AS THE TRIM WHITE FERRYBOAT glides into sight, a flurry of anticipation ripples through the crowd of tourists on the pier. Many of us are laden with bright green Monmouth Park coolers, free gifts from an earlier visit to that track. Others are adorned with Monmouth Park T-shirts and visors, free souvenirs from other festive giveaway days. One thing to be noted about gambling vacationers, whether they are sipping complimentary drinks at a craps table or venturing to sea in search of a race track, is that they have a deep appreciation of all things free.

We are huddled on Pier 11, a somewhat seedy appendage to the foot of Wall Street in Manhattan. A few furlongs north, a larger group of tourists is bustling toward the fashionable South Street Seaport. We are oblivious and clearly out of step with such current trends. We are about to be launched on our own brand of one-day vacation -- a lovely boat ride to the New Jersey shore, with an even lovelier one-mile racing strip at the other end. But like everyone who knows that you can't win every race, we are steeled for disappointment. So it barely dampens the spirit of the entourage when the first ferry turns out to be a mirage, and a guy leans over the side to yell, "Commuter service to Bayonne."

Minutes later, the Monmouth boat bumps into its berth at the pier. The patrons file quickly aboard, hurrying to secure good locations on the sun-bathed top deck or in proximity to the small but efficient bar. Watching people unfurl their Daily Racing Forms like the proudest of old sailors' flags, I can't help but feel a bit smug. Most are simply looking forward to 10 exciting races, with a live telecast of a New York racing attraction thrown in. I have designated the day as something more rigorous. From Monmouth, I plan to steer a course farther south, for a night of racing at Atlantic City Race Course. Then I will settle into the Trump Castle casino at Atlantic City for a long night of cards and dice. The pulse quickens at the thought. I am embarking upon a gamblethon.

Of course, this kind of instant-fix vacation is not for everyone. Research indicates that many people out there aim their vacations at sleepy lagoons and virgin beaches on islands with unpronounceable names. Many others seek high adventure and deep self-discovery in explorations of dangerous and uncharted terrain. For those who would prefer an Ironman Triathlon, I stand awash in admiration. But I also beg to explain why, beyond obvious physical limitations, I'll take a gamblethon.

I have no special prejudice against island idylls -- as long as they're on Manhattan or Miami Beach. But one August, I let myself be lured to a splendid spot on Kauai. I snorkeled in lagoons and rode in a helicopter over its majestic coast. That was the first day. After that, I found myself making mind bets on outriggers that paddled past the cottage. I also called Saratoga race track every morning to stay in action.

As for beaches, a famous gambler named the Pink Dinosaur once put them in perspective. "What if you went to the beach and got a wonderful tan and looked at a hundred beautiful women in bikinis?" he asked. "You would think you had a great time. But you would never know if you had just wasted the luckiest day of your life. That's why, when you really think about it, you have to make a bet on something every day. Otherwise, you might never know that you were walking around lucky."

In the adventure-and-self-discovery department, the gambler need bow to no one. Wagering may exact no greater physical toll than excessive perspiration of the palms. But psychologically, the bettor is constantly crawling across endless green felt deserts or scaling the mountain peaks of racing's Pick Six. Think of a gamblethon as a kind of Outward Bound for the wallet.

As the ferry chugs smoothly into the harbor and past the Statue of Liberty, it is easy to lose oneself in the ambiance and tradition of the entire ritual. And gambling tours are almost always imbued with a very special sense of ritual. Once there was a time when shooting craps meant flying into the otherwordly glitter of Las Vegas, and betting on horses on certain days in certain seasons was such a challenge that getting there was indeed part of the excitement.

The sole winter racing franchise in the Northeast once belonged to Maryland's Bowie Race Course. The track was no-frills, the transportation something short of the Orient Express. But hundreds of us would eagerly board trains and buses for high-spirited outings to the track in the pines. The most famous incident associated with such journeys was a terrible train wreck a few miles north of Bowie. Doggedly, passengers clambered from the wreckage into the snow, many of them drenched with blood. The legal-minded in the crowd shouted to the victims to stay in place: "You can sue the railroad for your injuries!"

The passengers never hesitated in their headlong rush toward the grandstand. Lawsuits take time. The daily double was closing in half an hour.

