The home of salt water taffy and fabled beauty pageants, Atlantic City has long been a legendary tourist attraction, celebrated in song, story and the silver screen. It was a leading vacation spot even before the Civil War, and its ocean-front Boardwalk -- built after a hotel owner got tired of guests tracking sand into his rooms -- was the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

America's first picture post cards portrayed Atlantic City's sun-splashed scenery. And its five seaside piers once offered a carnival wonderland of neon lights, amusement rides and Big Band entertainment.

So, 10 years ago, when New Jersey voters gave the go-ahead to legalize casino gambling in the city, there was hope that the fading resort's romantic past and the new allure of gambling would give the place a much-needed boost in tourism and spark an economic renaissance in a Miss America beach town that had seen better days.

There is no question that gambling has fulfilled at least part of that -- forgive the expression -- game plan.

Today, the aging, four-mile-long Boardwalk has several glitzy hotel-casinos that help lure millions of visitors a year. Largely self-contained complexes, each with its own collection of blackjack tables, roulette wheels and slot machines, the gambling houses hold sway alongside a spectacularly handy seashore. Each also has its own restaurants, shops, recreation facilities and well-known nightclub entertainers -- should anyone exhaust the cash or enthusiasm for games of chance.

I love to gamble and have a particular weakness for the slots, especially a certain dollar token machine in Reno that was once very good to me. It's a lot of fun fantasizing about what you would do if . . . And there is a definite excitement at being engulfed by the casino experience: the bells, pulsating lights, grim stares, groans and shrieks that spell winning and losing.

I expected, therefore, that Atlantic City would indulge my gambling passion, offer me some of the flavor of its colorful history and throw in the charm of the beach for good measure.

As I discovered during a recent visit, however, the casinos and tourist officers have gone to a great deal of effort to promote the gambling and night-club pleasures of the city while doing virtually nothing to preserve or re-create the Atlantic City of old.

Moreover, the arrival of the casinos has done little to spruce up the rest of the town, where abandoned hotels and seedy-looking office and apartment buildings are the norm. Also, given the emphasis on gambling, there is not a whole lot to do in this supposedly rejuvenated tourist mecca . . . if you leave the casino.

The city now draws more than 29 million visitors a year, according to tourist office figures. But the majority of them come from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, arrive by tour bus for the day, hit the casinos and go directly home. Indeed, according to tourist board surveys, the average gambler stays just six hours in Atlantic City compared to three days in Las Vegas.

This tendency toward shorter stays, as it turns out, may be having a negative impact on some casino profits, which have declined overall during the past three years. During the first quarter of 1986, for example, the gaming industry in Atlantic City lost more than $14 million on revenues of $558.5 million.

And, as a full-fledged tourist resort, offering alternative city attractions and activities when devoted gamblers need a break, Atlantic City is still very much down on its luck.

Want to take in a movie anywhere nearby? You'll have to drive or take the bus to the neighboring communities of Ventnor City or Margate City.

Want to learn something about Atlantic City's history, maybe visit a memorable tourist attraction or two? The only souvenir guidebooks I could find feature only photographs of the casinos and a few pages about how to play the games. Bookstores sell biographies of developer Donald Trump.

Want to take the kids to an amusement park? The seaside rides vanished when the casinos came to town and real estate speculators started buying up choice properties along the Boardwalk.

Want to stake out a spot on the beach and play sun worshiper? The beach erosion is bad and the sand quality poor. Moreover, some casino developers have usurped whole sections of the beach to park their cranes and bulldozers and to store building materials.

The state, which receives an 8 percent cut of the revenues and uses much of the money for social service programs, has benefited from Atlantic City gambling. The city, however, must scramble like any other town for funds. The famed Boardwalk, for example, was roped off in several areas for more than eight months while the city awaited state funds to repair damage caused last September by Hurricane Gloria.

Land speculation has driven real estate prices sky-high. One casualty: There is no longer a public bathhouse on the Boardwalk.

And, while investing an estimated $3 billion in their own facilities, the casinos have been reluctant to put money into other urban renewal projects. The slum-like consequences have been so pronounced, in fact, that the state legislature last year revised its casino law and now requires the casinos to dedicate 1.25 percent of their revenues for special, low-interest redevelopment bonds. This is expected to provide new loans for housing but won't do much to cool off land prices.

"We're having a lot of problems we never anticipated" when gambling was legalized, reports Janet Perrella, an Atlantic City tourist office employe.

Sounding just like Harry Kelley, Ocean City, Md.'s late mayor and beach protector, she recalled simpler days and talked of restoring the "family resort" atmosphere that was the old Atlantic City.

"We're in a transition period, and I hope we eventually get back to where this is a place where the families and kids can come," she said. "It's not now."

What is Atlantic City now is an unsettling combination of the decaying old resort and the flashy new one. The contrasts are everywhere.

People stroll the Boardwalk or take a ride in one of the traditional white wicker rolling chairs that are pushed by well-dressed attendants. For $1, yellow-painted trams shuttle people back and forth between the sleek, high-rise hotel and casino complexes that have sprung up spottily along the waterfront.

