Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
“Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City.” –Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”
The summer before our daughter left for university, we mistakenly believed that we would be taking our last family vacation. Caroline and I favoured a roadtrip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, but we left the decision up to the “kids.” And to our surprise, they both chose Atlantic City. The immediate unanimity, of course, took us aback. Consensus has never been a part of their vernacular. But the destination, too, left us scratching our heads.
Our first trip to Atlantic City took place a decade earlier. It was the first stop on an epic 2-week roadtrip down US Route 1, which culminated in a visit to Disney World, and a return journey along the Appalachian Mountains. Despite the way this trip looms large in our family mythology and casts a long shadow over every other trip we have taken as a unit—it’s a litmus test for every roadtrip which has followed it—Caroline and I had always considered Atlantic City as a rather inauspicious beginning to an otherwise classic vacation.
But what do we know, right?
So, Caro and I shelved our images of sand dunes and lazy afternoons on the porch of our rented stilt-house for another time. And we steeled ourselves for a return to the madness that is Atlantic City.
Once called “The World’s Playground,” Atlantic City has witnessed the rise and fall of its fortunes, like the ebb and flow of its tides. Its raison d’etre has always been tourism. The first commercial hotel (Belloe House) opened here in 1853, a full year before its incorporation as a town. Originally, tourists were trekked out by train and stayed weeks at a time, in what was then a remote parcel of land. In the 1920s, under Prohibition, the city boomed with backroom gaming and illicit alcohol. A decade later, the city staked its reputation on nightclubs like Club Harlem and Babette’s.
But the automobile eventually eroded the beach town’s hotel industry. By the 1960s it was in serious economic decline—a victim of the boom and bust capitalism made popular in Monopoly, the boardgame modelled after the city itself.
Gambling, made legal in 1976, brought with it a short rebirth. Sporting events—and boxing in particular—drew new crowds. Casino resorts bloomed like desert flowers in the sands of its beaches. But even these have faded.
Today, Atlantic City struggles to find its niche. But its bizarre mix of wealthy casino excess and boardwalk sleaze somehow trundles on. One must suspend disbelief here, the way you do when visiting a theme park. I understand what my kids wanted when they chose Atlantic City. They wanted to stop time—press pause on the reality of our ever-advancing, ever-evolving lives—and simply play make-believe in the carnivalesque atmosphere of the masquerade which is Atlantic City.
1. Atlantic City Beach
Unlike many beaches in New Jersey, the Atlantic City Beaches are free. They are broad and clean and only moderately crowded. You can spend an easy morning or an afternoon walking the length of them and under the wooden hulls of the piers. Our son took surfing lessons on the Downtown Beach at Raleigh Avenue. The sport is also popular at Crystal Beach (New Hampshire Avenue) or the Delaware Avenue Beach. If you want to kayak or wind surf, then you can head to Jackson Avenue Beach for that.
There is something different about a northern beach than, say, Daytona or Miami. Perhaps it is the ephemeral quality of the fleeting summer season. It just seems such a treat to eat French fries on a blanket under the warm sun with salt spray in your hair after you have spent the winter bundled or indoors. You can even forgive the brisk embrace of the Atlantic water. But nothing beats bobbing in the ocean as you watch the rollers coming in, making bets on which is likely to be the biggest, and then body surfing it back toward shore.
2. The Boardwalk
First constructed in 1870 as a means of keeping sand out of the hotel lobbies, The Atlantic City Boardwalk is a 4-mile stretch (5 ½ if you include the Ventnor City portion) of theme park craziness. Casinos punctuate the string of cheap clothing shops, tattoo parlours, mini-golf outlets, and purveyors of salt-water taffy. You can eat, drink, sleep, and creep away your holiday on the Boardwalk. Most Boardwalk shops are open from 10am-11pm. Casinos, of course, are open later. Jitneys and rolling carts are available for those whose legs just aren’t up to the challenge. And if you ever grow tired of funnel cakes and T-shirts, just look out to sea for continuous beach vistas and crashing waves.
We stayed right on the Boardwalk for a week and never really grew tired of the fare. My kids would probably have stayed another week, given the chance. Favourite stops included Fralinger’s (James Candy Company), which has been selling salt-water taffy since 1885. And if the taffy is not your thing, try their candied pecans or their famous macaroons. The Central Pier Arcade & Speedway offered up great go karting and games. High end shopping (Gucci and Louis Vuiton)—or window shopping anyway—was available at the Playground Pier and the Havana-themed Quarter at Tropicana. Mini-golf is a thing for our family. We are all fiercely competitive. And although there are many choices, The Golden Galleon was possibly the best. There’s a Ripley’s, too, if that is your thing.
