By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; WE17
In a little town called Bethlehem, I shopped for Christmas ornaments by day -- and hit the slot machines at night.
No, not that Bethlehem. I'm talking about Bethlehem, Pa., a town whose yearly celebration of Christmas is so intense that it's known as "Christmas City, USA." Even in May, many houses sport electric candles in the windows, and shops sell holiday ornaments.
So when the casino resort company Las Vegas Sands Corp. chose Bethlehem as the site of its only U.S. property outside Vegas, residents were rightly perplexed.
What did Sin City want with Christmas City?
"Why here? Why Bethlehem?" wondered Debbie Mangano, whom I chatted up at a country furniture store that was selling Christmas ornaments at a discount. She was at a loss for an answer.
So was I, so I thought I'd head out to the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem and see what there was to see. "Resort" is still a bit of a misnomer: The hotel hasn't been built yet, despite the casino's grand opening a year ago. But I found that building impressive: high ceilings, exposed piping, brick walls, red carpeting. It had the elegance of a few casinos I'd been to in Vegas, plus the grittiness of Bethlehem Steel, the now-defunct company that had once been the bedrock employer in town.
Perhaps a little too gritty, I thought, as I eyed the overflowing ashtrays between the slot machines. "It's been here a while, you can tell," said Sharon Fournier, a resident of nearby Bath, pointing to the ashtray as we sat side by side losing at the 2-cent slots. Nonetheless, Fournier found the casino progressive for a city like Bethlehem. "I've done all the Christmas stuff I can do," she said.
My friend Seema, from Los Angeles, and her husband, Mark, were visiting family nearby, so I had them meet me at the Sands for dinner. Afterward, we hit the casino floor. Seema and Mark were surprised that there were no game tables (table games are slated to debut this summer). We settled for the slot machines, pressing buttons like automatons while listening to tunes by U2 and Def Leppard.
Oddly, Mark's machine made no noise. Mine, called Diamonds and Devils, made too much. Any time a diamond or a devil appeared in the first column, the image would light up and a bell would sound, raising my hopes that the next few columns would produce all sorts of joy when they stopped spinning.
"Something's happening here," said Seema, equally optimistic. We stared, and then-- nothing. Such a tease.
I watched my $20 quickly disappear into the nickel machine. Mark lost his $20 in less time than I did. A cocktail waitress came by with weak drinks. We abandoned the slots and headed to the virtual blackjack table, where we sat in front of a TV screen with a revolving set of female dealers, all with waists not much bigger than my right thigh, all dressed in bustiers or strapless dresses. Whenever a player went over 21, the fembot dealers would thrust their chests forward and declare, "Busted!"
We all ended up busted that night.
I needed a serious change of scenery, so the next day, I went for a run around Bethlehem's historic area on the north side of town, less than two miles from the casino. I ran past the 250-year-old Sun Inn, where John Hancock once signed his name at the innkeeper's desk; the 1810 Goundie House, built by the town's brewer; the Central Moravian Church, the oldest Moravian church in North America; and the 1751 Old Chapel.
"It's sort of one extreme to another," said Arlene Brockel, owner of the Chocolate Lab on Main Street, when I stopped by her shop after my run to try her handmade chocolates (reversing all the good things my run had done for my body).
I strolled down Main Street, ogling the many historic buildings as well as the sophisticated new shops and restaurants. My favorite was Seasons, a recently opened oil and vinegar taproom. Lining the walls were metal dispensers filled with oil and vinegar from around the world. Little cups next to each dispenser let you taste the Champagne vinegar, the white truffle oil, the organic Tuscan extra virgin olive oil and more. I felt as though I were in a wine-tasting room.
This being Bethlehem, however, I finally couldn't resist following the signs to the Christmas Shop at Main Street Commons. I didn't find it, but I did come across a Christmas room in Babak Kamyab's Blue Cactus, where you can buy all sorts of things: jewelry, stained-glass lamps or even Turkish charms for warding off the evil eye. "It's so much easier not to store it and then bring it all out again at Christmas," Kamyab said of the holiday merchandise.
I asked him what he thought of the casino. "That's on the other side of town," he said, reflecting a sentiment that many longtime residents seem to hold about the southside venue. "Nobody is going to know Bethlehem because of Sands Casino."
I had to agree. Despite the flashy addition to the landscape, this little town of Bethlehem will never be known as anything but Christmas City.GETTING THERE
Bethlehem is about 190 miles from Washington. Take Interstate 95 north toward Philadelphia, then I-476 north toward Plymouth Meeting. Take the exit for PA 663 north and turn left at John Fries Highway/PA 663. Turn left at PA 309. Turn right at PA 378.STAYING THERE
72 E. Market St.
B&B in a century-old Colonial revival mansion. Rooms start at $165 a night.
437 Main St.
Historic 128-room hotel in downtown Bethlehem. Rooms start at $139 a night.EATING THERE
Burgers and More by Emeril
77 Sands Blvd.
One of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's two restaurants in the Sands Casino Resort. The burgers and more start at $5.
74 W. Broad St.
Serves cuisine with French and Asian influences. Entrees from $13.PLAYING THERE
Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem
77 Sands Blvd.
Casino with slot machines, restaurants, a food court and lounges. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week year round.
Moravian Museum of Bethlehem
66 W. Church St.
Open noon to 4 p.m Thursday-Sunday, April 8 to Dec. 31. $7.INFORMATION