The giant Steel Pier, once the setting for ballroom dancing, a water carnival and radio and concert performances by Tommy Dorsey and other orchestras of the Big Band era, stands deserted, awaiting renovation. But Ocean One -- the ocean liner-shaped pier development that replaced Hamid's Million Dollar Pier, also a Boardwalk landmark -- is a thriving shopping mall, "food court" and recreation arcade, and one of the few noncasino attractions.sw sk

Among the city's highlights:

THE CASINOS. If you like to gamble, there are 11 gambling houses to choose from, nine of which are located in a 25-block area along the Boardwalk. From the inside, the casinos -- Resorts International, the Sands, the Claridge, Bally's Park Place, Caesar's, Trump Plaza, Atlantis, Tropicana, the Golden Nugget -- look like variations of the same smoked-glass and chrome decor, with additional red, gold or purple color schemes and eye-catching crystal chandeliers.

*Harrah's Marina and Trump's Castle are at the bay, two miles away, and are linked to the Boardwalk by car or Jitneys, a special 75-cent shuttle bus that runs between the oceanfront casinos and the marina.

Most of the casino attractions are indoors, for obvious reasons. But a favorite outdoor draw these days can be found at the Boardwalk entrance to Resorts International, where night-club entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton and Joan Rivers have inscribed their names and left their hand prints and bons mots of the moment in cement.

Occupancy rates vary, but hotel accommodations at the casino complexes during the summer can cost anywhere from $90 to $150 or more a night, with weekend rates the highest. Cheaper rooms are available in the noncasino hotels and motels away from the Boardwalk, although motel rooms anywhere near the beach can run nearly $100 a night.

Each hotel-casino has its own restaurants, shops, health clubs and lounge or night-club entertainment, the latter costing $12.50, $20 or as much as $35, depending on the headliner. Restaurants are plentiful, and each casino hotel has several, ranging from pricey gourmet French cuisine to international buffets to New York-style delicatessens. Expect to pay $8 per entree at the so-called economical eateries and $13-plus per entree for gourmet fare.

If you're getting the impression that casino life in Atlantic City, much as in Las Vegas, is for high rollers, you're right. Compared to Reno (my only frame of reference), I found things more than a tad expensive, especially the food. Also, you'll have to have an eagle eye to find nickel or dime slots (I'm told they're there, but I couldn't locate any), and the blackjack tables are more apt to have $15 minimums than $2.

My chief complaint about the casino hotels, however, is not one of expense but of esthetics. The Atlantic Ocean is less than a football field away from their doors, but you would never know it by the Nevada-copied architecture and dark interiors. With the exception of the Atlantis, casino sections in most hotels look like bunkers on the beach, with smoked-glass windows, curtained windows or, in the majority of cases, no windows at all.

*Sea or bay views are usually a given in guest rooms, but designers seem to have gone to great lengths to make sure no one gets to enjoy the beach setting while gambling. The owners paid a fortune for the location, but you get a better view of the ocean from hotel parking lots and escalators than from the slot machines.

*To a lesser extent, the same bunker mentality afflicts many of the restaurants and coffee shops. These are not places that encourage lingering.

*The marina, for instance, affords a terrific view of the bay and the Atlantic City skyline. And both Harrah's Marina and Trump's Castle, considerably plusher than the casinos on the Boardwalk, aren't afraid to let in some natural light. Yet most of their dining establishments are partitioned off or tucked so far back from the windows that a good view is all but impossible.

*Perhaps the most pathetic illustration of just how much visitors want to view the view is at the Trump's Castle promenade, which offers the best panorama of the harbor and skyline. Here, amid the marble and brass splendor of the hotel, you'll see strollers leaning against the railing or sitting on air ducts on the floor because they want to stay awhile and there is no place to sit down.

THE BOARDWALK. This is still the heart and soul of the city. The older beach businesses could use a paint job, but their presence lends an air of authenticity and permanence to the resort. Family-owned hot dog stands, taffy shops and souvenir booths share the ocean front with ice cream parlors and fast-food chains. People-watching flourishes, and bicycling is allowed between 6 and 10 a.m.

Strolling the Boardwalk, fans of the Miss America Pageant can visit Convention Hall at Mississippi Avenue, site of the annual Labor Day Week contest. Walk or hitch a tram ride to Garden Pier at New Jersey Avenue, and you'll find several displays about Atlantic City, then and now.sw sk

On the beach side of the Boardwalk, at Arkansas Avenue, you'll find the Ocean One mall, a newly refurbished noncasino attraction that is the size and shape of an ocean liner and juts out into the sea on its own pier. It has 125 shops, a miniature golf course, seven restaurants and the Food Court on the second level, which boasts a smorgasbord of specialty fast-food stands.

*The stores sell everything from clothes to jewelry to Veg-O-Matics, and there's a wonderful little shop called Ingenuities where you'll find all manner of newfangled, labor-saving items for the house or office. Best of all: A third-floor mezzanine has tables where you can look out the windows and watch the surf churn and the sun set. The view is one attraction in Atlantic City that's a sure bet.