Experience 'Boardwalk Empire' in Atlantic City

Photo: Experience Boardwalk Empire in Atlantic City: See Prohibition-Period History in This Beachfront Gambling Resort DestinationPlayCraig Blankenhorn/HBO
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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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."

A handful of the original buildings remain. There's the grand architecture of the Claridge Casino Hotel between Park Place and Indiana Avenue. (Sound like Monopoly spots? Where do you think the game found its names?) Further down the boardwalk is Resorts Hotel and Casino, once called the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel. The building can trace its roots back to 1868.

During Prohibition, the city's naughty side really came out, and it attracted large groups.

"Atlantic City was so popular with conventioneers because they winked, winked at prohibition," Levi said. "You could party away without having to worry."

One of Levi's favorite Prohibition-era spots is the Irish Pub. The former speakeasy is a mainstay just off the boardwalk and was used by union leader Samuel Gompers for conventions.

There are still original Prohibition-era signs at the pub and hotel, politicians still make it a campaign spot and the prices, Levi notes, are still "pretty good Prohibition prices." (Several restaurants offer "Prohibition Prix Fixe" menus for $19.20 through Sept. 30 in honor of Boardwalk Empire.)

As the decades passed, conventions abandoned Atlantic City, and the town didn't stay up to date with America's desires. Air travel, indoor pools and air conditioning turned other cities into alternative vacation destinations. When Atlantic City hosted the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the world's press saw the disarray of city's hotels, Levi said, and spread the word.

"The '70s were really bad," she said.

In 1978 gambling was introduced, and the city found new life.

Gambling in Atlantic City

In the last decade, Atlantic City has had to compete with new gambling locations across the country that cater to people interested only in the casinos.

To fight back, Atlantic City has pursued a new revitalization effort. The city has allowed bars on its beach, added new hotel rooms, opened an outlet center, an upscale mall with Gucci and Tiffany's and started turning pools into daytime nightclubs.

Last year three casinos teamed up to subsidize the ACES train, an express train from New York City that has fancy leather seats, hot meals and the aforementioned bartender. It was a direct effort to counter tour buses that deliver gray-haired retirees into the city. The message was clear: this isn't your grandmother's Atlantic City.

Perhaps no hotel-casino embraces -- and helped usher in -- the new era more than the Borgata. The upscale hotel opened in July 2003 in the isolated Marina District, and the resort became the city's prime destination, drawing in a younger, more affluent crowd that spends as much time in the clubs and restaurants as the casino. To give you a sense of the atmosphere, the resort's Water Club hotel this summer unveiled Sunday night pool parties.

Some old institutions still manage to draw crowds and keep alive the feel of old Atlantic City. Chef Vola's is an amazing, tiny Italian restaurant that's been run on the ground level of a house off the boardwalk since 1921. Nothing there can be considered new or innovative, but good luck actually getting a table. It's nearly impossible to get through on the phone -- you are likely to just get the answering machine -- and tables at the cash-only, BYOB establishment are reserved for long-time loyal customers and the occasional celebrity.

As for my trip to Atlantic City, I won $20 at the blackjack tables -- just enough to buy a few drinks on the train ride home.