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It is a journey that, depending on the direction in which you are taking it, is fairly short and relatively scenic. A 45-minute, 32-mile drive out of central Glasgow will do it, going south-west along the M77 towards Kilmarnock, with a final blast towards Ayr where the motorway tapers down into the A77. Just before you arrive, you should be able to spot a silvery-grey swell of water where the Firth of Clyde begins to merge with the Irish Sea.
It is a relatively niche journey too – in that, in non-pandemic years, only around 670,000 passengers make it. But then, Prestwick is only the second biggest airport in Scotland’s second city – and only the fifth busiest in Scotland as a whole. Although it has been in operation since 1938, it currently plays host to just one airline Ryanair, which uses it as a hub for flights to Portugal and mainland Spain, and to the Canary and Balearic Islands.
Still, Prestwick is fine with “niche” – because it has a claim to fame that no other airport in Scotland or the UK can match. It is, of course, the only verified place in Britain ever to be visited by Elvis Presley – whose plane touched down upon its tarmac, to refuel, on March 3 1960, as he returned home from two years of military service in West Germany.
The return of the King
Presley is back in the spotlight this week, assuming you think he ever left it – via the cinematic release of Elvis (on Friday, June 24). If the tale is largely familiar, its telling is spectacular, with rising American actor Austin Butler in the title role, Tom Hanks as the singer’s ruthlessly ambitious manager Colonel Tom Parker, and Baz Luhrmann – the director of the likes of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge – behind the camera, bringing a trademark sparkle to a story that was never really lacking in glamour.
Indeed, Presley was the biggest star on the planet when he passed through Ayrshire. He had been two years earlier too, when he bowed to his duty to be conscripted into the armed forces. America would not abolish “the draft” until 1973 – meaning that, come March 1958, the world witnessed a musical ground-breaker donning uniform and having his head shaved as he was inducted into the US Army. His career was already soaring at this point – in the previous two years, he had released his self-titled debut album (which included Blue Suede Shoes, on March 13 1956), made his seismic first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (on September 9 1956), and had hit the big screen in both Love Me Tender (November 1956) and Jailhouse Rock (November 1957). Every lock of his black hair buzzed away felt like a branch being chopped from the fledgling tree of rock ’n’ roll.
It didn’t work out that way. Parker had perceived that two years on the Cold War frontline would realign his charge’s image – sweeping away an older America’s fears that Elvis’s singing and dancing had a corrosive effect on his teenage fans. In its stead would come a broader approval for a young man who did what his country asked of him – while still being able to top the charts. The decision that Presley would enter the army properly – rather than take the easy option of the “Special Services”, and 24 months of performing shows for the troops – was also shrewd. He returned as a hero as well as an icon, even if he was also carrying the reliance on barbiturates which would so damage him in later life.
There was a postscript to the Prestwick story in 2008, when it was claimed that Presley had visited London in 1958 for a secret tour of the city with the UK’s own heart-throb of the era, Tommy Steele. Details remain vague. Steele has declared his regret that the story has emerged – and so busy was Presley’s schedule in that year that it is difficult to gauge when he might have the had chance to hop across Atlantic.
So, for now, if you wish to walk in his shoes on British soil, there is but one option. A small plaque at the airport marks his brief presence; The Elvis Presley Bar will let you raise a glass in his name. It lies beyond security, so you will need to order a chaser – a flight to Faro or Malaga, perhaps – as well.
Elvis on tour
If you can't make it to Prestwick, there are plenty of other places where you can walk in the footsteps of Elvis Presley.
Tennessee’s great city of the Blues will always be the shrine at the end of the Presley pilgrimage trail. It is not just that Elvis is still “here”, buried in the grounds of the Graceland mansion (graceland.com) that was his home between 1957 and his death 20 years later; it is that Memphis was pivotal to his development as an artist. Beale Street, its main drag, is much gaudier and more tourist-centric now than it was in the Fifties, when a teenage Elvis frequented its blues venues, but you can still hear the moan of melancholy guitars at the likes of BB King’s Blues Club (bbkings.com). Then, of course, there is Sun Studio (sunstudio.com), where the then-19-year-old cut his debut single, That’s All Right.
How to do it: Trafalgar (0808 301 1669; trafalgar.com) offers a “Tastes and Sounds of the South” escorted tour that spends two of its 10 days in Memphis en route from Nashville to New Orleans. From £2,755 per person (flights extra). Seven editions are still on offer this year.
Presley spent his first 13 years over the state line in Mississippi – some of it in the two-room “shotgun house” in Tupelo where he was born on January 8 1935. The property is now preserved as a museum (elvispresleybirthplace.com) that includes extra elements of Elvis’s childhood, including the church where he was exposed to gospel music. An appealing bronze statue shows him as a 13-year-old in overalls, heading off to Memphis.
How to do it: The nine-day “Greatest Hits of the South” road trip sold by Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) stops off in Tupelo. From £1,995 per person (including flights).
The final decade of Presley’s career had Nevada’s glitziest city as its backdrop. It was a time of white jumpsuits and terminal decline, yet it also witnessed a vastly popular return to the stage after a seven-year hiatus. Between 1969 and 1976, he performed 636 shows at the International Hotel – a colossal property that was once the world’s largest hotel, near the north end of The Strip. It has been through various re-brands in the decades since – it currently operates as the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino (westgateresorts.com) – but it maintains its close connection to its most famous alumnus. The “King of Las Vegas” festival it has scheduled for July 8-10 is just its latest celebration of Elvis’s music.
How to do it: A seven-night (room-only) escape to the resort, flying from Heathrow on July 5, costs from £1,156 per person, through On The Beach (0161 509 3700; onthebeach.co.uk).
Presley’s spell in the army was a period of relative comfort and light duties. He was dispatched to Friedberg, a small city in the Hesse region, 15 miles north of Frankfurt, but largely lived in the nearby spa towns of Bad Homburg and Bad Nauheim. The Hilberts Parkhotel in the former, where he spent five nights (October 6-11) in 1958, was knocked down in 1989. The Hotel Villa Grunewald in the latter – where he enjoyed a lengthy stay before moving to a private house at 14 Goethestrasse - still exists (hotel-villa-grunewald.de), and has preserved the room where its hip-swivelling ex-guest once slept.
How to do it: A three-night stay in the hotel’s “Elvis Room”, flying from Heathrow to Frankfurt on August 18, costs from £500 per person, with Expedia (020 3024 8211; expedia.co.uk).