The Monmouth ferry, which was restored to service this summer after a two-decade hiatus caused when the Jersey dock burned down, is not without its own slightly grisly legend. Noted gambler Harvey Pack swears that he was aboard one morning in the early 1960s when some poor soul fell overboard. As the crew began tossing life preservers and idling the craft so the man could be hauled back aboard, much of the crowd began chanting, "Let him swim. We're gonna miss the first race."

The man was rescued, but his brief dousing could be a metaphor for gambling expeditions. Call the mood total immersion.

That is why there are neither windows nor clocks in casinos. As a reveler plunges deeper and deeper into a world of dice and cards and piles of chips, he brooks no interruption from outside realities. Never trust anything about the person who tells you that he goes to Atlantic City for the boardwalk or Vegas for the entertainment. He or she who would desire a clock in a casino would glance at a wristwatch while making love.

Wise gamblers often plan a pilgrimage with the immersion principle foremost in their thoughts. Las Vegas, of course, takes the immersion concept to its limits, offering the fledgling vacationer everything from ritual baptism to drowning, as well as assorted combinations of the two. A pair of stories illustrate this principle. One happened to a man about New York named Tony. The other happened to me.

Years ago, a wealthy friend asked Tony to drive his car from California to New York. As a bonus, he told Tony to feel free to stop in Vegas for a few days. Since he wasn't sure what accommodations he could afford anyway, Tony proceeded to stand at a dice table for 48 giddy hours -- accumulating a pile of $100 chips in front of him. At that point, the pit boss called him aside.

"We have a suite prepared for you," Tony was told. "And what else would you like -- champagne, steaks, shows or beautiful women?"

"I'll take it all," said Tony. For the next four days he received consummate high-roller treatment. By then, unfortunately, the money had trickled back to the cashier's cage whence it had come. One night Tony returned to his palatial suite to find the door bolted. In a last ravenous visit to the coffee shop, he was informed that his signing privileges also had been revoked.

He shrugged and climbed into his friend's car. Absolutely penniless, he made it back across the continent by using his gas credit card, talking the attendants into tacking on more charges and splitting the extra cash with them. Thus humiliated, he finally braked in New York. His verdict: "One of the greatest experiences of my life."

Two decades ago, on one of my first ventures into Vegas, I was accompanied by a brilliant, slightly otherworldly attorney named Fran. Neither of us knew much about craps at the time. But she claimed to receive psychic signals from the green felt, and I figured why not. We bet against all logical odds. We bet the most outrageous sucker bets on the board. And within a night we parlayed a few hundred bucks into four grand.

"That's it," Fran told me suddenly. "The luck is about to run out. Let's go shopping. I'll get a nice piece of lingerie, and we can pick out something for you." Cavalierly, I tossed a handful of chips toward her and told her to buy what she wanted. I was going to keep playing.

The problem with casino stories is that the ending is always telegraphed. So I'll skip the details and cut to the next day, when Fran and I leaped into the hotel pool for a final moment in the sun. We had no fear of hiding our cash before doing so. There was none. But the night had been romantic in its way, and I knew what Tony meant. One of the greatest experiences of my life.

Not that romance is absent from the Monmouth ferry. One handsome couple, each with one hand around a beer and the other entwined in an affectionate clasp, mention that this is a last racing day before their wedding. Then they plan a honeymoon in Europe.

"Longchamp?" I ask them. "Chantilly?" Those tracks serving Paris are about as romantic as anything I've seen on the Continent. Hardly anything could get the blood flowing more magically than a race-caller who doesn't say, "They're at the eighth pole," or "Coming to the top of the stretch," but instead describes les chevaux striding "au cha~teau" -- past the castle where royalty once summered.

Their eyes widen as I tell them of such wonders. Then the bride-to-be tugs her fiance' up toward the sun deck. Snatches of heated discussion float on the breeze behind them. I wonder if they'll be abandoning their reservations in Majorca.

I've handicapped only two of the races in the Pick Six, but it still seems a moment to dwell on romantic memories. I will always think fondly of my own honeymoon weekend, blissfully spent at the 1965 renewal of the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City. Sure, the marriage might have endured longer if it had been kicked off in Bora Bora. Certainly the bankroll would have endured longer if Hill Rise, at 10-1, had held off Parka in the stretch that year. But that is just a fact of life on gambling vacations. Once the result is official, there's no room in the baggage for regrets.

