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Atlantic City is synonymous with gambling, which for better or worse put this part of New Jersey on the map and keeps it there. The thing is, for most travelers making the pilgrimage here – and many do from points worldwide, including as a side trip from New York City 126 miles away – an inevitable question lingers: What will I do with my remaining hours once my gambling budget runs dry? The answer, known to non-gamblers who’ve been coming here for years, is to treat Atlantic City like the beach community it is rather than as a life-support system for a string of casinos.
Sure, you’ll find first-class entertainment at the casinos as well as Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center, but there’s a reason why this city inspired the board game Monopoly – there are places to see, properties to consider and, certainly, things to buy. High season for A.C.’s beach and boardwalk pursuits is summertime, but it would be foolish to count out this part of the Jersey Shore after Labor Day – good weather lingers here well into early October, and deep hotel discounts assert themselves through the fall. So pass “Go,” pocket your $200 (or more, if you dare) and experience Atlantic City in a manner you may not have considered: in daylight.
5…There’s actually a beach here. Take that, Vegas.
For the record, Atlantic City has 11 casinos, all but three of them bordering the boardwalk and beach. The beach is free and open to the public and, believe it or not, the water stays warm through September. Regardless of water temperature you may want to pass the time collecting shells. Afterwards, for a different kind of shelling, go find a life-sized Mr. Peanut at the Atlantic City Historical Museum (Boardwalk at New Jersey Avenue, on Garden Pier, free admission), a reminder of the Planter’s Peanuts store that was once on the boardwalk –the Trump Taj Mahal was built on the store’s former site. At the museum you’ll also get a free Heinz pickle pin, a century-old tradition that’s a throwback to when Heinz operated a pier in A.C. and gave away product samples. Next door to the historical museum is the free, worth-a-look Atlantic City Art Museum. Hours for both museums are 10-4, good to keep in mind if need a break from walking along or lingering on the beach.
As an alternative to snacky boardwalk food, check out Angelo's Fairmount Tavern (2400 Fairmount Avenue at Mississippi, open daily for dinner, weekdays for lunch), in the section of A.C. known as Ducktown. Try the baked lasagna with sausage on the side that for good measure also comes with a salad. Reservations must to be made in person if your party has fewer than 10 diners; otherwise, sign in at 8 pm and know that you may not be seated until 9:30.
4… Take a walk on the Boardwalk.
The boardwalk, the ocean, the air – this is the decidedly undramatic side of the Jersey Shore, and it adds up to a pleasurable escape. You can walk the four-mile plus planks year-round, even in winter. And depending on the season, you’ll encounter what may be a predictable array of beach community merchandise. Many stores sell the same touristy t-shirts, knick-knacks, and knock-off designer handbags, but if you really want to drill down with your vacation bargain hunting, there are two 99-cents stores on the boardwalk. The first one is at 2523 Boardwalk at Texas Avenue (after the Tropicana, going towards Trump Plaza). The second, at Tennessee Avenue, at the Arcade, has one of the best deals in town -- two sodas for 99 cents – along with what could be an unofficial icon of the AC boardwalk, the cheap sunglasses display.
If walking the boardwalk gets tired, hire a rolling chair -- reminiscent of a rickshaw and pushed by a person. As enduring as the rolling chair tradition is the degree to which you’ll be hassled to hire one: you’ll be approached nonstop to takes rides, no matter where you happen to be on the boardwalk. Prices vary from a few bucks to upwards of $20 depending on the distance and the vendor. However you’re getting around, cast a curious glance at the Nadine Boggs Carpenter Pavilion, between New York and Kentucky Avenues: it’s the site of the future Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial, the winning model for which will be selected in late September.
3…Walk the Walk, consume the sub of a lifetime.
The outlet stores in A.C. are formidable and can be found at The Walk (Michigan at Arctic Avenue.).You’d do well to sign up for a discount coupon booklet ahead of time at www.acoutlets.com prior to tackling some familiar brands: Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, CorningWare, and the always-packed Coach are among your choices. Get there by turning at Bally's Casino and heading past Pacific Avenue, then take Atlantic Avenue to Arctic Avenue.
After the Walk, it’s pretty much mandatory to pay your respects to the White House Sub Shop (2301 Arctic Avenue at Mississippi, not far from Angelo’s Fairmont Tavern), which you might recognize from its brief cameo in "The Bounty Hunter." Virtually every bit of wall space is consumed by photos of celebrity sub fans, which gives you something to look at while waiting a fair amount of time for a booth or table (to-go orders are also accepted). The turkey sub and White House Special -- Italian meats with provolone – are both worthy, but the sandwich that gets most people in the door is the voluminous cheese steak. Full or half-subs can be purchased, though even a half may too much for one sitting. An entire sub will comfortably serve four normal humans or two moderately hungry ones.
2…Yes, more shopping, but free surprises await.
Yes, The Pier Shops at Caesars is a mall, which means more shopping, but it’s in a quirky-looking vertical mall with surprisingly upscale stores like Gucci, Burberry, Hugo Boss, and Tiffany. And if your iPod ends up in the drink, there’s an Apple store here, too. Best tip: At the concierge desk, show your out-of-town I.D. for a discount booklet. On the second floor, stop by Boardwalk Favorites for ice cream, popcorn, and the ubiquitous salt water taffy. On the third floor where some restaurants are located, you can sit in a grey, wooden beach chair in the midst of sand and get a blood-pressure lowering, ocean-front view of the hotels. And another surprise lurks in the back of the first floor: A great Las Vegas-style water show, complete with lights and music, is shown there every hour.
1…Do the Steel Pier and a lesser-known basin.
Even if you don’t have kids in tow, no trip to A.C. is quite complete without a trip to the Steel Pier (1000 Boardwalk at Virginia Avenue, across from Taj Mahal, 75 cents for individual tickets, $20 for Rocket), which after the summer season is open on weekends through October. The amusement park packs such rides as The Rocket, which sends you up in the air in a capsule-like ball at a speed of more than 100 miles an hour. Helicopter rides are also available ($34/per person and up).
Another amusement area, Central Pier Arcade and Speedway (1400 Boardwalk at Tennessee Avenue) has an arcade with games starting at a quarter, NASCAR go-karts (single ride $8) and paintball (beginning at $2/bag).
After these amusements, walk one block over from the Boardwalk to Pacific Avenue and catch a jitney ($2.25), to historic Gardiner's Basin, one of the more underappreciated parts of town. Along with the Atlantic City Aquarium (800 North New Hampshire Avenue, $7.00 adults, $4.00 children) there are arts-and-crafts stores, boutiques, and restaurants here. At the basin, as elsewhere in A.C., be on the lookout for aggressive seagulls, who've been known to snatch food right out of visitors’ hands.
Photos by Richard C. Murray/RCM Images Inc.