I do - anywhere but Las Vegas

They thought it would be a fun place to tie the knot, but when Howard Byrom and his fiancee got there, it didn't seem such a great idea after all

MY GIRLFRIEND Sonja and I recently paid a visit to my grandmother. She asked us why we hadn't yet tied the knot. After all, she had just lost her fifth husband, and still had a stream of ardent if not hardened admirers in her retirement home. For us Gen-Xers, marriage was something to avoid, rather like a TV licence. But when you realise that an 89- year-old woman is living life more recklessly than you are, it's time for action. I immediately booked tickets for LA.

Our plan was simple enough: elope to the desert and get hitched bathed by the light of a billion light bulbs. If the capital of tongue-in-cheek chic was good enough for Errol Flynn, Paul Newman, Joan Collins and Noel Gallagher, it was certainly kitsch enough for us.

After picking our way across the dusty tip of Nevada, we left Interstate 15 and cruised along Las Vegas Boulevard towards "The Strip". Out of the total of 100,000 hotel rooms in Vegas, 20 per cent are in the first five hotels at the south end of the Boulevard. It is like a drive-through Disneyland - only more so.

We passed The Luxor, a life-sized pyramid identical in every way to the real thing, but for a glassy patina and strobing lasers. With its own 20-storey Sphinx, it's a palace fit for a modern King Tut - of the gangsta-rapper variety. Next door is Excalibur, a camped-up high-rise Camelot, and opposite, "the world's largest hotel", MGM Grand. Built in the image of their lion logo, with a staggering 5,000 rooms, it is corporate imaging run riot. But the very last word in themes has to be New York- New York. This Little Apple has a 150ft replica of the Statue of Liberty, a 1:3 scale Empire State Building, and a rollercoaster ride weaving between the ersatz skyscrapers. The only thing missing is muggers. But then that's why they built the casino.

Ever since the infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel opened "the fabulous Flamingo" in 1947, it seems the only building regulations Vegas insists on are outrageous or flamboyant - preferably both. Billions are spent on these new "resorts" and every whim is indulged to reel in the crowds. Vegas may have learned to cater for kids, but since we weren't planning a family just yet, we went in search of the old school.

It wasn't long before we found Sinatra crooning besides a nine-acre lake at the Bellagio. Ol' Blue Eyes may have shrugged of his mortal coil back in the real world, but in Vegas his voice lives on, booming out of a PA and accompanied by a display of dancing fountains so baroque it would make Liberace blush. Next stop was the Stardust, where Scorsese's Casino was shot. We hoped a little sparkle might rub off. De Niro and Stone were long gone, and so was the glitz. Any speculating big shots played far from the gaze of cheapskates like us, so we made do with the slot machines.

Once the domain of the high-rollers' wives, these days the slots are where Vegas makes much of its profit. Ranging from five to 25 cents, the stakes are low, and quite frankly, so are the chances of winning. All the same, it is engaging to watch the punters' expressions. With one eye on the reels and one on the progressively spiralling jackpot, they feed the machines from buckets of coins. The first thing that strikes you is the cacophony as 1,000 machines belt out a discordant symphony. Closely followed by the futility - my quarters vanished in seconds.

It was well after midnight when we checked into El Cortez, the oldest casino hotel in town. After the drive from LA, our night was finished. My fiancee and I retired to peruse the Yellow Pages selection of wedding chapels. After 14 pages of possibilities, it was a toss-up between getting spliced 700 feet up in the Stratosphere chapel, the 24-hour drive-thru wedding window at the Little White chapel, or exchanging our vows in peace and harmony at Alternative Lifestyle Commitments. Since the in-laws wouldn't be there fighting in the isles, we agreed to pay Elvis and Marilyn lookalikes to squabble in style.

When morning came, people were already hitting the tables - some had been there all night. One desperado, dressed in dusty dark shirt, black waistcoat and matching Stetson, looked like he'd been playing since Wyatt Earp's days. Judging by the mournful look on his face, he still hadn't won. We walked along Fremont Street past the famous Golden Nugget, Binion's Horseshoe and Four Queens before stopping off at the Golden Gate Diner - "home of the shrimp cocktail".

After ordering breakfast we wondered whether the waitress could settle our dilemma and recommend a place to get married. She was world-weary with a hard-boiled edge - best not, we resolved, it might bring back bad memories.