The boat makes one stop en route, at Liberty State Park. I would like to report that this is a scenic diversion or a historic landmark. The truth is that boatloads of courageous Revolutionary War soldiers may have thwarted the Redcoats on this site, or somebody may have won the French and Indian War here. No one on board would stop to read the plaque. The park is the embarking point for passengers from Jersey City, and we are concerned mainly with getting them loaded in a hurry, because we're running a little late.

An hour later, the boat docks on the Jersey shore, and the crowd hustles into buses for the 15-minute ride to the track. This journey snakes through the serene and wealthy neighborhoods of Rumson and Little Silver, offering another popular game for gamblers. On the way down, my companion and I may peruse the mansions and wonder which 44-room dream cottage we might buy with our winnings. On the way home after a difficult losing day, my companion has been heard to ask, "Which dream house looks abandoned for the summer? Maybe we can come back and burglarize it."

On this day, we crafty travelers eschew the bus and rush by cab to pick up a rental car. This way we can be sure to make it from Monmouth to Atlantic City without missing more than a race or two. Minutes later, we are leaning on a white rail outside the picturesque walking ring. The horses for the first race are cheap claimers, years past the days when their owners might have hoped they could join the more elite company in the day's later stakes races. But that faded hope still shines off them like their sweat, reminding us that even a bracing sea voyage is only the second most beautiful sight we'll see this day.

It turns out to be one of those frustrating afternoons when promising perfecta victories are interspersed with too many photo-finish defeats. I love them both. And when I walk out with bankroll nearly intact, I glide down the parkway to Atlantic City.

That racecourse is less appealing on the surface, a tired old dowager who has been outhustled too often in recent years by the easy courtesans of the nearby casinos. But A.C. retains a homey charm. This is the kind of place where the resident program handicapper, known here as the Packman, regularly contributes about 20 percent of the track's entire handle.

Like evening black tie at some resorts, sit-down dining is optional during a gamblethon. I am generally opposed to it, because I have seen more than one subtle trifecta elude a handicapper too involved with a lobster tail. But on this night I enjoy a good repast, punctuated between salad and entree by a nice wager on the winner of the stakes race. By midnight, both stomach and bankroll are amply stocked if not gorged. The Packman decides to join us on our last leg. We are ready for Trump Castle.

I learn on the way that we have chosen the one casino located off the beach. Since sunbathing, or sunlight in any of its guises, is not in the travel plan, this is not troubling. In fact, it seems suitable to top off the trip in a palace of fake marble statuary, fake foliage and blazing indoor scenery unencumbered by non-gambling distractions. I like pretense with no pretenses.

The gamblethon as I know it, I should pause to say, actually originated in South Florida, with a group of notable bon vivants featuring the esteemed turf writer Andrew Beyer. Winter gamblethons in Florida are somewhat more complex and require at least four participants and considerable teamwork. We start together at Hialeah for 10 daytime races. Then, like Outward Bound recruits turned loose in the wilderness, we split up.

Several of us eat a hasty dinner at Hollywood Greyhound Track while we watch the first few races. Then we make advance wagers on the rest of the 13-race card and proceed north. At the same time, one man rushes to Dania Jai Alai Fronton, another to Pompano Park harness track. They make advance bets on those entire cards. Soon the dog team meets the jai alai scout at Dania. After watching a few of those graceful games, we join our advance man for the final few at Pompano. To complete the experience, we move across the street to a bar that conveniently replays the entire evening's harness-racing card. Executed properly, this kind of gamblethon allows each participant to have action on 54 pari- mutuel events -- and witness most of them live or on tape.

Clearly this whirlwind pace is not for everyone. But there is a definite virtue in taking one's dogs or jai alai in quick blinks. These sports are exciting but are not exactly steeped in romantic lore. Last winter, for example, I went to Hollywood dog track to observe the wonder dog, perhaps the greatest of all time, P's Rambling.

The greyhound was indeed wonderful. He was knocked sideways several times during the race and somehow pulled himself together to conquer every canine in his path. But the magic of the moment was vitiated a bit by listening to the thrilled dog aficionados in the stands: "Way to go, Three Dog . . . Did you see that Number Three run?"

Jai alai captured me early in life with the rare athletic ability of its stars. But back in the late 1960s, there was an illusion-shattering event that jolted the world of true jai alai believers roughly the way the exodus of the Dodgers shook Brooklyn.

The Miami Jai Alai Fronton players, including Ruthian legends like Churruca and Orbea, went on strike to increase their meager wages. Management fired them all and replaced those noble Basques with assorted scabs from minor leagues or local amateur frontons. The quality of play dropped drastically. The betting handle did not drop a dollar. It kind of put the purpose of the game in perspective. And relegated it to being an enjoyable but minor feature of a wagering journey.

