Experience 'Boardwalk Empire' in Atlantic City

Photo: Experience Boardwalk Empire in Atlantic City: See Prohibition-Period History in This Beachfront Gambling Resort Destination
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It was barely 10 a.m. but the train bartender -- yes the train has its own bartender -- was making Mojitos, Mimosas and Bloody Marys.

I was on my way to Atlantic City, N.J., with some friends, and in the spirit of a quick getaway we decided it was never too early to have a drink, even one served in a plastic cup.

"For a train Mojito, pretty good. Fresh mint and a lime," one friend noted.

It might not be Las Vegas, but Atlantic City is the closest thing to Sin City outside of Nevada. Gambling, big shows, concerts, a never-ending party atmosphere and recent hotel improvements make it a prime weekend destination for those in the Northeast.

But the New Jersey city's jovial atmosphere goes much further back than the introduction of gambling in 1978. The new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" takes a look at the city's hopping Prohibition years, an age where political bosses and booze ruled.

Today, those looking for a peak into the Prohibition era can still find old speakeasies, hotels and attractions if they know where to look.

Take Lucy the Elephant in the neighboring town of Margate. The six-story elephant -- built in 1881 by a real estate mogul to lure prospective land buyers -- is rumored to have been used by rum-runners to signal boats in the ocean. A red light was put in her eyes to warn the bootleggers they should stay in the ocean, a green light if it was safe to come ashore.

Just outside town is the Renault Winery, which managed to stay open during Prohibition by obtaining special permission to provide its products in a "medicinal" form. Drinkers just needed to add water for a curative drink. It is still in operation today, water no longer needed.

For those who don't care about history, "AC" offers plenty of opportunities to eat, see a show, gamble or party.

"It has a little bit of everything. You don't find that in a lot of places," said John Battista, owner and operator of the Carisbrooke Inn, a nine-room bed and breakfast a block from the Atlantic City beach. "You just have everything from obviously the casinos and the beach and the boardwalk. But then you have amazing restaurants to natural things to do. You can go out and do bird watching, or go whale watching or dolphin watching or climbing the lighthouse."

There is plenty of glitz but also a fair amount of grime. Unlike some more-modern resort towns, Atlantic City's history hasn't been paved over.

"In the beginning it was a health resort, a place people went to take the waters," said Vicki Gold Levi, author of "Atlantic City: One Hundred Twenty-Five Years of Ocean Madness" and a consultant on the HBO show.

Experience Atlantic City's 'Boardwalk Empire' Yourself

Part of the city's initial appeal to developers and vacationers was location. The beach community is just 60 miles from Philadelphia, 125 miles from New York and 175 miles from Washington, D.C. Levi said the Quakers and Pennsylvania Railroad started the town and it grew from there.

"It started to morph into a more multi-tiered resort. It was always a family resort. At the same time, it was sin city, Vegas before Vegas. It always had that duality," she said. "There was always that little naughtier side of Atlantic City, like any resort by the water -- Miami, Havana."

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