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Atlantic City

Saltwater taffy. Picture postcards. Amusement parks. The boardwalk. If you envisioned the beach vacations of your childhood, many of Atlantic City's features might come to mind. Today, the city is perhaps best known for its 14 casinos. Each year they attract 30 million visitors who spend $8 million a day on the gaming tables and slot machines. But the casinos didn't arrive until 1978. Before its incarnation as the gambling capital of the East Coast, Atlantic City was the "Queen of Resorts" and she set the standard for middle-class American vacations.

Days gone by: Atlantic City's Steel Pier recalls vacations of the past. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

Atlantic City sits on Absecon (pronounced ab-seek-in) Island, a barrier island that, until 1850, was inhabited by more blacksnakes and mosquitoes than people. Then Richard Osborne, a civil engineer from Philadelphia, and Dr. Jonathan Pitney hit upon a stroke of marketing genius. The pair touted the island as a convalescent cure-all, a place where salt water and sea breezes could cure thousands of ailments -- consumption, insanity, cardiac dropsy, Bright's disease and many other 19th century afflictions that have since faded away or been renamed. Pitney and Osborne charmed investors, laid 60 miles of railroad track, plugged in their publicity machine and Atlantic City rose from the sand dunes.

The first visitors arrived by train from Camden, N.J., on July 1, 1854. Within weeks, hotels, boarding houses and saloons were erected. By 1860, the city could accommodate thousands of visitors each season. Families hauled their steamer trunks into town for two-week stays. Southern African-Americans came seeking work in construction and hospitality. Other entrepreneurs like Pitney and Osborne made fortunes exploiting the public's desire for relaxation, pampering and good times.

On the boardwalk: Casinos, restaurants, shops and snack stands line Atlantic City's boardwalk. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

Atlantic City's most famed attraction, its boardwalk, made its debut in 1870, and quickly became synonymous with the American beach vacation. The first boardwalk was initially conceived to prevent guests from bringing sand into hotel lobbies. It was 12-feet-wide, one-mile long, and cost $5,000 to build. From canopied booths along the promenade, vendors peddled everything from books and haberdashery to red-hot frankfurters and saltwater taffy. The wooden structure became wider, longer and higher in five stages, with the final incarnation completed in 1896. Today the 40-foot-wide boardwalk languishes along four and one-half miles of Atlantic City's beach. Fortune-tellers, candy vendors and souvenir shops were -- and still are -- pervasive inhabitants of the boardwalk's commercial space.

Cultural center: The Garden Pier is home to Atlantic City's nostalgic Historical Museum. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

From the boardwalk sprung another of Atlantic City's famous icons: The amusement pier. In 1884, James Applegate opened the first successful one, which jutted 625 feet into the Atlantic Ocean and bore picnic areas, sunbathing pavilions and an ice-water fountain that used 3,000 pounds of ice daily. Other piers quickly followed and became settings for freak shows, wild rides, daredevil stunts, promotional gimmicks and natural oddities. Visitors were likely to see any combination of midgets, giants, snake charmers, Siamese twins, dancing tigers, incubated babies or flagpole sitters. At the Steeplechase Pier, visitors could rent costumes and enjoy amusement rides. From the Heinz Pier, condiment king H. J. Heinz gave away free pickles every day for 46 years. The world's largest typewriter (1,728 times standard size) sat on for 20 years. Harry Houdini made himself disappear on Million Dollar Pier. The hosted the majority of animal attractions, including Professor Nelson's Boxing Cats, kangaroo boxing, and the High Diving Horse, in which a young woman on horseback took a 40-foot nosedive from a wooden tower into a pool.

Only a few of the original piers remain. , with amusement rides and shopping, is the only one that retains its original appearance. Steel Pier, near , features roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, a carousel and games. The Garden Pier at St. James Place has been converted to an arts center.

Amusements: The flamboyant Trump Taj Mahal is located near the Steel Pier, which provides a welcome respite from the casinos. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

In contrast to the piers' frenetic pace, some of the grandest hotels in the world rose across the boardwalk in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their names evoked garden strolls and afternoon teas, rather than wrestling midgets and diving horses. But by the 1940s and '50s, Atlantic City's popularity declined with the increased popularity of airplane and automobile travel. Vacationers wanted to travel farther from home, and the Queen of Resorts decayed in the sun.

By the mid-1970s, the landmark hotels, once some of the world's most opulent, fell into disrepair or were imploded. The Claridge was the last of the grand old hotels to be built, in 1920, and it is the only one still standing. Now part of Bally's, it was Frank Sinatra's "Atlantic City home" in the 1930s.

In an effort to revive the city's flagging tourism industry and economy, New Jersey voters in 1976 approved a referendum to allow gambling in Atlantic City. By law, each casino must be part of a hotel complex with at least 500 guest rooms. A visit today typically involves a stay at one of these 13 casino resorts, most of which are located along the boardwalk.

Gone ashore: The Showboat, designed to resemble a large ship, is Atlantic City's northernmost casino. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

The northernmost casino is the , with its gingerbread decor and bowling alley. A block south is the , easily recognizable by its blue and purple turrets. Merv Griffin's -- which began as Resorts International and was the first casino to open, in 1978 -- is at North Carolina and the boardwalk. A few blocks away is the sprawling Bally's complex, which contains three casinos, including the Claridge and the . With a Western-town facade on the boardwalk and murals of steam locomotives, towering rock formations and wagon trains inside, the Wild Wild West reflects the trend toward theme-oriented casinos made popular in Las Vegas.

