A gamble worth taking
Atlantic City and Valley Forge National Park, USA
In this age of digital photography and Photoshop manipulation, the old adage that “The camera never lies” is a lie in itself.
In the wake of last November’s Hurricane Sandy we were bombarded with images of devastation all along the USA’s East Coast. From the pictures on the news’ programmes it appeared that the gaming and leisure resort of Atlantic City had been particularly hard hit, with its famed four mile long and up to 60-ft wide wooden boardwalk smashed to smithereens.
Truth was, though, that only a couple of hundred metres of the historic walkway were damaged – and they were on the outskirts of town. Of course, there was a measure of damage right across town but much of it was purely superficial and the casinos, bars, clubs, restaurants and leisure facilities were soon back in action. Business has very much been resumed!
Challenging Las Vegas
Misconception is something of a blight for the New Jersey fun-time capital. For starters, far from being overshadowed by Las Vegas, it’s biggest rival, way out west in Nevada, Atlantic City can offer venues and entertainment of a similar quality and similar scale, with major international stars gracing its billboards. You’re unlikely to find the Drifters hanging about under the boardwalk but there’s every chance you’ll see some big star or other clambering out of a limo.
The town has a long and proud history as a playground. It has starred in movies and books but unfortunately the fiction has tended to focus on largely mythical mafia gangland connections – remember the toll-booth assassination scene in ‘The Godfather’? – rather than the fact that's this is actually one of America's safest and most user-friendly cities.
There's also a mistaken perception that the place locals call simply AC is somehow hard to get to – but the reality here is that the journey from Philadelphia International Airport to the Jersey Shores takes little more than an hour, and its four lane all the way.
Atlantic City has a substantial bed-stock inventory, with many major US chains represented, along with specialist gaming resort operators. Key players include Harrah's Resort, Caesars Atlantic City Casino, Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, Trump Plaza, The Water Club and the magnificent new Revel Resort. The latter (www.revelresorts.com) features1,100 state of the art guestrooms, 50 shops, a selection of restaurants, spas, various meeting rooms and a 5,500 seat theatre Recession or not, big investment new-builds have been proliferating here.
Rooms in this low-lying city of 40,000 permanent residents tend to be very generously super-sized. Indeed, my suite at the ultra-luxurious 520 bedroom Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center (www.sheratonatlanticcity.com) was so vast that a bike would have been handy to help me get to the other side of the room.
Atlantic City is not just about the conferences and gambling that keep it ticking year round. It’s also a great family resort, with clean, safe, sandy beaches and lots of entertainment options for the kids. The town was settled in 1783 and claims to be the USA’s oldest seaside resort. Yes, it’s a tad old-fashioned at times but that’s a part of its unusual charm. It’s altogether less tacky and in your face than Vegas, and I like that.
It offers quality shopping and lots of memorable eating-out experiences and is wonderful for weekend breaks and longer stays too – as long as the casinos don't tempt you to blow your bankroll too early.
Where revolution was fought
On the other side of Philly is Valley Forge – a key site in US history as the place where George Washington over-wintered the Continental Army during the War of Independence and now renowned as home to King of Prussia Mall (www.simon.com/mall/king-of-prussia-mall), the country's largest shopping precinct – with some 400 stores and 40 restaurants.
Close by, the Radisson Hotel and its brand new Valley Forge Casino Resort is well placed for visitors from Europe, being just two hours' drive from New York and 18 miles from downtown Philadelphia.
If you can drag yourself away from the gaming machines, the surrounding countryside is lush, green, wooded and delightful.
Make a beeline for the historic Peter Wentz Farmstead (www.peterwentzfarmsteadsociety.org and hike the1.25-mile nature trail in Worcester, Pennsylvania–just across the state line. You’ll step back in time as you walk by planted and fallow fields, orchards and meadows that look much as they did when the farmhouse was built by German settlers Peter and Roseanna Wentz between 1744 and 1748. The house too is much the same as it was back then.
The area’s big outdoor attraction though is the Valley Forge National Historical Park, centred on the site where George Washington mustered his troops during the harsh winter of 1777-79. Re-enactors in period uniforms add to the powerfully evocative ambience.
Here there are battlefields, a fully restored period farmhouse and a stately mansion that once served as a field hospital.
Other local attractions include biking trails, world-class gardens and the delightful Elmwood Park Zoo (www.elmwoodparkzoo.org).
How to get there
There are direct flights to Philadelphia from London Heathrow with BA (www.ba.com): and US Airways (usairways.co.uk). An alternative is to fly to New York City or Washington then complete the journey by the fast Amtrak rail service.
How to get around
You can get a direct train into Philadelphia from Atlantic City but to properly explore this history drenched area you will need to rent a car. It’s best to book before leaving Europe and UK-based Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk) offer the best deals, with up to 40 per cent discount, guaranteed lowest prices and a wide choice of vehicles.
Where to stay
As befits a buay seaside resort of its stature – think Brighton goes Stateside – Atlantic City has a very wide range of accommodations at all quality and price points.
The local CVB (Convention & Visitors Bureau, at www.atlanticcitynj.com) can help find the venue to suit your needs.
What and where to eat
In Atlantic City I'd thoroughly recommend the lavish breakfast spread at Teplitzky's, within the Chelsea Hotel (www.thechelsea-ac.com), and an al fresco seafood lunch on the dock at Scales Grill & Deck Bar (www.scalesgrill.com), on historic Gardner's Basin. As you might guess from the name and the location overlooking the bay, this one is heavy on the freshest of fish and succulent seafood.
And for dinner?: Well, my choice would be for the cosy and homely ambience at the ever busy Knife & Fork Inn (www.knifeandfork.com) – where affable owners Maryann and Frank Dougherty preside over an expansive menu starring massive steaks, succulent chops and the freshest of Atlantic line caught fish and seafood. My selection? Well it had to be cornmeal crusted calamari, followed by the Maine lobster, served thermidor style. Be well warned: portions are massive!
Hosting fine dining since 1982, Creed’s Seafood & Steaks (www.creedskop.com) is the place to eat when you are through shopping at King of Prussia Mall. The jumbo lump crabcake with purple sweet potato salad and chipotle tomato coulis was divine.
For some odd reason, in the USA the word entrée means 'main course' and not 'starter', as it means in France and everywhere else.
What to speak
You’ll hear a lot of Brooklyn Italian accents but English is the lingua franca.
What to spend (and tip)
There’s so much competition that prices are competitive even in high seasons. You can eat well for as little as US$20 a head. Leave 20 per cent tip for wait staff.