Place Your Bets: Atlantic City Ups Its Hotel Stakes

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Something was amiss in Atlantic City. Stretched out on a chaise longue inside Harrah's Resort's new tower, I did not hear one blip of a slot machine, see one spin of a roulette wheel or overhear one $%*&@# from a losing gambler. It was as if someone had made the casino go poof!

"You feel like you are nowhere near the casino," said Brian Rappaport, a 36-year-old New Jerseyan who was relaxing poolside with friends. "I feel like I am on some tropical island."

The New Jersey city that wants to keep visitors always turned on is now encouraging them to tune out. Two recent additions to the hotel landscape, Harrah's Resort's Waterfront Tower and Borgata's Water Club, have separated themselves from the casino ruckus, providing a pair of tranquil planets within the gambling universe. It also helps that both hotels are away from the Boardwalk, in the more secluded marina area, which cuts down on drop-in traffic.

"Gaming has taken a back seat," said Chris Jonic, a Harrah's spokesman. "We want to be more of a destination than just a drive-in place to play slots."

Atlantic City is a bit behind the curve. Years ago, Las Vegas expanded its market beyond gaming, tempting visitors with top-chef restaurants, boutiques with catwalk couture and entertainment on par with Broadway. And Reno now touts itself as "America's Adventure Place," and it's not referring to the adrenaline rush at the blackjack table.

But Jersey is catching up.

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The Harrah's annex, open since March and distanced from the casino floor by a marble hallway, features 960 rooms on 44 floors; three restaurants, including a buffet with staffed cooking stations (e.g., Mongolian barbecue, baked potato, dessert crepes); a fitness center; a sprinkling of shops; an Elizabeth Arden Red Door spa; and a watery complex simply called the Pool.

No matter the month or weather system, it's always a sunny summer day at the Pool, thanks to a 90-foot-high glass dome that helps keep the temperature at 78 to 82 degrees, with 50 to 60 percent humidity. Tall palms, beds of orchids and lush flora further feed the tropical fantasy.

"You don't have to take your wife to Hawaii now," Rappaport joked to pal Joseph Lopresto, who spent $100 for a day's use of a private poolside cabana that included a flat-screen TV, a snug sofa and filmy white curtains that lower during naptime.

Three nights a week, the pool area transforms into a happening nightclub (DJ inside, bands on the sundeck); on Tuesdays it doubles as a dive-in movie theater (two films for $5). Post-flick, the only after-hours entertainment was in the casino -- or in my room.

Sinking into the marshmallow-soft mattress dressed crisply in white, I first stared at the plasma TV that covered most of one wall. Then I turned my attention to the better picture show: Outside, a bright moon burned neon in the inky sky.

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