Along with half of California, Shandelle Battersby hits the road for Sin City
The problem with booking a trip ages in advance is that sometimes you don't realise what day of the week you'll be somewhere. Sometimes this can work in your favour; other times it can be a pain in the butt. And so it was we found ourselves in Friday afternoon traffic crawling along the freeway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas along with half of California heading to Sin City for the weekend. On the plus side, we were going to Las Vegas with half of California for the weekend. Let the good times roll!
We were super-excited. We'd picked up our home for the next 10 days at Jucy HQ in South LA: a custom-built, brand-new bright green and purple Dodge Chrysler mini RV called a Jucy Champ. She came with two double beds — one a converted sofa inside, the other in a nifty pop-top "penthouse" roof attachment — and a full kitchen in the boot. I mean, the trunk. We got a quick run-down and a few simple road rules and we were off.
The van proved incredibly easy to drive and everything was shiny and high-tech — the side sliding doors and the trunk were button-activated, charging stations were all over the place, and we even had a small fridge. Roof solar panels help keep the DC battery going when the van is parked, but it charges when you're driving too, so there's little chance you'll run out of juice.
There's a bunch of stuff you can rent for your trip, from camping chairs and tables, to bedding kits, cooking equipment and even a solar shower, so there was no need for us to stop in at Walmart to stock up on gear.
The Champ attracted a lot of attention from the moment we pulled out into the LA traffic — with those colours, Jucy vehicles are hard to miss, especially against the endless browns of the American desert.
This was something that was to come in handy finding her in parking lots down the track. And more than once we opened her up for curious people to have a look inside.
It's surprising how quickly the desert is upon you as you leave the sprawling outskirts of Los Angeles; after a couple of hours even the huge roadside billboards on giant poles and dodgy motels stop and the city finally gives way to an endless expanse of brown dirt, scrubby bush, the odd cactus, and long straight roads.
We chugged slowly on down the freeway, stopping and starting as we battled the traffic, passing enormous RVs — glad for our nimble size — and huge rigs. Corpses of hundreds of tyres littered the roadside. What was supposed to take four hours ended up being more than six.
There were no real towns for miles and miles, only the odd collection of derelict abandoned buildings.
Finally, not far from a sign pointing to a place called ZZyzx (pronounced "Ziziks") we took an exit ramp to Baker, 90 minutes out of Vegas on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Stepping out of the air-conditioning for our first taste of the heat nearly knocked us flat. A super-sized thermometer read 113F, about 45C. It was like standing in a full-body blast of air from a hairdryer.
Back on the road, signs warned motorists about overheating their cars; at least a dozen were pulled off to the side with the lids up. How I pitied those poor devils in that baking heat.
We crossed the border into Nevada at a town called Primm, which straddles the two states and which is nothing like its namesake. A sort of mini-Vegas, people stop here for a gambling fix at one of its three casinos either before they get to Sin City, or before they return to California. Or both.
We rolled into Vegas at about 7pm through a mass of intersecting roads and past celebrity-named streets: Frank Sinatra Drive, Elvis Presley St, Jimmy Durante Blvd. For a first-timer, the Las Vegas Strip, only about 6.5km long, is like being in a movie set. Everything is so familiar but still so strange, and all the landmarks — the "Eiffel Tower", "New York", "Caesars Palace" — are much larger than you'd think. It wasn't as hot as Baker but the heat was more oppressive. Drinking anything but gallons of water was immediately unappealing; not so for the hundreds of people wandering around toting the huge souvenir cups filled with the sugary cocktails for which the Strip is famous.
Parking the Champ at our hotel, Treasure Island, proved easy too, with a special floor of its self-parking garage set aside for taller vehicles. We'd chosen the hotel for its pirate-ship show and general piratey carry-on but were a bit disappointed to find it rebranded as TI, with the pirate theme taking a back seat. There was plenty of other entertainment though — the pool had a Zac Efron-esque kind of Spring Break vibe with lots of loud techno and plenty of posing; and the casino downstairs was pure theatre, in a depressing sort of way.
Walking around the Strip is hard work. It's unbearably hot and the casino hotels and shopping malls suck you in with air-conditioning and endless staircases and entrances. People bellow at you and thrust stacks of business cards in your face advertising the services of strippers and escorts. Some of the malls have fake daylight ceilings and there are no clocks. It's brilliant and makes for great people-watching, but as well as decadence and party time, Vegas reeks of desperation and greed.
In the morning we headed for Old Vegas, the Downtown area where it all began back in the 1930s when Nevada became the first state to legalise gambling. To this day, it is only one of two states in which casino-style gambling is legal throughout — the other is Louisiana.
A must-see in Old Vegas is the outdoor Neon Museum, which has the world's largest collection of neon signs, all vintage. An hour-long guided tour (US$18) covers the area's history and tells the stories of some of the most iconic signs, including the Golden Nugget (the first venue to use them), the Moulin Rouge (the first racially integrated casino), Binion's Horseshoe and the Stardust. Later, you can do a self-guided walk of the museum-restored signs that have been returned to Downtown, including the Lucky Cuss Motel and the Hacienda Horse and Rider.
What I would not recommend is attending a session of hot yoga outdoors at the museum, one of its attractions, from June to September when the average temperatures sit from 35C-38C.
As we headed out of town, I decided two nights in Vegas is the right amount of time to see what the fuss is about, then get out while the going is still good.
1. If you want to eat real food, go to the Downtown area around Fremont St. Here you'll find smaller, independent restaurants, such as great Mexican spot El Sombrero.
2. Buy water in bulk from Walmart or a supermarket — in Vegas a small bottle will cost you at least US$3 ($4.20) from a shop or cafe and you'll be so desperate you'll buy 30 of them.
3. If you go to the Neon Museum — and you really should — go as early or as late as possible to escape the worst heat of the day, and take plenty of water. Sun shade umbrellas are provided.
Getting there: American Airlines flies daily between Auckland and Los Angeles.
Details: House of Travel's Jucy Road Trip package starts from $325pp, including five nights' Jucy campervan hire.