Above: The big-ticket palm trees of the domed Harrah’s pool.

Atlantic City might sound like an unusual weekend getaway for a guy who doesn’t gamble, distrusts resorts, and lost his only Hawaiian shirt a few years back during an unfortunate police encounter on the Gulf of Mexico. But two weeks ago, after all that Inaugural mayhem, I found myself desperate for a beyond-the-beltway jaunt. Plus, I owed my New York friends some face-time. What the hell, I thought. Harrah’s, here I come.

If Vegas is America’s playground, Atlantic City is more than just its sandbox. They get some serious live acts—Cheap Trick notwithstanding—and even in wintertime the boardwalk’s a lovely place. The bigger casinos somehow come off as less seedy than their Nevada analogs, and if the buy-ins tend to start higher, the booze is cheaper.

I spent the weekend, it bears acknowledging, in a style to which I’m unaccustomed. (Chalk it up to the generosity of good friends.) This meant a number of things:

  • Afternoons in the Harrah’s pool—notable for its ca. $1 million-worth of palm trees & orchids.
  • Evenings in the same place—notable for the throbbing dance party that occasionally spills into said pool.
  • A dinner of wild extravagance—by far the most sumptuous I’ve ever had—at Mia, followed by a pleasant pow-wow with chef Chris Scarduzio.
  • The unfortunate loss of $45 at a low-stakes blackjack table.

Escaping to a place like Atlantic City is best enjoyed in the context of an excuse—you don’t go there for the culture, for God’s sake, or the history, unless it’s the history of Monopoly. It’s an excuse to don unusual hats and Bono-worthy sunglasses [picture withheld at author’s request], an excuse to indulge in regressive pleasures like handstand contests in the aforementioned pool, to serve as designated driver while your old-enough-to-know-better college buddies chug Private Stock in the back seat and sing along with The Band.  And you’d have to be a curmudgeon indeed not to love every minute.

Atlantic City also boasts the not insignificant advantage of having dispensed with the Big-Brother loomingness of its own sandy relative to the west. In Vegas, you locate the hidden cam in the elevator, you think twice about stealing a towel, you note the pit boss and his eagle eye. It’s not paranoia, but a resigned, subconscious knowledge that one is watched or, at least, watchable at all times.

Will I be heading back any time soon?  Yeah, most likely.  It’s a good midpoint for reconnoitering with those New York compatriots. And I hear the water’s a bit more inviting in the summertime.

I’ll close with a starred review from a fellow D.C. journalist who accompanied me on the journey:

From a warm welcome by lovely Emily at the reception desk to a few strangers’ lucky rolls of the dice that somehow turned my $30 into $90 in three minutes at the craps table, my night at Harrah’s was a whacking good time all around. Sure, there were downsides—my friend’s eviction from the pool for trying to pass off his thin white boxers as a bathing suit, the sad news that Emily was married—but they melted away with the fine bubbly and mountainous “seafood plateau” at Mia’s Restaurant. Never has reality seemed so distant, or fantasy so real.

*Photograph by Brian Reed