Fringed by a stretch of ocean that seemingly goes on forever, Atlantic City’s Boardwalk is sublime in the wintertime. In the morning, it’s practically yours to enjoy, shared only with a few other souls and felines. Relaxing in the sun, with a pristine view of the Atlantic Ocean; breathing in the salty sea air; melting away any niggly stresses brought about by the daily grind – this is a winter-worthy short escape from New York City.
I had arrived to Atlantic City (AC) with preconceived notions of it; generalizations based on hearsay and TV shows. My previous word associations with the place included: gamblers, casinos, rowdy tourists, a beach, Jersey Shore. Having just returned from a trip there, I can assuredly say that AC proved me completely and utterly wrong. I’ve thrown all aforementioned assumptions to the wind, and I can confidently pair the City up with the following word/phrase/fact associations: never-ending stretch of beautiful beach; glorious Atlantic Ocean; hedonistic hotel & casino experiences; the inspiration for Monopoly; a historic Boardwalk; nostalgic architecture; salt water taffy; Boardwalk Empire (I have since started watching the show).
In a similar vein to Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover, the New York Times’ 36 hours in… and, at a stretch, Jack Bauer’s adventures in 24 (though hardly as dramatic and drawn-out), here’s an unraveling of how to spend a night & day in Atlantic City, from my point of view.
6pm: Arrive in Atlantic City. The Trump Taj Mahal’s Chairman Tower is a great base. Located at the northern end of the Boardwalk and without too many buildings abutting it, there’s a feeling of spaciousness here. Breathe a sigh of relaxed relief. The path from the main lobby to the Tower rooms is a sea of escalators, chandeliers, mosaic tiles, shops and restaurants. It’s all pretty bedazzling, in a good way. Highly advisable: Pause and take in the view from your room – though it’s impossible not to, given the wrap around floor to ceiling windows showcasing a cascade of flickering city lights below.
Lights and reflections: from 93rd floor of Chairman Tower
8pm: Dinner at Trattoria Il Mulino. Carpaccio, Risotto al Frutti di Mare, Salmone Livornese, Arugula & Prosciutto Pizza – this is good Italian food. For kicks, add a few items that may not be part of your everyday dining repertoire: oysters, prosecco, tiramisu, limoncello – so good! Best ambient feature about this restaurant: a frosted windowed wall that separates the kitchen from its diners; the staff’s hustle and bustle is always on show. Located on the lobby level of the hotel, you’d hardly know that you’re dining just steps away from the casino floor.
Trattoria Il Mulino
11pm: Casino Territory. Slot machines, Blackjack tables, Baccarat. Not a huge gambler? Just enjoy the table activity all around, and admire the Indian inspired interior design – concave ceilings adorned with mirrors, ornate gilded fringing, and elaborate crystal chandeliers. Have a nightcap – you’re here for one night, after all.
7.30am: The amazingly stunningly gloriously delightfully breathtaking morning view.
Yes, this sentence makes absolute sense when you wake up to a vista of the Atlantic Ocean and a never-ending sky, lit up in pinks and blues as the sun rises. In winter, a vista of the Atlantic Ocean and defined cityscapes are not visible after nightfall, so this view may indeed come as a surprise. Once you’ve gotten a hold of yourself, and reasoned as to why you don’t wake up to a view like this every morning, you’ll may feel a sudden urge to grab your coat, head outdoors and see the Ocean for yourself. First things first though – coffee is required.
"You and your pink sky..." from Sex in the City, Season 5, Episode 3
Order room service. Ask for a pot of freshly brewed coffee (pronto!) and a selection of breakfast pastries. Watch as the sunrise gives way to a new day. If you simply can’t wait, grab a Starbucks coffee and croissant from downstairs. Leave your things with the 24-hour Bell desk, head through the casino, and exit onto the brightly lit Boardwalk. Breathing in fresh air never felt so good!
A Boardwalk perspective
9.30am: Relax. Put your feet up and recline on one of the benches lining the Boardwalk, whilst soaking in the sun’s rays. At this time of year, the beach is enjoyed by a few wandering souls, puffed up seagulls as well as sun baking alley cats that set up home under-the-boardwalk in the cooler months. Originally built in 1870 as a temporary structure to protect hotel interiors from sand, the Boardwalk had undergone about five restorations before it was finally finished. At 4-miles long and 24 feet wide, the loveliest features about it are its Parisian inspired lamp posts and the herringbone pattern of the floorboards.
This part of the Boardwalk is defined by the Steel Pier. Opened in 1898, it was the first pier to be built on iron pilings and steel girders. In its earlier days, the pier required full evening dress and one admission ticket allowed for 16 hours of continuous entertainment! Today, the Steel Pier continues its tradition as an amusement park. As it is on hiatus during winter, I cannot speak for its admission prices, though can say that it makes for a beautiful vista from the Boardwalk; its Ferris Wheel set against a eternal hue of sky- and ocean-blues.
Steel Pier, reflected
Steel Pier - a southern vantage point
10.30am: The Beach. There are a number of pathways to the beach that may be accessed from the Boardwalk. The beach is made for meandering during the wintertime: tune into the meditative sounds of its gentle waves; breathe in the salty sea air; take in the still beauty of the day; hear the crack of seashells underneath your (covered) feet. If you’re a fan of the ocean, this is a great season to enjoy it.
View - under and through the Steel Pier
11am: Strolling. Find a pathway from the beach leading back to the Boardwalk. It becomes more built up the further you walk south; enjoy the decades-old architecture of the stores, colourful (and empty/closed) ice cream and apple dumpling kiosks, and the gently undulating grassy sand dune vistas.
