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. Visit Las Vegas now and it can be hard to find any trace of the old Vegas, the  backdrop to so many old movies and TV shows we grew up with.

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 Las Vegas Golden Gulch
Old Las Vegas Golden Gulch

So on a more recent trip to Vegas, I am lucky to have a local friend who re-introduces me to the original 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.

Peppermill Cafe and Fireside Lounge, old Las Vegas
Peppermill Cafe and Fireside Lounge, old Las Vegas

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.

Old Las Vegas Fremont St
Old Las Vegas Fremont St

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).

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 Las Vegas strip
Old Las Vegas strip

Hot salsa nights in Trinidad, Cuba

Our friends call from the door of our casa particular and we go out and join them, strolling down the rough cobblestoned street in our summer dresses. We have had a delicious three course dinner in our casa, and now its around 9pm, a bit early yet but its time for some rum and dancing.

Case de la Trova

We head to the Casa de la Trova. Trova is one of the mainstays of traditional cuban music, based on the original trovadores, travelling musicians who played guitar and sung. Its the style made famous to the rest of us through the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. Now every town has a Casa de la Trova, a “house” for the musicians to play at. They have become much more geared to tourists than locals, but can still feature some great musicians and we want to try it out. We grab a table in the courtyard and marvel at the canopy of old vines that make the roof over our head, as we wait for our order of “bottle of rum and four cans of cola thanks”. I really like the music, but the overall atmosphere in the place is a bit flat. I think its because all the dancers look like they are concentrating on remembering their moves from dance classes, rather than just dancing for fun. So we finish off our bottle and move on.

Salsa in the town square, Cuba. 

We want to try the african percussion bar next but its already full, its seductive throb of drums spilling  out onto the cobblestones. We walk half a block back to the town square, set out with tables and chairs in the open air, surrounding a large dance floor in the middle, a band playing boisterously on the side. This nightly open air gathering is free, except of course any drinks we want to order. There’s a big crowd dancing salsa, and an even bigger crowd watching, generating quite a buzz, so we push into the crowd and find a few stray chairs and order more rum. Amongst all the dancers are several local couples who are clearly professional dancers, maybe dance instructors as well, and they vie for the attention of the onlookers. There is no outfit too tight, no look too smouldering, no salsa dance move too sexy.  They completely ignore all the other dancers and conduct their own informal dance off, and it makes for fantastic viewing- we all pick our favourites and cheer them on. There’s plenty of locals as well as tourists in the crowd too, we are sharing a table with a group of them and many more are table hopping, and occasionally persuading us to get up and dance as well, although we are feeling quite intimidated, not having had our lessons yet!

Picture Postcard perfect Trinidad Cuba. 

Trinidad is a small town of only 60,000 people, on the southern coast of Cuba, all cobblestones and worn pretty-in-pastel Spanish architecture. It is a picture postcard of what we all expect Cuba to look like. But it’s not flash and renovated like Havana; it has a bohemian character, a mix of the renovated, the well worn, and the completely derelict. It is made for gentle days and party nights. We spend the morning wandering the streets, visiting fascinating museums, sitting in parks, and climbing the old bell tower for the best view in town. For lunch there are the little illegal ‘hole in the wall’ pizza shops that pop up and then close down within an hour when their stock is sold – you don’t know where they are going to open next but you’ll recognise them from the queue. The pizza is delicious and about 50 cents each. We retreat to the classic Caribbean white sand turquoise water at Ancon beach, a couple of miles out of town on the coast, floating in the warm water and soaking up the sun. All too soon we are back in town for the evening, in our salsa class, sweating madly and getting excited when it occasionally starts to come together.

African Drumming in Cuba.

