Las Vegas: Wed while-you-wait

Should she? Shouldn't she? Sarah Barrell is teetering on the brink of wedlock, and she's in Las Vegas, the pop-up capital of the quickie marriage. But what to do, and where to do it?
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The Independent Travel

We were in The Doghouse when he popped the question. On bended knee, he made a game job of it, shouting above the clamorous hip-hop playing in the cool-for-canines Soho bar. That was more than six years ago and we never did progress to the ring/invitation/fall-out-with-your-family stage. The asking was, somehow, enough. That was until we reached Vegas.

We were in The Doghouse when he popped the question. On bended knee, he made a game job of it, shouting above the clamorous hip-hop playing in the cool-for-canines Soho bar. That was more than six years ago and we never did progress to the ring/invitation/fall-out-with-your-family stage. The asking was, somehow, enough. That was until we reached Vegas.

When gambling was legalised in Nevada in 1931, the state also adopted liberal laws for marriage and divorce. This candid bid to capitalise on couples previously put off tying the knot by the prevalent American prerequisites of blood tests, long waiting periods for licences and interfering in-laws, paid off. Seven decades later, some 100,000-plus lovers annually come to this pop-up city in the desert to speedily plight their troth. Around $3.5m is spent on marriage licences alone and a bride-boggling number of specialist services have sprung-up. No sooner had we turned off Highway 15 and on to The Strip than we were confronted with a rolling billboard announcing: "Wedding Dreams of Las Vegas CALL TOLL FREE (888) 293-365 to book your wedding and you could WIN your wedding rings!"

Along with casinos, a staggering proportion of the city's hotels have in-house wedding chapels, and the one-arm-bandit alacrity of the Vegas wedding is impossible to avoid. Beyond the hotel compounds the pre-wrapped and ready-to-go temptation increases. The Speedway to Love Wedding Chapel, The Double Happiness Wedding Chapel - as with all the best American services, you don't realise you want it until you've already put your money in the slot. But like true, reticent Brits (well, one Canadian and a Brit) we cautiously settled for a little wedding window-shopping.

First stop, the Clark County Marriage License Bureau. We waded through the foyer of our hotel - a glittering neon jungle. Outside, The Strip wobbled in the heat haze. The office, resembling a police station with security doors and a gated front desk, is open 8am-midnight, Monday to Thursday, and 24 hours on Friday and Saturday, and there is still a queue. I fill in a form, submitting about as many details as if I was about to join a library, and wait.

Half an hour and $35 later we were in possession of a wedding licence, just in case the mood took us. A convenient hop across the street is the Commissioner of Civil Marriages, where, for another $35, a justice of the peace will unite you in holy matrimony. We stood behind a couple from Kali in Mexico who looked bored and nervous in equal parts. They had obtained the licence in Vegas exactly a year ago andhad until the end of the day until the licence expired. The sign on the heavy double-door before them read: "Ceremony in Progress, please sign the log-in and wait". We looked at one another, wished the couple well and headed back to the car. A no-frills ceremony in this city? Somehow, it didn't seem in the sequinned spirit of things. Neither of us have ever had a particular love of Elvis, but a man in a gold lamé suit masquerading as The King? Well, it couldn't be closer to the kitsch-me-quick heart of things, so we headed back south along The Strip, turned down Elvis Drive into Priscilla Place, and arrived at Graceland.

The 50-year-old Graceland chapel, with its tiny humpback bridge, white-picket fence and stained-glass windows, is quiet. Elvis had "gone to lunch", so we gazed at pictures of The King marrying a portly-looking Jon Bon Jovi and wondered if bouquet rental was cheap at $10 per half-hour. Like many of the city's wedding chapels, Graceland is located near the Vegas courthouse and is surrounded by bail-bond shops. I idly considered how appropriate "Jailhouse Rock" would be in place of the Wedding March.

It was a different story at the Candlelight Chapel. Located back towards the centre of town, Candlelight is the city's busiest place to get hitched and although this peeling clapboard building doesn't have the intimacy or "style" of Graceland, there were nonetheless several couples waiting their turn outside. A yellowing fleet of the chapel's own limos (their tail-plates read Candlelight 1-7) rolled in and out past the neighbouring pawnshop that sells (and therefore buys presumably) wedding gifts and rings.

One thing people never tell you about Las Vegas is how shocking it is. And I don't mean shocking in a kitsch-and-crazy kind of way - I mean literally shocking. Static electricity builds up in the human body, or at least it did in mine, as it switches repeatedly back and forth from hot temperatures (outside in the desert) to cold (inside in the Arctic-American air-con). Add this to nylon carpets and several million electrically powered slot machines and you are guaranteed shocks of a voltage that you'd normally have to be certified to experience. It certainly didn't do my romantic life any favours as every time I planted a kiss on my partner's lips we received a punitive pulse of electricity. The phrase "you may now kiss the bride" began to take on a nightmarish quality.

Feeling a little fatigued, we hit the southern-most end of The Strip and near the "Welcome to Vegas" sign found The Little Church of the West. This Waltons-style church is a miniaturised version of those to be found in an Old West mining town.

The bridegroom waiting to go in ahead of us was dressed in army uniform. An army base is located just over four miles away and the chapel has gained a lot of business from young GIs wanting to get married before going to war. This one, his frowning bride told me, was off to Colombia tomorrow. Aside from the ongoing electric shock problem, we were tempted, but we still had one more church to see.

If you have ever seen a chapel featured in a film or travel show then you can bet your bouquet that it's a Little White Chapel. The founder, Charlotte Richards, is the pioneer of the drive-in wedding (you say your vows through a cherub-painted hatch) and a self-publicist par excellence. Her publicity information includes such statements as: "God has given me this special ministry to marry these people." This pastel shrine to the "gift of marriage" has seen the nuptials of celebs like Sinatra and Joan Collins. It was most recently featured in the episode of Friends where Monica and Chandler don't, but Ross and Rachel do. Where other chapels offer rented gowns, a Little White Chapel has a beauty parlour and personal dresser; where others offer wedding photos, here you get Wedding Cam, to webcast your vows to folks back home.

Charlotte has even topped the fashion for helicopter weddings with alternative balloon flights over The Strip. But one better still has to be the increasing trend for heli-weddings over the Grand Canyon.

This turned out to be one of the most romantic hour-and-a-halves I'd ever experienced. We still didn't quite manage an "I do", but the sight of another couple taking their vows were vicarious pleasure enough. And, if we change our minds, there's always Gretna Green.

Virgin (01293 747747, www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies twice a week to Las Vegas from London Gatwick from £398 return. The chapels: Clark County Marriage License Bureau (001 702 455 4415), Graceland Wedding Chapel (001 702 474 6655, Candlelight Wedding Chapel (001 702 735 4179), The Little Church of the West (001 702 739 7971), Little White Chapel (001 702 382 5943), Helicopter Weddings with Heli USA (001 702 736 8787, www.heliusa.net).

Further information from Las Vegas and Nevada Tourism (08705 238832, www.travelnevada.com)

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