Since we had such a great time in Las Vegas on our last trip to the United States, and have been enjoying the television series, Boardwalk Empire, I thought it would be fun to show John New Jersey's big playground by the shore. Of course, Atlantic City is really a summertime destination. The vibe is much different when you can wander along a packed Boardwalk, head to the beach and enjoy the family attractions at Steel Pier. But Atlantic City still shines from Labor Day to Memorial Day, making it a great weekend destination if you enjoy fine dining, big-name entertainment, shopping, clubbing or the casinos.
You may have seen Atlantic City in the headlines recently when Hurricane Sandy hit the coast of New Jersey in October. While the casinos were ordered closed for a period during the aftermath, they experienced only very minimal damage. While the devastated parts of the Jersey shore nearby were not so lucky, today's visitors to Atlantic City won't even know that a hurricane has hit.
Atlantic City is a New Jersey icon, serving as a favourite destination for visitors from all over the country since the early 1900s. It first opened to tourists in 1854 and enjoyed its heyday before a steady decline after the second World War. A resurgence in popularity came with the introduction of casino gambling in 1978. The property spaces on the original version of the popular board game, Monopoly are all named after streets in Atlantic City.
Coming from Australia where gambling is legal throughout the country, John is always curious as to why only some places in the United States allow it. For New Jersey, gambling became legal only in Atlantic City with the opening of the Resorts casino, still in business on the Boardwalk. Today Atlantic City is home to 12 casinos; nine of these are on the Boardwalk facing the Atlantic Ocean while three tower over the Marina district by the bay. The casino game gambling age in the US is 21 and minors are allowed in the casinos only if they stay off the gaming floor and don't drink alcohol. People over the age of 18 are allowed to engage in some forms of licensed gambling, however, like betting on horse races or buying a lottery ticket.
While most of the casinos on the Boardwalk are the old classics, the slick new Revel casino opened last year to add some modern glitz to the northern end. Here you'll also find the Mardi Gras themed Showboat clustered together with the Trump Taj and Resorts. Several blocks down are Bally's, Caesars and Trump Plaza, with Tropicana and the Atlantic City Hilton down on their own further south. In the Marina district, luxurious newcomer Borgata joins Harrah's and the Golden Nugget, just a short taxi ride away from the Boardwalk.
During the week we were there, just before Christmas, the weekdays were slow. This is great for getting a table in the best restaurants and not having to polish your elbows before heading out onto the casino floor. It's not so great for the lack of atmosphere. I don't love crowds but having some people about is kind of nice in a resort destination. By the weekend, things were heaving. From Thursday we noticed many more people around and the casinos were packed on Friday night.
So what can you do in the off-season in AC? Plenty. Enjoy the wide variety of excellent restaurants. Try your hand at some table games (quiet times are the best times to learn how to play) or take in a show. Wander along the Boardwalk and soak up the smell of the ocean and the history of the place.
Our two favourite restaurants were the Knife & Fork, which is an Atlantic City institution, and Gallagher's Steakhouse. Whether you're a Boardwalk Empire fan or not, the Knife & Fork (3600 Atlantic Ave, knifeandforkinn.com) is a must-visit. It's one of the oldest and most historical establishments in the city, opened in 1912 by then-Mayor William Riddle, Commodore Louis Kuehnle and their associates as an exclusive club. We asked our waitress about this history and she showed us how the hollow spaces beneath our seats were the home of members' bottles of contraband during Prohibition. Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was a regular and likely prevented it from being raided for a long time, though eventually the Knife & Fork's status as a speakeasy fell to the federal agents. Today it serves some of the best food in the city in an incredible atmosphere.
At Gallagher's (1133 Boardwalk, www.arkrestaurants.com/gallaghers.html) we enjoyed fine dry-aged beef (we highly recommend the Cowboy Steak) and seafood along with excellent service at the location within the Resorts Casino (you'll also find them in New York City, Newark and Las Vegas).
One thing to be careful of when Atlantic City is a bit quiet is safety. I'd be lying if I said that it's the safest place on the planet. Step off the Boardwalk and it's possible to feel a bit unsure of your surroundings. Violent crimes have happened here and vigilance is in order whenever you visit. We took taxis when going from the casinos to other places around town at night, for example, and tried not to find ourselves alone on the Boardwalk when it's dark. But this is no reason not to visit this charming ocean-side resort. For me, the slightly seedy element gives the place its character. And the large majority of the local residents are just friendly, hard-working people trying to make a living year-round. So don't be afraid if someone approaches you to take a ride in his push-chair or tries to sell you some souvenirs on the street.
However you choose to spend your time in Atlantic City, you're bound to enjoy yourself as people have for over 150 years.
Getting there: Atlantic City is serviced by its own international airport. From Newark airport by car, take the New Jersey Turnpike south and follow the signs to the Atlantic City Expressway (it's a two to three hour journey depending on traffic). From Philadelphia, take the Atlantic City Expressway or, by train, the Atlantic City Rail Line runs from the 30th Street Station to Atlantic City Rail Terminal. From the rail terminal there is a shuttle bus to the casinos departing every 25 minutes. From New York City, take the New Jersey Transit 319 Express bus from Port Authority Bus Terminal, which makes stops in Jersey City, Newark and Toms River (from $39 round-trip). Greyhound also offers its Lucky Streak services from a variety of cities, including New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Toronto and Boston (luckystreakbus.com).
While staying in Atlantic City we were hosted by the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel. Many thanks to The Taj for a wonderful stay.