The Following is a special report by noted journalist and travel writer Si Liberman
By Si Liberman
ATLANTIC CITY – This New Jersey seashore resort may not have the growth, glitz and celebrity power of Las Vegas but it appears to be heading in that direction. That’s the impression we came away with following a mid-week, three day visit in August.
Despite recession jitters, increased competition for the gambler’s buck and declining casino profits this year, the city is experiencing an extraordinary hotel building boom in a race to lure families as well as high rollers.
Four thousand new hotel rooms have been added since our 2001 visit, another 2,500 are under construction and there’s been pre-design and development work on three additional hotel casinos, including a $4 billion MGM-Mirage behemoth modeled after Las Vegas’ vast City Center project. However, work on the MGM-Mirage complex has been put on hold in the face of declining operating profits by most of the city’s 11 operating casinos so far this year and more stringent money lending practices.
There are many new designer shops and ritzy new restaurants run by nationally known chefs – also, a fancy wedding chapel a la Las Vegas scheduled to open next year, and more things to keep the whole family busy and entertained.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on a hazy, hot August day well before the plethora of souvenir and clothing store owners unlocked their doors, the four-mile boardwalk was alive with strollers and cyclists. (Boardwalk bicyclists and skateboarders are banned after 10 a.m.) Aside from a few joggers, the city’s free beach appeared deserted.
My wife and I concluded a half-hour exploratory stroll with coffee and a toasted bagel at a boardwalk concession near our hotel, the Hilton Resort Casino. The Hilton is a 28-year-old, 800-room oceanfront enclave with seven restaurants, a theater, health spa and a 60,000 square-foot gaming spread that we tried to steer clear of, preferring instead to explore the resort, sample a few interesting restaurants and take in a luau show.
Our ninth-floor deluxe room with a three-night price tag of $900 had a king size bed with an ultra soft mattress cover, sofa bed, 32-inch TVset, and it overlooked a sliver of beach and the northern part of the 11 square mile city of 40,500 residents.
For a while, it seemed as though my wife, Dorothy, and I wouldn’t be able to get into Patsy’s, the Hilton’s popular new Italian restaurant that’s an offshoot of the 64-year-old, mid-Manhattan landmark eatery made famous by Frank Sinatra. The maitre d' had no record of our reservation. Ultimately, though, he reneged, and found a table for us.
Dorothy thought her hot antipasto appetizer and eggplant parmigiana entrée were rather ordinary. But my Caesar salad and rigatoni fradiavolo were very satisfying, and she agreed after sampling my rigatoni served in a pleasant light sautéed garlic and tomato sauce. For dessert, we shared a tartufo, an always reliable chocolate covered ice cream ball. With drinks, the tab came to $100.
At Harrah’s the next night, we joined several hundred other celebrants at a festive outdoor Hawaiian luau and show ($49.99 each), featuring enthusiastic grass-skirted hula dancers, native drum-pounding musicians and dancing male fire-eating performers. Quite a show. Aside from the pork roast and pulled pork, the assortment and quality of the food choices were nothing to write home about.
Izakaya (pub in Japanese), the newest of the Borgata Hotel’s 11 restaurants, was a delightful culinary adventure. Amidst its dimly-lit walls we shared small portions of eight menu items recommended by the maitre d' – spicy tuna cracker, crispy rock shrimp, edemame dumplings, seared scallops, kabosha squash, pork gyoza, heated lobster morsels and speared kobe beef. The warm lobster pieces and kobe beef were standouts. Washed down with hot sake, it was a rare fulfilling experience, literally, that added up to a $124 tab.
While at the Borgata Casino Hotel and Spa, we toured its recently opened $400 million, 800- room, non-gaming tower called the Water Club. Billed as a separate boutique hotel and connected by a bridge-like walkway, the 43-story building, designed Asian style with plenty of marble, has five swimming pools in tropical settings and an expansive top floor spa aimed at luring a younger moneyed crowd. Rates go from $299 to $600 a night.
Also this summer the Chelsea, a new 300-room, $105 million, oceanfront non-gambling hotel debuted. It was created by gutting an old Howard Johnson hotel and adjacent Holiday Inn, turning them into a single retro-style family hotel with $199-$399 room rates.
Not to be outdone, Donald Trump, whose company operates three casino hotels in the city, upgraded the Trump Taj Mahal’s seven penthouse suites, also upgrading their rates to $2,500 to $25,000 a night. In addition, a $400 million, 800-room Taj Mahal tower is nearing completion and due to open in December.
The last thing we expected to see in a casino hotel proved the most interesting, memorable and educational – an exhibition in the Taj Mahal Xanadu Theater of human body specimens preserved in a polymer substance. Called “Bodies”, the exhibit ($27 admission) was developed with the help of a former Michigan Medical School anatomy professor. It showcased real bodies and body parts, some of which were diseased, and provided information to guard against various deadly ailments. It was a real learning experience. Among other things, we learned blood vessels if stretched out in an average body could wrap around the earth twice, that body nerves transmit messages at 200 miles an hour and that the body is 70 percent water.
Along the main drags of parallel Atlantic and Pacific avenues, mom and pop shops coexist with eight of the city’s 11 giant casino hotels. And there are still those small no name stores with “Cash for Gold” signs – seemingly testaments to the voracious appetites of the gambling palaces. Within easy walking distance of most casinos and the city’s 31-acre Convention Center, there’s a new, $76 million, 320,000 square foot outlet complex on Michigan avenue with embedded sidewalk metal plaques, memorializing names of past Miss America winners. Retail designer names like Ralph Lauren, HM, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger and Liz Claiborne abound. Many store window signs promised 60 and 70 percent discounts, but we found no extraordinary bargains.
The old Million-Dollar Pier has undergone a $175 million makeover by Caesar’s Palace, its owner. Simply called the Pier now, it’s a luxe, three-story shopping and entertainment mall jutting out over the sea from the boardwalk and a skywalk connection to Caesar’s. Rather than use our valet parked carat the hotel for $5 a day, we relied on the Atlantic City jitney service to get around. The jitneys, privately-owned 13-passenger, air conditioned, oversized vans, run minutes apart 24 hours a day along four routes, charge $2.25 per person and stop at every casino hotel.
Taxis, also available around the clock, are not allowed to charge more than $11 to any location within the 17square mile city. One afternoon well spent was at the city aquarium (adults $7, seniors $5, students $4 and those 3 and under free).The three-story, frame science education center houses more than100 fish species and other marine creatures. Eleven tanks offer close-up looks at a giant Morayeel, seahorses, jellyfish, an octopus and a coral reef. A 23,000 gallon tank showcases New Jersey coast fish – among them, sea bass, sharks, a northern stingray and kingfish. And at one tank visitors are allowed to handle sea urchins, shrimp, whelk, mussels and hermit crabs, and it was a joy watching groups of youngsters excitedly availing themselves of that opportunity. From a family standpoint, the Atlantic City Aquarium is not to be missed.
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