The view on this scenic highway gets better after dark

Las Vegas Boulevard last week was named an All-American Road. It's the first time that a strip of neon and kitsch has won the distinction.

The most recent addition to the exclusive list of All-American Roads has one unusual distinction: You can see it better after the sun goes down.

Sure, California's Route 1 along Big Sur offers breathtaking views of briny coasts and twisting cypress, and the Selma-to-Montgomery Byway in Alabama is a witness to civil rights history.

But this six-lane strip of asphalt through the Mojave Desert will take you to a Coney Island roller coaster, the venerable canals of Venice, and erupting Hawaiian volcanoes - all in the space of a few football fields.

And don't forget all that neon.

Yes, it's the Las Vegas Strip, at once maligned as the heart of "Sin City" and celebrated as a unique combination of glitz, kitsch, and Americana. Last week, it became the first such thoroughfare to be named an All-American Road, joining 15 other routes renowned for their historic significance or natural beauty.

For some, it may seem a seedy inclusion, but for others, the Strip embodies America at its biggest and boldest.

"If it was good, it would have been named a National Scenic Byway," says Greg Novak, an engineer with the Federal Highway Administration. "But it was deemed great, so it was named an All-American Road."

Indeed, All-American Roads are a step above National Scenic Byways. They are "our country's finest byways: the best of the best," according to the Web site for National Scenic Byways. "They are destinations unto themselves and an exciting adventure for all ages."

Las Vegas Boulevard is, if nothing else, an adventure. Just ask Jrg Degen and Katja Brehm, a couple visiting Las Vegas from Germany.

"You can go from one hotel to another and it's like you're in another time, in another place in the world," says Mr. Degen, who is from Dsseldorf. "You know it's not real, but it feels real. They build the hotels and casinos with so much life-like architectural detail, that it seems real, even though it's fake. When I flew in over the Strip, it looked like a big amusement park below."

Ms. Brehm, who lives near Frankfurt, can see why the Strip has won its national distinction.

"I've been to Venice," she says. "When you go to the Venetian hotel, it feels just like you're in Venice. Nowhere else in the world is there a place like this."

Each year, millions of tourists flock to the Strip to see the latest addition to the fantasy landscape - whether it be Paris's Eiffel Tower or pirate fights on Buccaneer Bay. Last year, 33.8 million visitors brought $28.6 billion.

"Only Las Vegas can be this unique," says a statement posted on the Scenic Byways online site. "Colorful buildings decorate daylight hours, but the night is lit up by thousands of lights on every structure along the Strip."

Adds Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt: "The towering themed resorts and their amazing lights are famous worldwide."

Local officials have sought the designation for the Strip since the All-American Road program began in 1991. The 4-1/2-mile stretch, once called Los Angeles Highway because it cuts through the desert to L.A., runs from Sahara Avenue south to Russell Road.

Although Mr. Novak says the Vegas inclusion is "different" - what other scenic highway has played host to the Rat Pack? - it was also a serious decision. It qualified "because of its cultural, scenic, recreational, and historical significance," says Novak.

The five other highways named All-American Roads this year are Alaska's Seward Highway, Maine's Acadia Byway, Minnesota's North Shore Scenic Drive, Oregon's Hell's Canyon Scenic Byway, and Yellowstone National Park's Beartooth Highway. The roads are chosen by Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and a panel of citizens, and the title makes them eligible for grants for roadside improvements.

Other previous inductees include North Carolina's Blue Ridge Parkway and Washington State's Mather Memorial Parkway.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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