Atlantic City serves up some grit with its glam, and it's known as much for its weather-beaten patrons as it is for the gambling fortunes it promises. That doesn't mean, though, that you can't have a whole lot of fun in the city that's "Always Turned On."
Lately, the A.C. has cleaned up its once-gritty image, but things still aren't coming up all roses. The Tropicana is fighting for its life as it reapplies for its license, and recently laid off 900 workers. A lawsuit by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe against Harrah's has cost $2.8 million, and many of the boardwalk's prominent institutions are feeling pressure from newly legalized slot casinos in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
But Atlantic City isn't dead yet. Travelers from all over the East Coast and beyond stop in for an old-school gaming experience. Here's how to do it.
Getting There (And Back) ...
Atlantic City is famous for offering fun and adventure to anyone within driving distance. It's a driveable three and a half hours from Washington, D.C., two and a half hours from New York City and a mere hour-long hopscotch from Philadelphia. There's also New Jersey Transit service from Philadelphia. Atlantic City International Airport provides service to and from Orlando, Las Vegas, Youngstown and Teterboro, N.J., among other cities.
Nevertheless, taking any of the Greyhound buses that leave from each city will better set the tone for what's in store. As added incentive, bus lines often offer vouchers good for anywhere between $12 and $23 in free gaming money with the purchase of a round-trip ticket.
... Without Staying
Since ample fun can be had in A.C. from 10 p.m. until 10 a.m., it might be best to power through one night of sensory overload and catch a morning bus back home. Spending too much time in town runs one the risk of allowing the underlying sleaze to overtake the hedonistic fun, particularly if the night's gambling hasn't gone very well.
If you must get a hotel, however, it's best to avoid the fleabags and pony up some of your remaining funds for a room at the casinos. There are plenty of horror stories about hapless sleep-deprived gamblers who checked in to dubious motels only to sleep on the bedspreads or the floor in fear of what lay between the sheets.
Rooms are generally much cheaper on weekdays, so if you're on a budget, consider taking some time off work as opposed to doing a weekend trip.
On a 12-hour jaunt, there's time to get some serious gaming in at only one or two casinos. The Borgata on the marina side of the island is well worth a look. Compared with boardwalk casinos such as Showboat, the Trump Taj Mahal, Bally's Wild West, Caesars or the Tropicana, the Borgata is most effective at masking with modern glitz the image of desperate gamers scraping for one last shot at the good life. Plus, the Borgata foregoes tacky theme decorations in favor of a straight-up gambling atmosphere.
The biggest casino in Atlantic City and one of the newest, the Borgata is also the best-lighted on the outside, with blue, crisp fluorescent lights that appear newer and stronger than the incandescent red seen on any of the Trump casinos or the glaring white bulbs that comprise the Tropicana sign. It's a sleek, elliptical cylinder that stands alone above Atlantic City's marina on the north side of town, away from many of its older rivals.
The Borgata is about strictly-business gaming, offering an expansive floor, low-stakes to high-stakes poker games from H.O.R.S.E. to hold-em, black jack, pai gao, slots and basically any activity designed to drain visitors of their money. In case patrons do win anything, the 'Gata also offers high-end shopping, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and a spa on premises.
After the craps tables, blackjack, poor poker judgment and the slots have taken their toll (or even if they haven't), head for Atlantic City's boardwalk to watch the sun rise. This main drag of casinos faces an expanse of soothing ocean that lies beyond a wide, surprisingly gradual beach. In peak season, surfers ride Atlantic City's waves, beach bunnies sun themselves and weary gamblers wash away their losses in the slow-rolling waves.
Behind the casinos, though, lies Pacific Avenue, the road that clearly illustrates how Atlantic City earns its reputation as a town of broken dreams. Facing the casino's back doors on the other side of the street are pawn shops that give "cash for gold," and in the windows are the necklaces, bracelets, earrings and maybe even the wedding rings of the city's fallen rollers.
Once it's time for breakfast, there are lots of options, like the Tropicana's $20 buffet. But if you aren't in the mood for such a production, there are options like bacon, egg and cheese bagels and coffee for around $6 at a local convenience store. Not the most luxurious of breakfasts, but after hours of breakneck gambling, anything cheap will taste simply delicious.
Then, there's time for one final stroll along the boardwalk before heading back onto the bus and leaving town -- with winnings in hand, hopefully.