Hail, Caesar! This glamorous casino becomes a dramatic center of gaming activity by night. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

Farther south you'll find and , two of the city's more glamorous properties. Caesar's boasts an 18-foot replica of Michelangelo's "David" and one of the largest gaming areas in the city. Both hotels are close to the , site of the Miss America Pageant and other annual events like the Gourmet Food and Gift Show, the Atlantic City International Boat Show, the Archery Classic and several craft shows.

At the southern end of the boardwalk are the and the . Most of the casino/hotels feature the amenities of a major resort, such as pools, spas, gourmet dining, beach cabanas, sun decks, fitness centers and performance venues. If you want to save your money for gambling, or perhaps you've already lost some to the casinos, there are a few budget options along the boardwalk. , and are a few national budget chains that have outposts on the boardwalk. Three major casino/hotels are not near the boardwalk at all: , and , Atlantic City's newest casino resort, are located north of downtown near the marina on the Absecon Channel. They offer the same amenities and gambling opportunities found in the boardwalk hotels without the constant clamor and gaudiness.

Nightlife: Revelers check out the scene at Planet Hollywood, which plays thumping dance tunes. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

Despite the prevalence of slot machines, playing cards and dice, there is more to do in Atlantic City than gamble. The casinos host a variety of lounge acts and headliners. Neil Diamond, Sugar Ray, Dionne Warwick, Stone Temple Pilots and comedian Carrot Top are just a few of the performers who have passed through Atlantic City recently.

Though it's not the sexy strollers' paradise it once was, the boardwalk is still a great place for people-watching, souvenir shopping and junk-food consumption. If you don't want to walk the full four and one-half miles, hop into a -- a huge wicker chair on wheels. The chairs, imported from the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, are pushed by an attendant and accommodate two people. Rates are $20 for a half-hour and $35 for an hour, or you can pay by the number of blocks you want to travel ($5 for six blocks; $10 for 13 blocks, $13 for 22 blocks; and $20 for anything over 23 blocks). The chairs roll from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

In the mood for shopping? Visit two of the area's latest attractions. Park Place on the Boardwalk is a mix of entertainment and retail located on Million Dollar Pier. The Walk, which opened in 2005 encompassing several blocks west of the boardwalk surrounding Michigan Avenue, contains a number of high-end retail shops. On the 1000 block of Atlantic Avenue is , New Jersey's first shopping mall, with more than 30 stores.

If you'd like to learn more about the Queen of the Resorts in her heyday, head to the . In a town where tourists and their money are forever parted, this is the greatest bargain. Admission is free. Among other things, you can learn about the Miss America Pageant, which was first conceived to stretch the summer tourist season beyond Labor Day. Read about its early days, when it was known as the Atlantic City Fall Pageant and contestants competed in a Bathers Revue, the Rolling Chair Parade and the Inter-City Beauty Contest. The first pageant was held in 1921 and 16-year-old Margaret Gorman from Washington, D.C., bested seven other contestants. Adjacent to the museum is the , with three exhibition galleries featuring artwork by contemporary artists, and a gallery shop selling specialty items like handmade glass from historic Wheaton Village in Millville, N.J.

The sky is falling! Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum offers the chance to discover some of the stranger aspects of past boardwalk culture. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

With its collection of oddities, the is a natural fit in Atlantic City. Here you can see the world's only wood-carved medieval castle, a roulette wheel made entirely of jellybeans, and a gallery dedicated to disasters and human survival stories. The museum is located on the boardwalk next to the : Just look for the crumbling fayade that appears to have been squashed by Earth.

For a view of the city reserved for seagulls and , head to the . Built in 1857, the 171-foot beacon is the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey. For $5, you can climb 228 steps for an unbeatable view of the casinos, Boardwalk and shoreline. Four miles south of Atlantic City is the shore's most popular -- and perhaps only -- pachyderm. is a six-story-high wood-and-tin edifice that was built in 1881 to help promote real estate in South Atlantic City (now Margate). Since then it has done duty as a hotel, a home, and a tavern, and now, a National Historic Landmark. On top of the 90-ton pachyderm sits an Indian howdah (seat), and in her hollow belly is a gallery of exhibits and artifacts from her long life.

Sand in your toes: Some visitors to Atlantic City get so carried away at all the casinos that they forget to take a breath and enjoy the wide beach. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)

Of course, you shouldn't overlook the city's biggest attraction -- the one that brought thousands of sun-seeking, health-conscious vacationers to Atlantic City in the first place -- five miles of beach. As you sunbathe and dip into the waters of the Atlantic, study the boardwalk and the city beyond. Consider how the Queen of Resorts has changed and -- in some ways -- stayed the same. Casinos have replaced charming hotels, and motorized trams crowd out the wicker rolling chairs. But you'll still see fortune-tellers, food peddlers and entrepreneurs trying to make a quick dollar off the thrill-seeking public. You'll still hear the delighted shrieks of children and the laughter of adults who are enjoying a quintessential beach vacation.
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