September 12, 2010

Upping the Ante

Atlantic City gets an undeserved bad rap.

The area doesn't exactly conjure thoughts of luxury, class and glamour. Its casino roots are kind of hard to shake. (Insert images of smoke-filled rooms, gold chains, exposed chest hair and hideously cheap outfits.) The MTV show "Jersey Shore" hasn't exactly helped to inspire thoughts of class. When the Miss America pageant abandoned Atlantic City for Las Vegas in 2006, some thought that was the last bit of glitz to leave.

And now comes HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," a TV drama that paints the city with gangster stripes. The miniseries is set in the Prohibition era, so needless to say there have been a lot of changes in Atlantic City since the 1920s. But a more recent transformation during the past decade appears to have lifted the resort town from downmarket to upscale. With gambling becoming less of a focus for visitors, casinos have polished up their amenities, betting that spas, nightclubs and celebrity restaurants will add a bit of gloss.

I wasn't expecting much when I headed to Atlantic City for the first time one weekend in July. Torrential rain lengthened the car trip that usually takes just under three hours. By the time I got to my hotel, and to the casinos to grab a bite to eat for lunch, every fine-dining restaurant was closed. I was in town to check out the more upscale options, so food court offerings wouldn't cut it.

I wound up eating a late lunch at Mia, an Italian- and Mediterranean-themed restaurant in Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. The restaurant was breathtaking. Roman columns, towering ceilings, golden, maroon, and orange lighting, and colorful draped fabric gave the restaurant a Hollywood premiere feel. Ah, yes. This was what I had hoped for. This is why I trekked 150 miles in the pouring rain.

If Mia doesn't quite have you convinced, Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay's upscale restaurants are further evidence that this is not the Atlantic City of old. Still not impressed that Atlantic City has become a destination for foodies and those in search of other upscale amenities? The Food Network Food and Wine Festival held in August at Harrah's Hotel and Casino should surely make you a believer. Paula Deen, the Neeleys, Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri were all there for a slew of food-related demonstrations, parties and chats.

"Our casinos are offering more high-level gaming, dining and entertainment options today," said Jennifer Weissman, regional vice president of marketing for Harrah's Entertainment Inc. "Atlantic City has evolved into a world-class destination because of sophisticated lifestyle partnerships, unique amenities and distinct events."

The city has come a long way. Ten years ago, Atlantic City didn't have enough restaurants to have a restaurant week, according to Jeff Vassar, president of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority. The city will host its third annual restaurant week next spring with options ranging from casual to very fine dining.

"Most of the new products have been focused on the luxury end, and it has not disappointed," Vassar added.

In addition to more upscale restaurants, Atlantic City has seen a growth spurt in upscale hotels and high-end entertainment. The city has more than 18,000 first-class hotel rooms, according to tourism officials.

The Borgata Hotel and Casino headlines the high-end offerings. The hotel, designed in a classic Italian style, features rooms, suites and two 5,000-square-foot residences. Nearby is The Water Club, a $400 million luxury boutique hotel also owned by the Borgata, that features a two-story spa, five heated pools and rooms with a water view. One evening, I took in the hotel's Sun Room, a tropical-feeling bar/restaurant filled with tons of lush plants, modern-feeling furniture and plenty of signature drinks. The atmosphere was appealing, but the service by the bar staff left something to be desired.

The Chelsea was Atlantic City's first modern nongaming hotel to open on the Boardwalk when it debuted in 2008. The 330-room hotel features two restaurants, a nightclub and the Sea Spa, the saltwater-inspired spa, which opened last year. Rooms can go for as high as $519 a night during peak summer season, but the hotel features specials throughout the year.

Vassar attributes the luxury surge to the Borgata, which opened in 2003.

"People had doubts [that] a property that was focusing on the luxury segment would survive," Vassar said. "The Borgata opened and certainly demonstrated that there was a luxury segment in Atlantic City willing to pay for upscale amenities. …That pretty much started a chain reaction. The luxury market does exist in Atlantic City."

While I didn't stay at an "upscale hotel," during my peak-season visit, the Fairfield Inn by Marriott was clean, offered a complimentary breakfast and was a 10-minute drive away from the heart of the city. And staying there allowed me to spend more money on clothes shopping, which was one highlight of my trip.

First off, there is no sales tax on clothes. That means a lot when you are doing high-end shopping at stores such as Burberry, Baccarat, Juicy Couture, Gucci and Tiffany & Co. And, yes, they're all in Atlantic City.

The Pier Shops at Caesars also has upscale designer names like Betsey Johnson, Michael Kors, Salvatore Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta and Louis Vuitton.

For luxury lovers who want to save money, Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, Guess, Kenneth Cole and DKNY all have outlet stores at The Walk, a group of nearly 100 national chain stores and restaurants run by the Baltimore-based The Cordish Cos. The weekend I went, the stores were all having end-of-season sales, and I racked up — so much so that I received a call from my credit card company asking whether my card had been stolen.

"To see [Atlantic City] evolve into a full-service resort is really exciting," said Kim Butler, general manager of Atlantic City, The Walk. Butler has lived in the city for the past 22 years. "It has really helped to grow Atlantic City into a great year-round destination."

And there are plenty of places besides the casinos to show off your new duds. Entertainment options in Atlantic City go beyond the Boardwalk to nightclubs — some with VIP status.

The Borgata features clubs MIXX and mur.mur, a cavernous club that has featured acts such as Keri Hilson and Jason Derulo. The night I went, the club was bumping. There were wall-to-wall folks grooving to the latest top hits. The 40/40 Club is an upscale bar and lounge owned by hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and partner Juan Perez. The swanky spot also has locations in New York, Las Vegas, Tokyo, Macau and Chicago.

Before hitting the club, visitors can enjoy world-class concerts and shows. So far this year, Lady Gaga has performed at Boardwalk Hall, where Justin Bieber arrives in November. Jay-Z and Rihanna took the stage at the Borgata. Robin Thicke rocked the Tropicana Casino & Resort and Alicia Keys brought her Grammy-winning act to the Trump Taj Mahal Casino and Resort. Aretha Franklin is scheduled to perform at Caesars next month.

I might make plans to head back to Atlantic City for a concert, or to see more of the sights, or to return to the fantastic shopping so that I can at least dress like a celebrity while trying to act like one.

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