Skipping the Slots

With hip new restaurants, upscale shopping, hotel spas and a whiff of 'Hairspray,' Atlantic City isn't just for gamblers anymore


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Let's run away to Atlantic City

Let's feel the wind in our hair

Sharing a grand and romantic city

Sea and salty air

- "Atlantic City," from the musical, Ragtime

Atlantic City, N.J. -- the Mid-Atlantic mecca for gamblers. With a slot machine at every turn, lady luck gets quite a workout.

But what if you don't play roulette, or craps, or blackjack, or poker, or even the slots?

Is there anything else to do?

The prospect of seeing the ultimate Baltimore musical, Hairspray, at Harrah's Atlantic City was enough to lure this theater critic to the casino capital of the Jersey shore. And Harrah's package deal -- two tickets to the show plus a hotel room for $199 -- was too good to pass up.

With the price of gas sky high, I bought a round-trip ticket from one of the bus companies offering deals from Baltimore to Atlantic City. Most of these include rebate offers. The specifics of the packages can change, but the day I went, riders were given $20 casino vouchers and $10 off the price of a buffet meal.

Among the riders on the nearly full bus were Betty and Ed Wren, a retired nurse and health educator, respectively, from Baldwin. Is a trip to Atlantic City good for your health?

"It's a little diversion that one needs occasionally," says Ed.

"It might be good for your health, but not for your pocketbook," his wife chips in.

After a three-hour trip, the bus arrives at 11:30 a.m. My first impression of Atlantic City is the sound of a woman shrieking. A passenger on another bus has been robbed by a man who rifled through her purse after she disembarked. A couple other passengers take off after the pickpocket and within minutes, the police appear to have caught the suspect, flanking him with two squad cars.

Holding onto my purse a little more tightly, I head up the escalator to exchange my voucher for cash. After a short wait in line, I obtain a plastic "rewards" card that is inserted into a machine, along with the voucher. Tucking the $20 into my wallet, I decide to get some fresh air.

On the way, I walk past slot machines with such alluring names as: Mr. Cashman, Stinkin' Rich and Million Dollar Rewards. I am unswayed.

Past the casinos

For three days last month, all of the casinos were closed while the New Jersey legislature was deadlocked over the state budget. The shutdown affected much of the Atlantic City economy, but based on my experiences, there were lots of other things to do -- beginning with a stroll along the Boardwalk.

With Broadway musicals on my mind, I pay a visit to the site of John Kander and Fred Ebb's 1997 show about marathon dancing, Steel Pier. There's no more marathon dancing on the pier, nor for that matter, are there any more diving horses, one of the city's most famous attractions in pre-casino days.

Instead, there's the usual array of amusement park rides and games. A booth offers temporary tattoos guaranteed to last seven days. It's tempting, but I'm going to a spa.

I've made a reservation for a massage at Resorts Atlantic City, which bills itself as "the original home of the player," since it opened the city's first casino in 1978. Resorts' spa isn't a celebrity hotspot like the bluemercury at the Tropicana or an elegant oasis such as Spa Toccare at the Borgata or a vast retreat such as the spa at Bally's, where you can even shoot hoops.

But the massages at Resorts come highly recommended and the price is reasonable -- $65 for a Swedish massage. My therapist, George F. Roger, has worked here since 1981. With his curly white hair, beard and warm smile, he looks like Santa Claus, a role it turns out he plays professionally every Christmas.

Using citrus-scented almond oil, Roger kneads my tense shoulder and neck muscles while New Age music plays in the background. After 50 minutes, I'm feeling so mellow, I cast a fond glance at the slot machines -- I.C. Money, Bonus Frenzy and In the Money -- as I exit through Resorts' casino.

Broadway in N.J.

Trading the Boardwalk for Atlantic Avenue (yes, the streets really do have the names on the Monopoly board), I catch one of the blue jitneys that traverse the length and breadth of the city for a $2 fare. It's time to check into my hotel.

Harrah's is one of three hotel-casinos -- the others are the Borgata and the Trump Marina -- in the marina section of town, less than two miles west of the Boardwalk. The hotel has 1,630 rooms and is undergoing a $550 million expansion that will include a 47-story tower, making it the second-highest structure in New Jersey.

The first thing I notice is three huge fish tanks behind Harrah's front desk. The clerk tells me each tank contains 1,300 gallons of water and 75 to 150 silvery "lookdown" fish. In the land of the big casinos, they resemble giant, undulating silver dollars.

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