It also should be emphasized that a gambling outing is a bit like a great meal. Ingredients can be mixed or matched to suit every taste for gourmet or gourmand. Seasoning can be added according to taste. The gambling devotee who does not want to cram all his action into a day or two can plot a more leisurely schedule: a Vegas stopover parlayed with a blend of Juarez dog racing and the bordertown excitement of the big quarter-horse events in New Mexico. Or follow the example of one nimble and patriotic soul of my acquaintance who combined a family visit to the recent constitutional anniversary festivities in Philadelphia with stopovers at Atlantic City casinos and Philadelphia Park race track.

Back at Trump Castle, as the wee hours approach, the Packman hits a high-stakes craps table and begins a run toward daylight that will net him about $5,000. I dabble at his table, then try a few hours of blackjack, staying just ahead with difficulty and awake with growing ease. At one point, separated from my companion, I meet a lovely maiden who offers me pleasures beyond the dreams of any kings who ever inhabited such castles. I decline, but find it comforting to know she's there. Fake love fits in with the program. On a gamblethon, only the money should be real. And action is the real passion.

I do not fare as well as the Packman at the tables. But by the time the casino begins emptying at 4:30 a.m., I feel a free-floating sense of accomplishment. The gambling has been less than a triumph, but the gamblethon is a success. For almost 24 hours, through 20 races and uncounted turns of cards and rolls of dice, I have forgotten every headache associated with real life. I have sampled the best of nature, seagoing, landlocked and four-legged. I am exhausted, sated, free. I think that's what a vacation is supposed to be about. :: Pete Axthelm is a sports commentator for ESPN and the author of a football handicapping column for The Washington Post.

What to wear. That guy lingering near the casino entrance may be a bouncer. But he won't be Bill Blass. Among gamblers, fashion doesn't count. If you want to attend big casino shows and eat their gourmet fare or dine in the fanciest track restaurants, expect some codes demanding jackets and ties, no slacks for women, etc. But for the most part, wear something comfortable when you step out with Lady Luck. In particular, be careful about footwear. Much gambling, whether buying mutuel tickets or shooting craps, requires standing. And to experience a race track properly -- viewing the walking ring and the grounds as well as the warm-ups and the races -- you will walk more than the equivalent of 18 holes of golf. You'll also have just as much potential aggravation, and a lot more fun. And you don't need spikes. Food and drink. Every gambling establishment will offer a cornucopia of fast food, most of it awful. Unless you plan to get a table at the restaurant, try fueling up with a hearty sandwich before or between engagements.

One warning: Beware free drinks in casinos. If you are betting with vigor, you will be offered a steady stream of libations. Not only are pit bosses imbued with expansive native generosity, they also love to see winners get drunk enough to make bad judgments and turn into losers. Cameras. These are unwelcome at almost all gambling venues. In fact, you will often be forced to check them at the door. The reason is humanitarian. Many gamblers are terrified by the notion of stray photographs -- the pictures might find their way into public print, where they would shock certain loved ones deeply. Etiquette. Cheering in victory and moaning in defeat are always permissible. But excessive, noisy gloating will be punished, perhaps by your neighbors but more likely by the omnipotent Goddess of Wagering, who does not like anyone to feel that things come easily for them.

To define the limits of gloating, Andrew Beyer and I once formulated a useful rule: You are not allowed to drop to your knees and scream at the top of your lungs, "I'm King of the World" -- unless the score you have just made is equal to 10 percent of your annual net income. Emergency help. If, in the course of your journey, you feel an uncontrollable urge to abandon your itinerary and spend all your time on a foolproof system such as betting only on brindled greyhounds, be aware that you have become sick. Seek help immediately from the Gamblers Anonymous in your area. Money. At most places, it will be extremely difficult to cash a personal check. Travelers checks are only slightly more welcome; if they are cashed, it will be reluctantly and with multiple demands for identification that consume valuable betting time. Above all, even if you have a terrific credit rating and find yourself able to do it, never accept credit in a casino. Credit has ruined not only the budgets but the very lives of some rash gamblers. Decide how much you can afford to spend, including losses, and bring it along in old-fashioned currency -- cash. For a happy gamblethon, don't leave home without it. :: -- P.A.