Life deals a tough hand in Vegas, where only the dollar is sacred, and nothing stays for long if it isn't paying its way, as we found out when we toured the souvenir shops. When old casinos exceed their sell-by date they simply fill them up with dynamite, light the fuse, and sell the video for $9.99 (about pounds 6). It happened to the Landmark, Dunes, and even the stylish Sands, "Hom e of the Rat Pack". We decided to visit the Tropicana before it too got blown up. The Time Out guide informed us that this was a shrine to Polynesian Tiki tackiness. Great. We parked up, economy style - without the aid of a valet - and walked through to the bar. We ordered a couple of badly mixed cocktails from a German barman and too k in the view. After the dusty expanses of Nevada it was something to behold - waterfalls spilled into palm-fringed pools and flamingos languished on sun decks. I was surprised at how far the casino went in its quest for authenticity, especially when a c ockroach the size of a mouse marched confidently along the bar's foot-rail. We returned to El Cortez for their famous $6.99 prime rib dinner. Little has changed since it was built in 1941 - I could still smell the smoke from George Burns's first cigar. Inside Roberta's Restaurant, the hostess, a 50-year-old in a skin-tight crims on dress, her neckline plunging to her nipples, offered us some menus with a big smile. The maitre d' showed us to our table, and I had to double-take to check if it really was John Waters. It got worse. Our waitress, in a miniskirt and long blonde wig, gave me the biggest fright since Don't Look Back. I did look back, and there stood a woman who was 70 if she was a day. Looking around, I realised that at some point we had crossed some sort of invisible boundary; families of lardy Mid-Westerners and a solitary unkempt woman poured coins into a Megabucks machine. "We Produce Winners" the logo happily declared. I begged to differ. Pathos had replaced the tackiness, and however uncharitable this may sound, the place was filled with losers. But, of course it is the casinos' business to convince them otherwise or else they would all go to Florida. In the space of 24 hours, V egas had transformed from a wonderland of gaudy vulgarity into a twilight world of malignant verite. I felt like a walk-on part in a David Lynch movie. Later, at the Peppermill Bar on the Strip, we met a guy named Bill, from California. He put the whole place into perspective. "Dude, Vegas is haunted," he said, underscoring every word with slow karate chops. "This city is so full of rotten luck that eve n if all the four-leaf clovers in the whole world were brought here, it wouldn't change the vibe." I bought him a beer, and we left. The next morning, we decided to cut our losses. So we checked out and headed for the comparative normality of Los Angeles. Just like in Nicolas Cage's Oscar-winning performance, Vegas may be a great place to die, but it's no place to get married in.

FACT FILE

las vegas

Getting there

Howard Byrom and Sonja Campbell flew with Continental Airlines (tel: 01293 776464) direct to Los Angeles. Return flights cost from pounds 254, plus taxes. Car hire with Alamo (tel: 0870 600 0008) costs pounds 183 per week including taxes, CDW and insurance.

Getting married

Legal requirements for a marriage licence are the same for US and non- US citizens. All you need is $35 cash and one form of ID for both parties - such as a passport. The licence can be obtained from the Marriage License Bureau at first floor, 200 S Third Street (tel: 702 455 3165). Office hours are 8am to midnight Monday to Thursday, and 24 hours Friday to Sunday. No appointment is necessary and the process shouldn't take more than 10 minutes. From there it is a one-block stroll to the Commissioner of Civil Marriages at 309 S Third Street (same hours as above) for an instant $35 civil ceremony. Or you can head for a wedding chapel, of which there are more than 50. A basic 10-minute wedding will cost upwards of $125. Try the chapels listed here, or consult the Yellow Pages for the full selection: Graceland Wedding Chapel, 619 Las Vegas Boulevard South (tel: 001 800 821 2452); Little White Wedding Chapel, 1301 Las Vegas Boulevard South (tel: 001 800 545 8111); Divine Madness Fantasy Wedding Chapel, 111 Las Vegas Boulevard South (tel: 001 800 717 4734).

Where to stay

Most of the hotels in Vegas offer exceptional discounts on rooms from Sunday to Thursday. A double room with en suite bath at El Cortez costs $33 per night (tel: 001 702 385 5200).

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