It’s been said of Disney World that, once you experience it, every other theme park is like a grandchild to a patriarch; fine in its own right, but not the master. Las Vegas, too, could easily carry that distinction, and a visit to Atlantic City post-Vegas is like hitting a downtown piano bar after an orchestra seat for Phantom of the Opera.
As any true New Yorker knows, however, downtown venues can often mean more decadence and thrills than Times Square lights, and Atlantic City’s non-airbrushed feel is more than likely to resonate with Gay DNA. I hit the shore over a recent weekend, date in tow, to get a taste of the gay vibe as well as to see what delights the city of Salt Water taffy and Trump’s Slumps has to offer. Like most Jersey beaches, there are cracks in the facade, but play your cards right and you’ll have a winning time.
The boardwalks itself, the largest in the world, is a New Jersey treasure, in the same way that Coney Island’s still-surviving park is a must-see in Brooklyn. (Remember, Monopoly properties were named after these parts.) Vendors and tattoo parlors and hot dog stands and blasting music bring it to life on nice days, and open-air beer joints and pizza stands add a sense of nostalgia hard to find these days—unlike Vegas or even Reno, AC doesn’t attempt to deny its past. You can swim or stroll, drink or let a pedi-cab drive you there.
The guys and gays are unpolished too, so much so that you often don’t know if the hot, shirtless dude next to you is into Snookie or The Situation. (Judging from the looks my date got, there’s a good chunk of the latter.) We first checked into Harrah’s, set away from the strip, and ended up dining at Luke Palladino, an excellent, and appropriately formal, Italian restaurant. Get anything, but start with the Truffled Grissini, breadsticks with a bunch of stuff wrapped in prosciutto. Trust me. The rooms at Harrah’s are formal and comfortable, if not plush or overdone. And who cares? The highlight is the indoor pool, a glass-enclosed year-round sanctuary that’s full of typical sunbathers by day and turns into one of the hottest clubs in town after midnight. (Ask for a high room if you’re worried about the sounds drifting up to your room.)
Indoor cabanas and club chairs and white couches surround the main pool, where drunken partiers get splashed and sloshed, girls giggle and guys give attitude, and gays like us get a bird’s eye view of how the hetero half lives. While I wouldn’t kiss my date here—but, um, I seriously don’t think anyone would have noticed—the feel was one big pleasure party. We both got shots and stares, from women and men.
Day two took us to Caesars, after ordering some morning Cotton Candy Cake from Sammy D’s. According to my calendar, it’s always time for great desserts. Carl, the counter guy, has to be the most engaging waiter since those chicks from Alice, and he’s even more fun than the food. If Carl’s high on anything, it’s life, and one of the things I noticed about the waiters and bartenders and shop owners in AC is how polite they are. Like most beach towns, the residents have pride in their getaway playground.
Caesars Atlantic City is on the Boardwalk, and the rooms are a bit plusher than Harrah’s. (I still don’t know how they got that TV in the bathroom mirror.) Our room overlooked the water (highly recommended), and those waves would be a treat even in winter months. Simplicity still reigns (no bathrobes in either hotel), and the color palettes are simple and unobtrusive. Both resorts had good service, and the only reminder of our sexuality was when the front desk woman at Caesars gave us the once-over and double checked to make sure one bed was sufficient. In truth, she seemed more concerned that she’d screwed up the reservation than the idea of two men in the same bed.
The afternoon was spent cruising casinos (while some hotels seem stuck in 1974, with too much smoke and patrons who look like they’ve not left their chair since Carter was President), others were flashier and a bit more hip. Caesars has an elaborate gambling set-up—bring a map—and we checked out brand-new Revel, not officially open, but with the first-ever casino that allows you to look over the ocean while waiting for three 7’s.
For dinner, we hit the Caesars pier shops and stumbled onto Continental on the second floor. The tapas-centric restaurant was delish, and the views overlooking the water, amazing. The upper level goes over the water, with beach chairs—and real sand—lined up by the windows, and a fountain light show at the end. It’s a charming and romantic spot, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Atlantic City, as one employer told me, is working hard on its gay appeal, and you don’t have to go farther than Believe, the nightly drag show at Resorts Casino, to find “community.” Yes, it’s a typical Diva impersonation act—Liza with a D was fab—and the host tells everyone afterward to head across the hall to Pro Bar, the only gay bar on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The club’s dark and retro and lacking in excess ‘tude, and highlighted by an outdoor, 13th floor balcony overlooking the city.
The next morning we checked out via the TV, and drove home to New York in a couple of hours. No airport, no crowds, no fuss, just a stop at a local coffee shop to fuel up. And yes, the waitress at the diner was a winner.