And after dinner in our casa we are ready for another Trinidad night. But we have a quick diversion first. We head across the road to a small schoolroom where the students are putting on a nativity play.  The daughter of our casa is in a lead role, so we are here to be official photographers of the event, and promise to send back a CD with all the shots. Then its off out for the night. This time we head straight to the African drumming bar, and find ourselves  seats at the front.The decor here is patio inspired, wrought iron furniture in bright primary colours, and another roof of vines. As well as virtuoso drummers and percussionists with a thumping beat, they also have an amazing dance troup, all incredibly fit  athletic young men with six packs and dancing abilities to die for, and one token young woman. For some reason the guys in our group don’t enjoy the entertainment as much as the ladies this time.

Trindad’s nightclub in a cave.

Around midnight we head to the Ayala nightclub in a cave. Its an adventure just getting there, we scramble up a steep uneven dirt slope for a few minutes, to get to the cave in the hills. Part way up a police car at the top turns its headlights on, to light up the path, unfortunately it just blinded us instead but we made it to the top anyway. This hill is next to a dodgy part of town which is why there is a cop car keeping an eye on things, but its safe enough going up in a big group. I wouldn’t recommend it if there are just a couple of you – take the long way round the road instead. I thought Jorgito might be exaggerating but this really is a cave! First we head down about three flights of stairs into the cave tunnels and then we start to hear the music – follow the tunnels for a few more metres and we come out in an underground cavern. At one end is a large dance floor, DJ station and giant video screens, and around it are various levels of decks, with seating or bars. My entry fee came with a free mojito, which is a nice start. The whole set-up is cool, it has a retro 80’s feel with lasers and videos on the cave walls, but the music is not so good- a mix of 10 year old house music and latino boy bands, with a fair mix of madonna thrown in. Not very conducive to practising our embryonic salsa moves, so we only last a couple of hours before we scramble back down the hill.

Christmas Eve in Trinidad, Cuba.

Another day at the beach beckons, and we head offshore on a hobicat for some snorkelling at a reef close by, although its quite a windy day so it’s quite choppy and visibility is reduced a bit, but still worth a look. It also makes for a nice tailwind as we fly back to shore. The afternoon contains more salsa lessons and cervesas and canchancharas under the shade at the Daiquiri bar. The delicious Canchanchara is a mix of rum, honey, lemon juice and cinnamon. At sunset we scramble back up the hill to the old ruin (right next to the cave nightclub) to watch the sun set over the town and sea.

Today is Christmas Eve and we have been invited to a christmas party at the house of one of the local bigwigs, fittingly named Jesus. Jesus’ extended family has prepared a spectacular buffet of whole baked fish, roast turkey, soups and salads. We contribute our usual supply of rum bottles and cans of cola. The ubiquitous  ghetto blaster comes and and much bad dancing ensues, salsa and not. At 11.30pm we head off to the big church in the main square, which is full of local families. Realising in time that we are (a) not catholics, and (b) quite drunk, we sensibly decide not to offend the locals, so we skip the midnight mass and head back up the hill to Ayala in the cave to dance our way into Christmas Day.

Cuba, travel to a most surprising country

It’s a balmy New Years Eve, on the farm surrounded by friends and family. One family friend is drunkenly playing a guitar in the corner, on the other side the teenagers have taken control of the CD player, and I am enveloped in the crisp fatty scent of slowly spinning roast pig on a spit.

NYE spit roast, Cuba
NYE spit roast, Cuba

But this is not my family, I only met the friends a week ago, I’m in Cuba and it is indeed a surprising place. I am travelling with a small group of Aussies, Kiwi’s, Canadians and Americans through I am surprised at how many Americans are visiting Cuba since in theory they are not allowed to, they are sneaking through Mexico or Canada in large numbers every year, and are happy to flout their government’s nonsensical rules.

Cuba: an extended family.

My hosts are the family of our excellent local guide, and they are almost a cross-section of Cuba. There’s Granddad, the charming silver fox, Dad who is a staunch communist who isn’t comfortable with so many foreigners around, Grandma who is happy as long as we refill her little half glass of beer, shy but smiling Mum, a brother in law who is loudly pro-American and wants to discuss politics all night, and the whole extended family. We feel honored to be invited to their party while we are so far from home.

