Getaway: Atlantic City gets a makeover
I'm sitting beneath the palms, sipping a frozen mudslide, as cocktail waitresses clad in Caribbean-blue bikinis stroll from table to table, chaise to chaise. Some vacationers lounge languidly by a crystal-clear pool, snoozing, reading, sipping. Others take refuge in private poolside cabanas equipped with flat-screen TVs, sofas and bar setups. Reggae music plays in the background.
Believe it or not, I am in Atlantic City. The new Atlantic City.
Once known for diving horses, an aging Frank Sinatra and, later, political corruption and rats, Atlantic City is coming of age as a place of luxury and class.
Don't think of it as just a Vegas wannabe. With the opening of The Pool and The Waterfront Tower, both at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, this is a place where you can have a fine getaway and enjoy some gaming, too.
At 44 stories, the brand-new Harrah's tower is the tallest building in Atlantic City and second tallest in New Jersey. The 900-plus guestrooms are all suite-sized and offer bay, ocean or city views (mine had a vista of Absecon marshland and windmills).
The Pool is the city's largest indoor pool complex and housed in a 172,000-square-foot, 90-foot-high glass dome. We're talking an Olympic-sized pool, six whirlpools, 12 cabanas, indoor and outdoor decks and The Pool Bar, surrounded by $1 million worth of horticulture.
While by day The Pool is everything a tropical vacation should be - minus the sunscreen since you're indoors - by night it morphs into a throbbing, pulsing nightclub. The well-dressed and well-heeled can talk, drink and dance the night away in a sophisticated atmosphere befitting the best trendy retreats. On any given night, you might find yourself brushing elbows with celebrities (on my visit members of the New York Giants) en route to their private cabanas as the crowds build 'round midnight.
The adjacent Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa has 23 treatment rooms with a full menu of signature services and beauty treatments along with several exclusive spa packages.
Harrah's is by no means the only Atlantic City resort taking the express elevator to luxury land. Also in the Marina District, The Borgota just launched The Water Club, a $400 million, 800-room non-gaming, boutique lifestyle hotel that includes a two-story spa.
OK, so the city by the sea still has Mr. Peanut - and Donald Trump, with his properties including Trump Taj Mahal (opening a new 39-story Chairman's Tower this fall) and the aging Trump Plaza on the Boardwalk. But a decades-long push to clean up the neighborhoods and expand the visitor-friendly zone past the Boardwalk - that sprawling wooden walkway overlooking miles of sand and surf - have succeeded.
Today, drive into town on the Atlantic City Expressway or arrive by train and you are greeted by a park, statues, good lighting and The Walk, a collection of outlet shops and chain eateries which have replaced the previous run-down storefronts and bars.
Caesar's is one of the most famous names in casinos and has long been Atlantic City's centerpiece. Expansion and upgrading has taken place at Caesar's too, the property growing to more than 1,100 rooms in four towers; the complex also includes The Pier Shops, with designer stores and fine-dining restaurants.
In addition to its central location, Caesar's has great ambiance. The decor is based on ancient Rome, and various employees strut around in Roman Empire attire. The Temple Lobby, with a soaring four-story atrium, is an escalator ride from the street-level entrance and resembles the Forum in ancient Rome - if the real Forum had a concierge desk, bellhops and ATMs.
Confidence in Atlantic City's new image is high. In July, the first non-casino Boardwalk resort in almost half a century opened its doors. The Chelsea is a throwback to Atlantic City's heyday as a summer vacation destination for the well-heeled set. There are poolside cabanas and a saltwater-inspired spa, and the new resort is the only hotel in town to offer full beach service - fluffy towels, lounge chairs, umbrellas, food and beverages, exclusively for hotel guests.