Key Points:

We're staying at Heartbreak Hotel, the Elvis Presley Enterprises hotel on a site in Memphis across Elvis Presley Blvd from Graceland.

The little lane that runs down to Heartbreak Hotel is called, I am not kidding, Lonely St. If you want directions you just sing the song.

Heartbreak Hotel is a pleasant surprise. We agree that the designer was a fan of the young, cool Elvis, not the cheesy Vegas jumpsuit Elvis. The only decorations in the two-roomed suites are classic black-and-white framed photographs of Elvis on the wall.

The multi-channel television has one hotel-only channel that plays nothing but Elvis movies, and about the only disappointment is that you can't get deep-fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches on room service.

There's no compendium of hotel services, and the hotel's name is not embossed on anything.

"The guests kept stealing thangs. Every darn thang that had Heartbreak Hotel on it, they took. Ah swear we would have lost a bathtub if that had the name on it," says the receptionist.

Next day it's Graceland time. Having paid the US$55 fee ($82), we get on a small bus and sweep up a short drive, past the wrought iron gates with the outline of a young, gyrating Elvis welded in them, to the columned front door.

This is a spot we've seen all our lives. Now we're standing there, at the steps of Graceland, on a balmy spring morning, trying to work out how we got lucky enough to be right where in 1958 Elvis and his parents threw snowballs for a home movie, where in 1961 Elvis posed with his Rolls Royce, and where in 1977 they brought out to a white hearse the massive copper casket holding Elvis' 42-year-old body.

Elvis fans from childhood, we prepared to visit the epicentre of the Elvis universe, our emotional overload well into the red zone.

Graceland was the second house Elvis bought for his family. They left the first, at Audubon Drive in a suburban development in Memphis, largely because it wasn't private enough.

Sometimes they would look up from their dining room table and a dozen or so teenage girls would be gazing adoringly through the window.

Elvis bid for Graceland (named for the daughter of the original owner) in March, 1957, and his offer of US$102,500 easily trumped the US$35,000 the Memphis YMCA offered for it.

One of the first things he did was to fence the property with Alabama fieldstone. The fence is cleaned every couple of months so fans can add their signatures.

Graceland, open to the public since 1992, polarises people. Is it high camp or a place of worship? Tacky or tasteful? Overblown or impressive?

We all agreed: people who sneer at it for being tawdry were ready to sneer before they'd even been there.

For a start, at 23 rooms it's not considered a mansion, and it doesn't feel like a mansion either. Its rooms are big, but not massive.

The first two rooms you find, the dining room to the left and a living room to the right, are heavy on blue velvet drapes, and faux antique decorations, but not ridiculously garish in the context of 1977 home design.

And there's the rub. Graceland is locked into the year that Elvis died. If some of it - like the purple and yellow television room - looks dated, that's because it is. No changes in style and fashion over the past 30 years have been made.

In the television room are three 25-inch TV sets, which, at the media-innocent time Elvis bought them, was enough to have all the national channels covered.

It was an earlier TV set, according to Marty Lacker of the Memphis Mafia, that Elvis shot with a handgun.

"Crooner Robert Goulet, who tried to steal one of Elvis' early girlfriends, was singing. He just put down his breakfast, drew a gun, blew the TV out, and said, 'That'll be enough of that shit'."

When people want to have a dig at Elvis they cite the Jungle Room, but the room itself proves to be so amazingly over the top it actually has a surreal charm.

If the chairs with carved animal heads on the arms don't catch the eye, then the mirrors framed with pheasant feathers, or the ceramic tigers, or the miniature running waterfall, or the fur-covered lampshades, or the green-shag carpet that covers the floor and the ceiling, probably will.

Proof that Elvis was a hick with taste that would make a hayseed gag? Possibly not.

After his mother died in 1958 Elvis was the effective head of the Presley family, and went out of his way to do the opposite of anything his father, Vernon, might suggest. Vernon returned from a visit downtown horrified by the ugliness of a new shipment of Witco furniture he had just seen.

In the 1960s in the US, Witco was a company that sold Tiki-decorated rough-carved wood furniture to homes, Polynesian-themed bars, and the Playboy Mansion. Elvis casually asked at which store Vernon had seen the chunky monstrosities.

Within a week a truck arrived at Graceland, closely followed by tradesmen. The Jungle Room was born, to the everlasting disgust of Vernon and delight of Elvis.

If the Jungle Room goes past kitsch into some whole new world of weirdness so bizarre it's funny, the hall of gold that houses his gold records, and dozens of other awards, staggers the senses with its sheer volume.

The 12m-long area, once used by Elvis and his Memphis Mafia buddies to play with slotcars, was converted into a trophy room during his lifetime.

Astounding sales have continued after his death, and it is constantly being packed with new awards - 131 gold records in the US alone.

You do not see upstairs in the main part of the house. It was in the bathroom that, after playing on the racquetball court until five o'clock on the morning of August 16, 1977, Presley tumbled unconscious from the toilet.

The racquetball court, built in 1975, is part of the tour, but is now used as an exhibition space for the 1972-77 period of Elvis' career, an era dominated by live shows in Vegas, and dozens of jump suits that shout bling.

Three horses still roam the field behind the house, and living there is pretty good for them. They have a barn for shelter in the Memphis winter, and a horse-sized shower.

"Ah tell ya," says our guide, "Ah wouldn't mind leadin' the life those ol' horses do."

Our last visit in Graceland is to the graves. Lined up beside the swimming pool are the grave markers of, in order, Elvis' grandmother Minnie Presley, Elvis, his father Vernon, and his mother Gladys.

Given the bond that he shared with his mother, you get the feeling that in death, Vernon, the last of the four to die, may have got his revenge for the Jungle Room, when he was buried between Elvis and Gladys.

* This is an extract from Cadillac Dreams: Baby Booming Across Southern America (Willson Scott, $39.95) by Phil Gifford which tells the story of four Kiwis (Gifford, his wife Jan, and friends Darryl and Lenore Potier) living the dream of a lifetime, a musical journey across the southern states.