A pilgrimage to the home of The King surpasses expectations, writes Tim Roxborogh.

"Choose your favourite Elvis era and music," commands the TV in my room and who am I to disobey a very large Elvis-themed TV? Especially in a very large, very sensational, very new Elvis-themed hotel like The Guest House At Graceland. And when I say "very new", I mean as in just over a month.

With a choice of 50s rock & roll Elvis, 60s movie star Elvis or 70s jumpsuit Elvis, I click on 60s Elvis in the hope the 1968 classic If I Can Dream comes on the rotate. Almost as good, the first notes of Kentucky Rain emerge through the TV speakers and I decide that this hotel and me are going to get along extremely well.

One of the guest suites at The Guest House At Graceland.
One of the guest suites at The Guest House At Graceland.

This is further confirmed with a first peek into the bathroom where a framed picture of a classic Elvis Cadillac overlooks the toilet and where even the shampoo and body-wash are adorned with the King's image.

All of which may mistakenly make you think that Memphis's biggest new hotel (450 rooms) is little more than an exercise in kitsch. Somehow it's not and this isn't by accident. With the demise and ultimate closing of what was intentionally kitsch, the somewhat tired Heartbreak Hotel, the people who run Graceland had a "what would Elvis do?" moment.

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Elvis loved hosting friends and family at Graceland and as our VIP tour of the property would show, he even had immaculate rooms in the mansion especially for his parents.

Apparently Elvis had talked about building a guesthouse on the grounds at Graceland, something he was never able to do. So with the 120-room Heartbreak Hotel no longer large enough to match demand and in need of more than just a slight overhaul, plans were drawn up to create something new.

Elvis Presley's grave at Graceland.
Elvis Presley's grave at Graceland.

This is where it must've become fun because not only did the brief involve honouring Elvis and replicating some of the architectural style and class of Graceland, it also went so far as to recreate some of Graceland's rooms for the top suites. Guided by Priscilla Presley, the finest suites at the Guest House resemble actual rooms from the most famous home in rock & roll, as well as from Elvis's property at Palm Springs in California.

Exploring these suites was almost as good as staying in them. One in particular took the cake, with everything from a giant, snaking couch in the centre of the living room to the textured stone walls like a Tetris game and best of all, an appropriately king-sized bed with a TV on a red curtain-draped ceiling. Wow.

The overriding feeling was a fabulously time-locked 70s opulence. Or in the case of our more modest room, a tasteful, modern luxury. Yes, the theme is Elvis, but a case in point is that the framed photos in all the rooms are of all the things Elvis loved as opposed to photos of the man himself. So alongside our Cadillac we saw pictures of Rhinestone belts, blinged-out sunglasses and close-ups of his famed jumpsuits. Of course the pictures have a sense of fun, as does the whole hotel, but they straddle that line between self-parody and art quite comfortably.

The Guest House At Graceland has a theatre, a ballroom, several restaurants, an Elvis gift shop and a pool where the sun loungers themselves are partially submerged in the water. It could've been easy to not leave the hotel, but there was a certain attraction just a five-minute walk away I'd been waiting most of my life to see.

Tim Roxborogh outside Sun Studio.
Tim Roxborogh outside Sun Studio.

I can still remember the very first time I heard Hound Dog. I was seven years old, obsessed over Bruce Springsteen and Cliff Richard and a work friend of my Mum's thought I'd enjoy the music of Bruce and Cliff's biggest idol too. So one day Mum comes home with a cassette of Elvis's 1950s hits. It blew my little seven year old mind and to this day when I hear it I'm taken back to my childhood bedroom and the tape-deck that I'd saved my pocket money for. The pounding of those drums, the looseness of the handclaps and that voice. I was hooked.

So seeing Graceland - the residence of Elvis Aaron Presley from 1957-1977 - was a big deal. But what was so special was that my girlfriend, a casual Elvis admirer as opposed to long time fan, was just as engrossed as me. The Graceland management requests that travel writers don't reveal all of the property's secrets in order to keep some of the intrigue and surprise for the more than 600,000 annual guests, but let's just say this tour is not a let down. From the multi-screen basement TV room to the lavish living area to the "Jungle Room" as mentioned in Marc Cohn's Walking In Memphis, the confluence of style and eccentricity is awesome.

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Beyond the mansion itself are the displays of the costumes, the movie posters and all those gold discs. For Elvis fanatics it's everything you'd hope for, but more importantly, touring Graceland is full of riches for architecture buffs, anyone interested interior decoration, movie aficionados and those fascinated by 20th century pop culture and history.

Elvis Presley. Photo / Bettmann Archive
Elvis Presley. Photo / Bettmann Archive

Because when it comes to the 20th Century, few figures loom as large in terms of fame and cultural influence as Elvis Presley. Seeing the house he lived in for 20 years is reason enough to make the pilgrimage to Memphis, but this complicated, riveting city of the American south hosts many other treasures too. From late nights of live music on Beale Street to tours of Sun Studio (where Elvis made his first recordings) to seeing Isaac Hayes' 24-karat gold-plated Cadillac at the Stax Museum Of American Soul Music, Memphis is an essential bucket list destination for anyone with music in their bones.

But it's also a place where the hairs on the back of the neck stand as I'm not sure they've ever stood for me before. Seeing the Lorraine Motel - the site of Martin Luther King's 1968 assassination and now preserved as the truly remarkable, heartbreaking, infuriating and profoundly inspirational National Civil Rights Museum - brought tears.

There are more attractive cities in the States, there are safer cities in the States and there are certainly wealthier cities in the States. Though I'm not sure there's any American city that's captured me quite like the place Elvis Presley called home.

The living room at Graceland. Photo / Tim Roxborogh
The living room at Graceland. Photo / Tim Roxborogh

Tim Roxborogh is co-host of Newstalk ZB's The Two - Sunday nights from 8pm-11pm. His music and travel blog is RoxboroghReport.com.