Gambling on chic

As things heat up in Atlantic City, you may no longer be cool enough to go there

August 10, 2008|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

Atlantic City, N.J. - On stage a few weeks ago at the Music Box Theater at the Borgata Hotel, Idina Menzel (star of Broadway's Rent and Wicked) admitted having some anxiety about bringing her singing act to this seaside resort. A peasant dress she'd worn when performing in Manhattan the night before, Menzel said, didn't feel right for this evening. So, just before the curtain went up, she'd rushed out to buy a sexy black lace camisole and brassiere - the straps of which she flashed to her audience. They cheered with delight, and Menzel sighed with what appeared to be genuine relief.

Huh? When was the last time anyone, much less a Tony Award-winning actress like Idina Menzel, worried about being properly attired for Atlantic City, a place where the dress code is famously, even infamously, come-as-you-are.

After several recent visits here, however, I've determined that such a concern may soon be common. For Atlantic City, believe it or not, is becoming increasingly chic.

Just this summer, in fact, two flamboyantly fashionable hotels opened: the Water Club and the Chelsea. Representing a new trend of nongambling hotels, both hope to attract an affluent, style-conscious tourist. So, you there, sir, in the "Kiss Me, I'm Drunk" T-shirt, your pocket full of quarters for the slots - perhaps Atlantic City is no longer the place for you.

What a difference five years makes! This is how long it's been since the Borgata Hotel opened, an event heralded as the start of the "Atlantic City Renaissance." Similar to how Las Vegas was before it reinvented itself, Atlantic City is now thought to be at a crossroads - trying to juggle "mass" with "class," family fun alongside sensual temptations.

"Who would have imagined a luxury boutique hotel like the Chelsea in Atlantic City even five years ago?" asked Jeffrey Vassar, president of Atlantic City's Convention and Visitor's Authority. "This sets a new standard and shows what the future of Atlantic City can be." Some $15 billion worth of new development is under way, aimed at attracting tourists who live within a four-hour drive, said Vassar.

New Jersey's governor, who joined the celebration at the opening of the Water Club in June, is eager to spread the word about Atlantic City's transition from past peak to tres chic.

"When people talk this place down, we need to remind them about what's really up here in Atlantic City. The Water Club can stand proud with any resort property in the world," said Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

Referring to Curtis Bashaw, the developer behind the Chelsea, Corzine said, "Curtis' vision to make Atlantic City more than a gaming resort is the most exciting thing happening here. Bashaw is a class act, and if he says the Chelsea is hot, hip, and cool, I believe him. Problem is, I don't think I'm any of those terms; but I still want to come!"

Corzine's seeming pretense of insecurity is a politician's ploy, of course, but for some tourists, this "upscaling" of Atlantic City may pose a problem. Fact is, ever since the city hit hard times in the 1970s and discovered gambling as its salvation, Atlantic City has survived on wooing the "four-hour patron," and developed a well-deserved reputation as awfully cheerful and cheerfully awful. As such, the elitist air blowing through the Chelsea hotel and the Water Club does augur something new.

'A trade-up experience'

"You won't be bombarded by locals here," said Noel Stevenson, spokesman for the Water Club, putting not too fine a point on the obvious snobbery this hotel is trying to exploit.

"The Water Club is a trade-up experience," said Mark Vanderwielen, the hotel's general manager. "We wanted to create something that was not a buzzing hive, like most casino hotels, but quietly cosmopolitan, that would really turn on what we call 'Atlantic City rejecters.' "

In this quiet cosmos, there's a bamboo forest behind the front desk and a Zen-like feel to the lobby, where water flows across a curvilinear wall, leading to a solarium with a fireplace. There are five swimming pools, including two outdoors, each heated, with infinity edging. Floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the hotel's 43 floors offer dazzling views of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding bays. The color palette of the 800 rooms is turquoise, brown and beige, and there is an astonishing one-employee-per-room number of staff (800) to ensure that things are kept relentlessly tidy, not to mention that a small wooden tray of sweet, truffle-glazed grapes was left on my pillow each night.

One morning, I visited the hotel's 36,000-square-foot Immersion Spa. Immersion does not give treatments, but "experiences," I learn. All of these experiences are globally inspired. In the Japanese-style Hanoki soaking tubs, for example, one can loll about in waters infused with rare essences of Bourbon Vanilla, Massola Bark and Linden Blossom.

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