But, ultimately, just strutting the boards and watching the people is the best part of any Boardwalk experience—especially in the humid night air with the lights all aglow and music spilling out from the bars and the casinos, and underneath that, the shushing of the invisible sea.
3. Steel Pier
The Steel Pier runs the razor’s edge between rip-off and good clean fun. Busch Gardens or Six Flags it is not; however, despite its rebuild in 1993, it harkens back to a bygone era when entertainment could be had at the human scale. The Steel Pier is reminiscent of those fall fairs that pass through small towns for a weekend and are then gone. Of course, this fair has been around, in one form or another, since 1898. But all fairs have that transient quality. And like all fairs, its best seen at night when its thousands of lights open a tiny world above of the ocean.
There are, of course, modern thrill-seeking rides like The Flyer, The MIX, or The Slingshot. But there are also the classics like the wonderful swing carousel or the 227-foot Ferris Wheel, with commanding views up and down the beach. You can still buy cotton candy and crackerjacks, and yes, there are games with carnies who are more than willing to help you part from your money. All in all, the atmosphere is rambunctious, and, if you let it, a little bit magical.
4. Gardner’s Basin
The draw to Gardner’s Basin is the Atlantic City Aquarium, but personally, we like it better for its quaint beach-hut shops. You can find art and hand-made jewellery here, as well as refurbished antiques. The little row of clapboard stores runs along the pier that fronts onto the state marina.
The crowds and the water are both a little calmer here. There are restaurants, also, like the Back Bay Alehouse, as well as boat and fishing tours which leave from the harbour.
5. Absecon Lighthouse
Construction on the Absecon Lighthouse began in 1857, just after the city was incorporated. It stands at 171 feet tall and has 228 steps to the top. Incredibly, the original Fresnel lens is still in place after all these years. The lighthouse is built from granite and brick and was recently renovated to celebrate the state’s 300th anniversary.
The lighthouse keeper’s residence at the base is a museum which houses the history of the building and of lighthouse keeping in America, as well as a record of famous shipwrecks. Its yellow and black stripes are visible a long way off, but if you are staying on the boardwalk, it is a relatively short jaunt to South Rhode Island Ave.
Plus one? The Casinos
In some ways, Atlantic City’s Casinos are proof that “if you build it, they might not come.” The Revel, or TEN, or Ocean as it’s now known, finally opened after years of being shuttered, but several other of the city’s largest casinos are now closed, including the Trump Plaza and the Trump Taj Mahal (which is now Hard Rock AC). One has reopened as a hotel, and another is rumoured to become a waterpark. Nine casinos, however, remain. Of these, The Tropicana and The Borgata are the best. We are not gamblers, but we are not above a drink or two at the bars. And everyone likes a show.
The Inn at the Irish Pub
If you are looking for a bargain, look no further than The Inn at the Irish Pub. This eclectic gem is just off the Boardwalk at St. James Place, offering rooms for as little as $30/night during the week. It has been hailed as “a setting out of a Henry James or James Joyce novel,” and “more European than American.” Its décor is most definitely old world and heavy on the chintz. The pub is also great and affordable. And there is a patio out back.
If you have more time:
Lucy the Elephant
Just outside the city on Atlantic Avenue, you can find a 65-foot (six story) pachyderm made of tin. It was built in the town of Margate in 1881 in an effort to attract tourists to this lesser-known stretch of beach. Lucy, as she is called, has been a tavern, a home, and now a tourist attraction with panoramic views from the cabin on her back.
If Atlantic City is beer and wings, Ocean City is gourmet pizza and a glass of Chardonnay—except you can’t have the Chardonnay. It has been dry since 1879. It has a boardwalk of its own, which is slightly upscale (if smaller) to that of Atlantic City. There is a host of shops and restaurants, more rides, but a funky downtown as well. Try it for a change in sights and sounds.
Cape May is at the southern tip of New Jersey, but it couldn’t be further from the Jersey Shore in many ways. It is best known for its gorgeous Victorian homes. This place is definitely upscale. A few of the most elegant residences are beachfront properties. It’s so picturesque that the city has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The beach here is beautiful, too, but it will cost you $6 for tag. Of note, if you are a beer lover, Cape May County has no fewer than seven craft breweries!
The Atlantic City of today is the result of a recent $1.7 billion injection into infrastructure. A lot that was once weary is no longer so. But Atlantic City is not like other tourist destinations. London and Paris, or San Francisco and New York, will march on without you. Atlantic City--like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or Canada's Niagara Falls--on the other hand, was built for you. Now you must decide if you will come.