Ice cream kiosk - empty
"Isn't this amazing? It's like a postcard from the twenties..." Carrie Bradshaw
Your jaunt along the Boardwalk will undoubtedly be interrupted by the pusher of a rolling-chair, asking if you’d like a ride. These rolling chairs debuted on the Boardwalk in 1887, imported from the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, and provide the weary walker with an excuse to be (physically) pushed along the length of the Boardwalk. A centuries-old tradition, they’d make sense on a rainy, extremely cold day, though would clearly limit your photo opportunities.
A rolling-chair pusher
Taffy Time. Stop for some Salt Water Taffy at Fralinger’s, and keep these delectable sticky treats in your bag for later. The story behind the sweet that made its debut in AC, is that a storm swamped a candy store in 1883 and dampened its supply of taffy. The salty flavour of the sweets was a palette-pleaser, and so ‘salt water taffy’ was born. Personal favourites: watermelon, peach and sour apple flavours.
Fralinger's, on the Boardwalk
Set installation on the Boardwalk
Reflect. Pause at the Korean War Veteran Memorial, located near the arch in Brighton Park. Here, beneath an eternal flame, 822 names of soldiers from New Jersey are engraved – either killed or still missing in action.
Behind the memorial you’ll notice one of the most architecturally beautiful buildings in AC – The Claridge. Opened in the 1930’s and known as “The Skyscraper by the Sea”, Marilyn Monroe stayed here when she was grand marshal to a Miss America pageant. For a time, it was the only hotel to offer in-room fresh and sea water for its purported healing qualities. Known as one of the last pre-casino hotels, it is now owned by Bally’s Atlantic City.
The Claridge (right)
The Claridge - up close
Game Trivia. This area in which the hotel stands is also the setting for Park Place, made famous by Charles Darrow who developed the game of Monopoly in 1929 using the city’s streets.
A little further on, and you’ll come to ‘The Pier Shops at Caesars’. Walk right through its shop-edged pathway and onto the outdoor deck. Here, you’ll experience a 360 view of the Atlantic and the Boardwalk. Standing over the ocean, this vantage point shows just how huge those casinos are relative to say, the Steel Pier and the Boardwalk’s shops. Bask in the knowledge that you’re livin’ on the edge.
Down the line and on the edge
Voluminous cloud cover
Boardwalk, further south. Boardwalk Hall (right)
12.30pm: Lunch. None of the mobile kiosks are open during the cooler months, and food options on the Boardwalk are limited to casino buffets or chain restaurants. Pure Americana: head to Johnny Rocket’s and order that burger and fries. It’s cold out there and this is vacation food that tastes good.
1.30pm: Boardwalk Hall ~ a beautiful example of Roman Revival and Art Deco architecture. Built in 1929, this was once the largest freestanding building in the world. The Boardwalk Hall was AC’s original convention centre though in World War I, its use was slightly altered – it served as a training facility to prepare thousands of soldiers for service.
It has hosted Miss America Pageants as well as Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential nomination during the Democratic National Convention. This convention took place one year after Kennedy’s assassination, during which time a statue of President John F. Kennedy was dedicated. It stands in the Kennedy Plaza directly in front of Boardwalk Hall, which is now a concert/event venue.
Kennedy Plaza's seats: This space contains an amphitheater for outdoor concerts and is also used as a speaking point by politicians.
2pm: Photo Opps. Turn around and head back in the direction from which you came. This is the perfect opportunity to take those photos of what you may have missed along the way.
Civil Rights. At around the Central Pier (an amusement arcade), turn off the Boardwalk and onto Martin Luther King Blvd. A few blocks down is the Civil Rights Garden – a public sculpture space designed by Larry Kirkland, and made up of 11 granite columns, inscribed with quotes by American civil rights activists. A sculpture of a hand and bell over a reflective pool (in warmer months) also stand here, in the centre of the space.
Entrance to the Civil Rights Garden
2.30pm: Back Streets. You’ll walk through a poor neighbourhood; past a lot of churches, abandoned buildings, motels reminiscent of another time and storefronts that wouldn’t look out of place on Route 66. You’ll finally come to the casinos – you can’t miss their signage.
3.30pm: Victorian Houses and Lucy the Elephant. Drive south along Atlantic Avenue, heading to Margate. Enroute, you’ll be forgiven for gawking at the beautiful mansions that line both sides of the road, and its side streets. Large balconies, turrets and spires – there’s some striking architecture here.
Mansions and summer houses, lining the beach
At #9200, you’ll come face to face with Lucy – The World’s Largest Elephant. With a story not unlike that of the infamous Hollywood sign; Lucy was built to in 1881, as a gimmick to attract potential buyers to land holdings along the coast of South Atlantic City (now Margate). She has survived the test of time and since been completely restored – at a cost of just under $2 million. In 1976, Lucy was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976; “the oldest surviving example of a unique form of zoomorphic architecture, and the oldest roadside attraction in America.” Open to the public, though closed at this time of year, she can be viewed from the street or the beach. 4pm: Shopping. Head back down Atlantic Avenue, towards the Atlantic Expressway. If you’re up for some shopping, the Outlet shops are located in the town’s centre. Avoid a headache and don’t park in their dedicated Lot – the paid street parking is much closer, and a spot shouldn’t be hard to find.
5.30pm: Back to NYC. Once you’ve loaded up on the essentials, bid adieu to AC. Be grateful that you were able to revel in its wintry glory; the next time you come, it may be at the height of summer.