Belfast Telegraph

TRAVEL GUIDE: Las Vegas

On Saturday the world will get all shook up for the birthday of Elvis Presley.

Elvis, who would be 76 had he lived, once declared: “Man, I like Vegas!” and after a recent trip there I wholeheartedly agree with the King.

In 1967, Elvis married Priscilla in Las Vegas and between 1969 and 1976, he performed 837 concerts at the Hilton Las Vegas, which has a statue of the star outside its entrance.

Located in the middle of the Nevada desert, Sin City has never forgotten the entertainer and for a real taste of nostalgia the Viva Elvis Cirque show at the brand spanking new Aria Resort & Casino is a must.

Everywhere you look, from a rusted sign in the Neon graveyard that proclaims “Elvis slept here” to the $9.99 gold-rimmed sunglasses and sideburns at the “World's Largest Gift Shop”, Elvis lives on in Vegas. At the Hard Rock Hotel on the Strip, one of Elvis’ '70s jumpsuits, a gold lamé jacket and a guitar are enshrined under glass while at the Hard Rock Café gold records, belts, a smashed guitar and a telegram from Elvis and the Colonel to the Beatles are just some of the Elvis memorabilia on display.

On our trip we called into the world famous Graceland Chapel — the home of the original Elvis wedding that has become a Las Vegas tradition. The chapel got its name from Elvis himself who called in while looking for a wedding venue with Priscilla in 1967. Asked would he mind if they renamed the chapel in his honour, he suggested they call it after his home in Memphis.

At Graceland we met the owner, Brendan Paul Duffy, a totally credible Elvis impersonator who has performed as his idol for tens of thousands of brides and grooms. I stayed in the five-star Aria hotel in the heart of the Strip. Unlike many of the other hotels on the Strip, Aria Resort & Casino's focus isn't entirely on casinos — although it does have a large one in the lobby.

Part of the new CityCenter development, the Aria resort offers a modern and stylish place to stay while you experience the array of entertainment on offer. The rooms are a world of calm away from the busy Strip — although the floor-to-ceiling windows do offer magnificent views of the skyline. On arrival, we were blown away by the technology in our room — the curtains opened automatically, the lights came on (accompanied by music) and a huge flat screen TV displayed a menu of preferences for us to personalise our stay. It was easy to see why regular guests include Michael Jordan and Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, who owns Beso restaurant nearby.

Having been a Vegas virgin I was taken aback when I stepped into the Aria. It is a million miles away from the tacky image that was probably associated with Vegas up until a decade or so ago.

Today you will find some of the best hotels, restaurants and entertainment in the world on the Vegas Strip.

The Strip — the main neon-lit thoroughfare — is home to the world's largest and most extravagant hotels. On a walk along here expect to see a replica of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Statue of Liberty, the pyramids of Egypt and the canals of Venice. Make sure you watch the fountains at the Bellagio hotel at night. As seen in the film, Ocean’s Eleven, this large dancing water fountain synchronised to music shoots water up to 460ft in the air.

On the Strip you can also roll the dice in one of the countless casinos, see a jaw-dropping theatrical show or shop till you drop in vast shopping malls.

In Vegas everything is about the N-th degree in comfort, luxury and outlandishness. I had my N-th degree of relaxation in the Spa at the Aria. When you have excess-ed yourself out make a reservation there as I promise you it will completely recharge the batteries.

However, as tempting as it may sound, we can’t get pampered all day and night so going to one of the spellbinding shows is a must. Keen to jump straight into my Elvis Vegas experience, I went to Cirque du Soleil's Viva Elvis show. This truly is a celebration of Elvis's life and will appeal to even the least enthusiastic Elvis fan.

The show is an explosion of lavish showgirl costumes, neon tasselled jumpsuits and mind-blowing acrobatics.

Viva Elvis features never-before-seen film footage showing the romantic side of Elvis, the army career, his movie years and the flamboyant Vegas years.

By the end of the hour and a half show, I was humming away and tapping my feet. Pop into the decadent Gold Lounge for cocktails before or after the show. It is inspired by Presley's Graceland home and, in homage to Elvis' passion for horses, a life-sized stallion lamp welcomes guests at the door.

Foodwise, Vegas also scores top marks. I was astounded by the quality of food available. Before I went I had imagined lots of ‘pile him high, sell ’em cheap’ buffets.

While they are still available in some places, I experienced some of the best meals I have ever had. It was easy to see how Elvis piled on the pounds during his years here.

Particular culinary highlights for me included lunch at Rick Moonen’s Seafood Restaurant, a huge array of dishes for dinner in Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant at the Bellagio, dinner at Sage in the Aria and tapas in Julian Serrano’s restaurant, also at the Aria.

Vegas is of course associated with casinos and they are everywhere. However there is still plenty to keep you occupied and entertained if you have no interest in them. In fact I actually only spent 30 minutes gambling, pocketing more than $200 from a slot machine!

Shopping is also a big pastime in Vegas. There is a discount outlet mall a short taxi ride away or hundreds of stores on the strip, with many running under the hotels. One of the sightseeing highlights was a trip in a small plane to the 277 mile long Grand Canyon — one of the world’s premier natural attractions. On the flight you will also pass over the historic Hoover Dam.

While the theme of this article may be based around Elvis you can enjoy Vegas totally Elvis-free.There are dozens of shows on offer featuring all kinds of entertainers. While I was there, Cher, Garth Brooks, Donny and Marie Osmond, a Beatles Cirque show and many, many more were all running.

But from my time in Vegas it is clear Elvis hasn’t left the building.

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