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

Top 10 most disappointing travel experiences

To come up with the top 10 best travel list? Thats too hard, there are so many to choose from!

But the top 10 most disappointing, that’s more manageable. I’ve always believed that I can find something to enjoy, to appreciate, anywhere I went. And the vast majority of the time that has been true. But let’s be honest, sometimes, not very often, I am really, really, disappointed.  Maybe it doesn’t measure up to the hype, maybe something else interferes with my enjoyment. So at the risk of generating a bit of an argument, in no particular order, here’s my 10 Most Disappointing from 28 years of travel:

  1. Venezuelan beaches. The beaches along the Venezuelan coastline are beautiful, but are ruined by the locals. In short, the beaches are junk yards, with litter throughout the sand and the water. It’s particularly bad if it’s a weekend and the beach is within a daytrip from Caracas. Playa Colorada looks beautiful, but the sand was full of glass, bottle tops, cigarette butts and other litter, and many of the families visiting the beach disposed of their litter each day by throwing it into the sea.

    Playa Colorada, Venezuela, hiding a lot of litter
    Playa Colorada, Venezuela, hiding a lot of litter
  2. Taj Mahal. I have never met anyone else that didn’t love the Taj Mahal so I know I am out on my own on this one. But I can’t help it, when I visited the Taj Mahal I thought “great, looks just like the post card”, then I thought “I should take a photo” , and then I was bored. All those lovely large alcoves are empty,  it’s a big hollow tomb and has no atmosphere. However I loved Agra and I spent hours enjoying the Red Fort, and found the distant view of the Taj Mahal from the Red Fort the most interesting way to see the Taj Mahal.
  3. Alcatraz. Reputedly the most visited attraction in San Francisco, and I cannot understand why? The boat trip to the island and back is very enjoyable and provides a great view of either the bridge or the fog, depending on weather. Maybe if I had grown up with the history, with Alcatraz stories, it would’ve seemed more atmospheric. But it’s some old, not really ruined, buildings on a rock, that was once a jail. And Hollywood made some movies about it. I even did the night tour to try and amp up the atmosphere, but it still felt like a school trip to a not very exciting museum.
  4. Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. It’s sounds good doesn’t it? The harbourfront wharf, the famous clam chowder. Maybe a few decades ago it was like that. Now it  is a plastic theme park of fast food and tacky souveniers. There is so much good food, great shops, interesting neighbourhoods and great views in San Francisco, so avoid this bit and enjoy the rest.

    Alcatraz, more interesting than it looks
    Alcatraz, more interesting than it looks
  5. the Mona Lisa, the Louvre. Mona Lisa’s smile is the most visited (and best known) art work in the world, housed in a massively impressive building. So by the time you search through the vastness of the Louvre and queue for a while, it’s a bit disappointing to discover the painting is so tiny, and for its own protection hidden away behind perspex. Maybe if I could see if alone, instead of from beneath a rugby scrum, I could appreciate it more.
  6. Dallas, Texas. To be fair, I didn’t choose to go to Dallas as a tourist destination – I was sent there on a work trip – for seven weeks. On the first afternoon I had covered the two things worth getting excited about – SouthFork Ranch (preserving the iconic Dallas TV show) and the Grassy Knoll. With hindsight I kind of wish I had done the second one with the “JFK death route” tour company who drive you along the same route that he took, in an open top limo, and they even play a gunshot sound in the car as it passes the appropriate spot. Sick and yet at least not boring. After that afternoon I was done, Dallas beat me down into sheer boredom. I saved my sanity by racing to the airport every weekend and jumping on a Southwest flight to anywhere else!
  7. Salar de Uyuni. This is a very different kind of disappointment. I was really keen to see this, one of the world’s largest salt lakes and at a high altitude of over 4000 metres, with it’s quirky salt hotels and traditional villages and cottage salt businesses. It’s immense and links Bolivia and Chile. We arrived there during floods. The arid salt flats were under water, not just a normal downpour but a real flood.  The owners of the 4×4 tour vehicles that normally take tours around the salt lakes were not running, as they feared their vehicles will stall and break down in the wet. We finally found one guy who took us a few hundred metres into the vast flats and then chickened out and took us back to the town of Uyuni which was also completely flooded. I am absolutely sure that I will go back one day and see Salar de Uyuni and not be disappointed.
  8. Riding camels. If you read my blog about camels in Morocco, you will understand why I find camels disappointing (as well as scary and distinctly dangerous). Suffice to say, do not ride a camel that is in heat, or is being mounted by another camel. Actually just don’t ride camels, end of story.
  9. Riding elephants. Yes, it does seem like a theme is developing here. I love elephants, they are beautiful, fun animals. In Laos I went to one of the many good elephant sanctuaries that are dotted around South East Asia. I fed the elephants, I stroked them, I talked to them. They were in an idyllic riverside setting next to some stunning shallow pools under the tropical jungle foliage.

I thought an elephant ride would be slow and majestic. It turned out more like an out-of-control rollercoaster. I sit on a wooden plank (seat) with another thin plank for a backrest and a tiny dowling rod across the front of me, to keep me in the seat, all tied loosely to the creature’s back. Suddenly we were climbing up near vertical 3 to 4 metre high mud banks and back down near vertical drops of the same scale – all in deep slippery mud, me at a right angle to the banks. And the elephant was sliding everywhere. Gravity was trying to claim me, and most of the time I had my eyes squeezed tightly shut and was hanging on to the dowling rod for dear life. The mahout, who seemed about 10 years old, was finding it very funny. This picture shows the misleadingly pleasant part of the ride.

The deceptively calm part of the elephant ride, Laos

10. Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Firstly, it is a fake. The “balcony” is an ugly recent addition to the outside of a house, to con tourists out of their money. The queue to get in is like standing in a particularly crowded and dirty subway. Most of the courtyard is a shop selling a variety of red synthetic plush love hearts to separate romantics from their cash. Again, Verona is a beautiful town with much atmosphere, much to see and do, and this little bit of fakery is not a good example of that.

Is there somewhere you’ve been that didn’t live up to your expectations? Anywhere you’d recommend against going as you found it disappointing?

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.