Cuba: music, party, art.

This is the only communist country I have visited that really seems to love a party – I don’t know if there is much financial support but there seems to be great artistic support for the arts and musicians (& movies), and you didn’t have to look very hard to find music and dancing. It has become part of our everyday experience in Cuba. The locals are born to dance with snake-hips that no amount of salsa lessons are going to give me, but after a couple of Cuba Libre’s I give it a try anyway.

I am here during the 50th anniversary of the Revolution , which just amplifies the partying – there are government sponsored street parties at night. And I am amazed at how easy it is to indulge my love of art – paintings everywhere, art galleries, street markets. Camaguey and Baracoa have the best, while there was also a huge range of cheap but good street market stuff in Havana.

I am lucky enough to visit the Camaguey home of Ileana Sanchez & Joel Jover, and fall in love with, buy and take home a Joel Jover painting. I also realize that the value of art is very subjective – the price I pay is equivalent to a talented art student’s first exhibition in Sydney, and at least one tenth of the price for a known artist with 20+ years on international exhibitions, but it was still enough to make the bus driver nearly faint from shock.

art, Joel Jover, Ileana Sanchez, Cuba
art, Joel Jover, Ileana Sanchez, Cuba

There is another memorable party we go to, well, gate-crash really. Travelling on a long trip through the mountains to our next city, we stop at the gate of a house where the driver knows we can usually buy some lunch, as there were no shops or roadside cafes on this route (or on most in Cuba). There’s a bigger crowd than just the family here today and they warmly invite us to join them. It is National Honor Teachers Day, and the teachers and their families have gathered at this particular house to celebrate.

On our arrival they quickly wring the neck of one of their turkeys, and then invite us to join them for lunch, a feast that needs to cook for the next 4 hours or so. We sample their local rum, play some dominoes, dance a bit of salsa, and have deep conversations about the importance of great teachers in our lives – although this was somewhat tempered by our very bad spanglish.

We also wander down the farm to visit the beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. Of all the things I associated with Cuba, waterfalls had not been on the list, but I discover there are many throughout the country.

Cuba: more music, dancing and old cars.

I have to admit that most of my pre-conceptions about Cuba are a bit out of date – while I was thinking salsa, the locals are at the nightclub, while I was thinking Buena Vista social club the locals are thinking Latino hip-hop. We quickly learn the various rituals of “clubbing” of any form in Cuba – generally we would start the evening late, and sit through a “show” – it might be cover band of Celine Dion numbers, or Latino boy bands or Buena Vista copy cats, of varying levels of skill. After enduring the show, the dance music comes on and the crowd throw themselves into what they’ve really come for – dancing and partying. We also learn that the best way to order drinks is “a bottle of rum and four cans of cola” and then mix our own for the evening.
I’d heard all about the wonderful old American 50’s cars and they are everywhere, they look amazing, and it is even more amazing how they manage to keep them intact and running for so long without access to spare parts. And it is no surprise to see the old Russian Ladas, although somewhat less attractive. But I am surprised to spot some brand new Audi’s, imported as car rentals for tourists apparently – a sign of change indeed.

old cars, Havana
old cars, Havana

Cuba: change is happening.

Everywhere we go, change is the most common topic of conversation, although probably influenced by our own level of desire to understand it too. Many Cubans are openly talking about how things are changing, whether they think that is a good or bad thing, what they would like to see change or not change. Everyone has different views, and everyone seems to be engaged in a public conversation on this, again more so than I would expect in a communist country.

And it also seems like every visitor has a version of “I wanted to come now before it changes” – me too, even though I know how selfish a view this is. I take heart at the level of public debate on this, hopefully a good sign for the future – I only wish there was this much involvement of the general public in political debate in my country. And I hope that before too long the ridiculous 47 year blockade is finally lifted. What do you think?