AC's feminine allure

From shopping to dining to spas, friends find lots to do in Atlantic City. (Photo courtesy of...

From shopping to dining to spas, friends find lots to do in Atlantic City. (Photo courtesy of Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority)

MARIE-JOELLE PARENT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:25 AM ET

Today, Atlantic City is famous for its casinos, Donald Trump's gold Taj Mahal, Miss America and the flashing neon lights of its boardwalk. But once upon a time, about 150 years ago, Atlantic City was known as the Queen of Resorts, a place where people went to unwind and decompress.

I went recently with friends to find out if there is anything left over from its heyday.

Atlantic City was founded in 1854 for a very simple reason: It was the closest stretch of oceanfront for the residents of Philadelphia. Eventually, the little coastal island became popular for its sea water treatments.

"Sanatorium for the treatment of nervous afflictions and mild cases of mental disease," declares a vintage flyer from Atlantic City's early days, when it was said that the air and water around the city could cure certain ailments.

But since 1978, this section of the New Jersey coast has had a very different kind of appeal. Now famous as a gambling destination, Atlantic City is a popular getaway for those looking to get lucky, so to speak.

There is,however, still plenty to do in the city without so much as touching a slot machine, and I decided to check it out for myself as part of a girls' weekend out. After all, 60% of the 32 million annual visitors here are women.

Just like the Sex and the City episode where Carrie brings her friends to Atlantic City, I packed my party dress and high heels and off I went. Our first stop is New York City's Penn Station, where the train ride to Atlantic City is only two-and-a-half hours and costs $29. There's a limo waiting when we get off the train.

For those departing from Toronto, the trip can be made in under an hour thanks to new flights recently offered by WestJet.

At first glance, we're not sure what to make of the eclectic spread of architecture, a cross between Las Vegas and Coney Island. There are some reminders from the Victorian era, including old brick buildings, decrepit churches and abandoned houses.

The verdict: You're better off staying close to the famed boardwalk, where you will find an even more eclectic selection of culinary options. We sampled the saltwater taffy and watched as surfers took advantage of the waves and stray cats slept on the beach.

Nicknamed "the World's Playground," the city -- like other tourist destinations -- has been visibly affected by the recession. You can still hear talk of the economic "death spiral" and a recent article in the New York Times paints a fairly gloomy picture.

Out of Atlantic City's 11 casinos, four are under bankruptcy protection and gaming revenues are down 14%. There is currently one casino under construction, the Revel, and a lot of people's hopes riding on its success. That said, it still requires $1 billion in financing.

"Yes, we are struggling a little bit," said Senator James Whelan, the former mayor of Atlantic City. "We need to expand our market. We need to become an entertaining destination."

So how do you go about reinventing a destination?

"More retail shopping and great shows," Whelan said. But not permanent, Las Vegas-style shows. "Our (main) market is a drivers' market, people come here often. Long-run shows wouldn't work here."

Already there is much shopping to be done. We find a lot of new discount and outlet stores during our weekend, but we prefer the designer boutiques at The Piers. This mall, built on a pier, features shops ranging from Louis Vuitton to Betsey Johnson, from Juicy Couture to It's Sugar, one of the largest candy stores you'll likely ever see.

As for restaurants, we opted for the Buddakan, which boasts an Asian fusion-style menu and reasonable prices.

But the best meal of the trip was at Fomelletto, in the Borgata Hotel. Once you take the stairs down to the restaurant, you instantly forget the noise and neon lights above and instead find yourself focusing on their immense wine cellar (more than 700 varieties to choose from). The menu, with more than 70 Italian dishes, was created by Stephen Kalt, the former chef for the New York Circus. There is even a mozzarella bar.

The Borgata Hotel is 3 km from the boardwalk but that's where all the action is. It's the kind of place people associate with Vegas, and it completely changed the face of Atlantic City when it opened in 2003 by attracting a younger crowd. Lenny Kravitz was playing at the casino when we visited. We finished our evening at mur.mur, the casino's nightclub.

Saturday is the best night for hitting popular spots including The Pool at Harrah's Resort, and Dusk at Ceasars, which was owned by the late DJ AM.

Sunday was a dedicated spa day for our group, and we settled on facials and massages at the Immersion Spa, part of the $400 million Water Club hotel. If you plan it right you can spend the whole day in the pool, whirlpool and both wet and dry saunas.

Lounging with our feet in the pool with an unbeatable view of the city, we had clearly found our oasis far from the noise, bright lights and slot machines.

ADDITIONAL SOURCE: ATLANTIC CITY, 125 YEARS OF OCEAN MADNESS.

MJPARENT@SUNMEDIA.CA

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ATLANTIC CITY BITS AND BUZZ

- The invention of saltwater taffy is generally credited to Maine, though Atlantic City begs to differ. The legend goes that a kiosk along the water owned by a Mr. Bradley was flooded during a storm in 1883. Taking stock of the mess the next day, he renamed his candy saltwater taffy.

- The boardwalk is 12 metres wide and more than 6 km long. It was completed in 1896 and is actually the fifth boardwalk built. The rest were destroyed by storms.

- The city's symbol is Lucy the Elephant, a 20-metre-tall metal sculpture built in 1881.

- In 1946, a delegation visited Atlantic City to consider making it the permanent home of the United Nations.

- The creator of Monopoly, Charles Darrow, was a regular visitor. He used the city's street names as inspiration for the game.

- Visitors can spot dolphins from the beach in the summer and whales in the fall.

- The city's first casino, Resorts, opened in 1978, two years after gambling was legalized in New Jersey.

- Be sure to stop by the White House sub shop. The sub counter has been there since 1946. Located in the Italian district, it has been visited by a long list of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and many American presidents. You can find their photos on the walls. There's even a framed napkin used by Sinatra.

- If you like botanical gardens, take a tour by the pool at Harrah's, which spent $1 million on tropical plants.

- The city's oldest restaurant is the Knife and Fork, built in 1897. Check out their steak and seafood. During prohibition, the restaurant had an underground bar. Sinatra and Burt Lancaster were frequent guests.

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IF YOU GO TO ATLANTIC CITY

- To sleep in style, I recommend the Chelsea Hotel, the city's only boutique hotel, which offers discounts of up to 45% for bookings of two nights and more. See thechelsea-ac.com for details.

- The Absecon Lighthouse hosts paranormal evenings and sleepovers, but beware of the ghost believed to live there. Sleepovers start at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and include a video presentation, night climb of the tower and bedtime ghost stories. Snacks and continental breakfast are served. Reservations required, $45 US per person, seeabseconlighthouse.org.

- For more information on Atlantic City, contact the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Bureau at atlanticcitynj.com or 609-348-7100 or 1-888-AC-VISIT (228-4748).

- Westjet offers seasonal service between Toronto and Atlantic City -- four flights per week from now to Jan. 1, then daily flights to April 30. See Westjet.com for details.


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