Our road trip through the south-west US desert ended where it had began, Las Vegas. Only this time we were staying in Fremont Street: the scruffier, sleazier and gaudier end of town. This was the original Las Vegas Strip, back when it was more for gamblers and gangsters than the rich and famous. Today, Fremont Street is an explosion of neon lights and noise, where we sipped glowing frozen cocktails while watching an Elvis tribute act.
The road from Zion National Park took us through more spectacular landscapes, different again to everything else we’d seen before. When hunger struck we stopped at a McDonalds in Overton for a couple of cheap burgers and giant shakes.
The weather was so hot that we decided to put the Mustang’s roof down for one final blast. We sped along the wide-open roads of Lake Mead National Recreation Area – an intentional scenic detour – with the wind in our hair and Modest Mouse playing at full volume. The road was almost entirely empty and the landscape beautiful, at points boasting red knobbly rocks like and including those of the Valley of Fire.
Fabulous Las Vegas
Approaching Vegas, we set the Sat Nav for the ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign. Handily the sign has its own car park, which makes it easy to park there and take a photo. There was a long line of people waiting to get their photo taken underneath it when we arrived, which we avoided by taking photos from the side instead (which we thought looked better anyway!).
After saying our goodbyes to the Mustang at the car rental centre, we got a taxi to our final hotel: the Golden Nugget. This Fremont Street stalwart contains some interesting sights, including a glamorous pool backed by an aquarium and the hotel’s name-sake, the largest golden nugget in the world (sat on a velvet cushion behind glass). But we didn’t hang around inside for long – we were too excited to get out and explore the famous Fremont Street for ourselves.
Underneath the giant curved screen covering the full length of the Fremont Street Experience, it didn’t feel like we were outside at all. On every side, a mad mash of flashing neon signs, video screens, market stalls, on-street bars, blaring music and street performers – including cartoon characters, Chippendales, contortionists, balloon artists and a deluge of scantily-dressed women – competed for our attention. The closest comparison we could make was to “London’s Southbank on LSD”.
Fire and hotdogs
Steve had been looking forward to riding the Slotzilla Zoomline, but unfortunately all the viable slots had been booked up. So instead we went to explore Fremont Street East, where Las Vegas really began. This section of the street is uncovered and less glitzy, but evidently more ‘hip’. Its stand-out feature was a towering metal sculpture of a praying mantis with fire burning at the ends of its antennae, which we stood directly beneath in order to take photos.
Out of nowhere, there was a giant explosion beside us and our senses were flooded with noise, light and heat. I screamed and ducked for cover, my first thought being that it must be a bomb. A second later I realised that it had just been fire bursting out of the giant bug’s antennae, and that a large crowd of people were laughing at us! Sheepishly laughing at ourselves, we joined the crowd to watch as the fire jets were let off in time to the music.
Behind the mantis was the entrance to a funky, fairy-lit courtyard of shops and casual eateries that could have been teleported straight from London’s Shoreditch. We enjoyed a pair of juicy gourmet hot dogs, one topped with the smallest fried egg I’ve ever seen, at a cool café called Cheffinis.
Cocktails and Elvis
Returning to the Fremont Street Experience, we bought a couple of lurid frozen cocktails in ridiculously large cups and sipped them as we strolled, drinking in the madness. We passed a woman cavorting on a rope, stopped to watch an Elvis tribute act and cheered for some people taking part in an impossible-seeming basketball challenge. At one point we saw a fire truck that was so glitzy we could barely believe it was real.
After hours of wandering and ogling the street’s crazy sights, we returned to the Golden Nugget for a final flutter. Steve put $5 into a slot machine and immediately won $40, which we didn’t waste any time cashing in! We stopped to watch a band performing in a bar for a while, then went to bed after being told we had to order a (very expensive) drink in order to stay there.
The Neon Museum
We actually visited the Neon Museum while staying on the Strip, but it’s easier to visit from Fremont Street which is why I’m including it here. It’s located north of the Fremont Street Experience up Las Vegas Boulevard, which isn’t the nicest of streets, so probably better to go by car or taxi if you can.
The Neon Museum would be better described as a neon graveyard. Besides the small reception and gift shop, it’s simply a large outdoor yard filled with dead neon signs, paint peeling and light bulbs cracked, some of them huge. The more dilapidated they looked – bent, faded and rusty – the more interesting they were.
It was fortunate that we’d booked tickets in advance, as when we arrived all the days’ tours were fully booked. Our young tour guide was brilliant, taking us to individual signs in turn to tell us about their interesting past lives. Particularly unusual signs included a man with a mullet playing golf, a hollow skull and a giant duckling. At the end of the tour a light drizzle began to fall and we gladly accepted the museum staff’s offer to call us a taxi.
My flight back home on our final day was at 5.10pm, providing a few more valuable hours in Vegas. We grabbed a quick breakfast from the Golden Nugget’s Starbucks to eat while we packed, then checked out and left our luggage at the hotel. There were a few more things we wanted to see on the Strip before we left. First we caught the bus to Paris, and found it similar but inferior to the Venetian.
At the Walgreens near Harrahs we bought some American candy to take home, before going to check out Carlos’ Bake Shop, owned by Buddy Valastro of ‘Cake Boss’ fame. Unfortunately, both the bake shop and the restaurant were expensive so we had lunch at the neighbouring Rockhouse bar instead. We shared a plate of boneless buffalo wings and deep-fried pickles, which, although they took far too long to arrive, were completely delicious.
Despite getting back to the Golden Nugget in good time to collect our luggage and catch the shuttle bus to the airport, we ended up having to get a last-minute Uber when the promised shuttle failed to arrive.
So we left Vegas in just as much disarray as we arrived. Thankfully, everything in between had been perfect and it’s those parts – cruising down Route 66, descending into the Grand Canyon, watching the sun set over Horseshoe Bend, navigating Bryce‘s hoodoos and scaling the mountains of Zion – that I’ll remember forever.