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Gambling on chic

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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.

Feeling a bit peckish after my Balinese massage with coconut and lemon grass oils, I order a salad, poolside, for lunch. What arrived was a scant pile of micro-greens, with baby radishes sliced so thinly they were nearly translucent. Exactly two shrimp danced, tails entwined, in an artful pas de deux at the plate's side. Pretty, yes, but I was hungrier after eating than before. That's spa cuisine for you.

Later, when I decided to run to the beach, my somewhat circuitous route took me past the Walk, Atlantic City's quite swanky outdoor outlet shopping mall, which since 2004 has added more than 30 shops, including Ralph Lauren, J.Crew, Perry Ellis, Disney and Nike.

When I finally hit the sand, I overheard a vendor calling out his wares, singing the same words, over and over: "Ice-cold ice water! Ice-cold iced tea! Ice-cold ice cream!" The redundancy of all this - as opposed to piping-hot ice water? - charmed me somehow.

As dusk set in, off in the distance, I saw the enormous pink neon sign atop the Chelsea hotel, the other "new kid" on the beach.

Old is new again

The Chelsea may be new to the shore, but the hotel's developer, Bashaw, says its style of luxury is not.

"Everyone acts as if nongaming is such a big idea, that a hotel without slots in Atlantic City is unheard of, but this town was a world-class resort for over a hundred years before gambling was introduced in the 1970s," said Bashaw. "If you stayed in Atlantic City in the 1920s, everything was cutting edge. Kentucky Avenue was the jazz capital of the United States. The best hotel bathrooms had four sets of taps, for hot and cold water, and hot and cold seawater. We want to hearken back to that era, but update it."

A proponent of architectural history, especially that of the Jersey shore, Bashaw's company, Cape Advisors, is renowned for its highly successful restoration of Congress Hall in Cape May, N.J.

With its purple-and-white striped awning over the entrance, faux-zebra upholstery and terrazzo floors, the Chelsea's design is an affectionate nod to the exuberant style of the 1930s and '40s, when Atlantic City was in its heyday. The hotel's Game Room is decorated with charming photographs of people who played here in the past: Abbott and Costello, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope and a young, and impossibly handsome, Ronald Reagan.

"Atlantic City was whimsical, exotic, only a little naughty," Bashaw said.

In addition to the hotel's 331 guest rooms, there's Chelsea Prime, a steakhouse run by well-known restaurateur Stephen Starr, and the Fifth Floor, a nightclub overseen by night-life impresario Paul Sevigny, who has imported some of the luster of Beatrice Inn, his groovy and ridiculously-hard-to-get-into club in Manhattan's West Village. Best of all, the hotel's Sea Spa boasts a heated, saltwater swimming pool and something called a "social sauna."

Feeling a bit self-conscious, like Corzine (was I pretty enough to visit the social sauna?), I left the Chelsea on my last night in Atlantic City and walked a few blocks along the Boardwalk to have dinner at the Knife & Fork.

One of the oldest and most historically significant buildings in Atlantic City, this four-story restaurant was built in a Flemish style in 1912 as an exclusive men's club. You can still feel this heritage in the rich mahogany millwork, hand-painted ceilings and grand staircase. During Prohibition, the club flouted the laws of an alcohol-free society and brazenly served liquor at the bar. That is, until federal agents burst in and smashed all the bottles.

I pondered this colorful history while eating an excellent swordfish chop and sipping a nonalcoholic beer. Like the tide, social trends roll in and out of the Jersey shore. Liquor is banned, and then Prohibition is repealed. Gambling is popular, then declasse.

Today, Atlantic City is testing the waters of high-flying style and a return to elegance. Where will this next wave take the city? To answer that question, come see for yourself.

But, please, leave the Styrofoam cooler at home.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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