Fat Guy's Atlantic City NJ Golf Weekend

www.atlanticcitynj.com; www.GolfAC.com; www.DoAC.com
 

by Fat Guy

"For those who are unfamiliar with New Jersey, first understand that there are really two New Jerseys: North Jersey, land of The Sopranos, and South Jersey, land of early Springsteen." [T&L Golf]

Outside of Philly-extended Camden/Cherry Hill and the beaches, South Jersey is surprisingly rural and known for pine barrens, fresh vegetables from extensive farmlands, and old school silver diners. It looks more like North Carolina than the industrialized, suburban sprawl, mall-parking-lot, NYC-wanna-be, marshy wasteland vibe of North Jersey.

The hungry heart of South Jersey, Atlantic City, experienced a hip-factor renaissance at the turn of the New Millennium, attracting a younger, more upscale crowd with the development of new casinos, hotels, shopping areas, golf courses, clubs, and restaurants that had the guys from the Rat Pack smiling in their graves. But make no mistake, parts of A.C. (including just a block or two off the boardwalk) are still very much the ghetto as they have been for decades, and I'd still be real careful about where you walk after dark.

More recently, the legalization of gambling in nearby Pennsylvania and Delaware have combined with the economic downturn to leave many AC casinos, restaurants, and golf courses struggling for revenue.  Translation:  Now is a great time to get some good deals on an AC golf weekend.

Where To Play (golf, that is):  Upscale daily fee golf started expanding in the area surrounding the South Jersey beaches as far back as the late '80's, and didn't even begin to slow down until 2003. You could easily plan a week-long golf and gaming junket here and--assuming you don't gamble away your next couple mortgage payments--hit a different outstanding daily fee (or two) every day.

Most South Jersey course designs have adopted one or both of two distinctive area styles, dictated by local flora and terra forma: classic pine barrens, with flat dogleg fairways carved out of evergreen alleys and pine straw blankets under the boughs; or "target links routings featuring massive waste areas and flashed-up bunkering spawned from a vast subsurface layer of sand, a geological souvenir of the aeons when present-day South Jersey lay beneath the Atlantic." [T&L Golf].  The latest twists on these dueling local design styles derive from land formerly used for two other New Jersey institutions: the sand quarry and the landfill. Notable and up-and-coming architects have all put their own unique spin on these local design themes. The net result is a South Jersey golf portfolio something akin to Pinehurst-meets-Royal-County-Down.

Must Plays:
Twisted Dune GC (Egg Harbor Township, www.twisteddune.com, Bergstol & Struthers) is a lot like Baywatch-era Pamela Anderson: gorgeous, tough, artificially stacked (but I don't really care how she got that way), twisted, and more than a little nasty on the outside; but at her core she's just a sweetheart girl-next-door. The hype starts with the pix of wicked scary bunkers on Twisted's website, then carries into to your opening view of the emerald fairway at the dune-and-water-lined 9th as you round the clubhouse porch from the parking lot. It carries on through the stunning course prints of foreboding, stacked-sod, frog-haired sand traps for sale in the pro shop. She's definitely drop dead gorgeous.

After that intimidating preview, the surprisingly tame opening hole leads you on to more refreshingly generous fairways and a general absence of real doglegs. A few holes in, you begin to realize that some of the nastiest of the gulp-inducing sand hazards are all but out of play. This minimalist Irish-style links features heaving terrain with huge dunes leftover from digging sunken fairways out of a sandy flatland, along with some cavernous stacked-sod bunkers. Ocean winds and open-front greens invite bump and run approaches. Four holes carved through an old sand quarry fit seamlessly into the rough-and-tumble routing. She's no walk in the park, but a peek under the scraggly wolf's clothing reveals a very playable core. The par-3s are a brutal exception, with three of the four requiring long irons or woods to reach greens that are virtual islands surrounded by hazards. Sandy hard-pack cart paths twist amidst dune complexes, ponds, and tee boxes, often swinging you around to a dramatic wide-angle view of the next hole or a cool design feature. Initially maneagble hole distances build to a crescendo as the routing turns with the prevailing winds on the back. The experienced golfer should shoot his handicap with a controlled day off the tee. And who wouldn't pay $90 for 4 or 5 hours with a Pam Anderson look-alike? She's 18 links holes of Must Play eye-candy that will reconnect you with the fun of the game.

It's not all nouvelle golf here.  The elder statesman of South Jersey golf is Atlantic City Country Club (Atlantic City, www.ACCountryClub.com), which went public in the mid-Otts after being purchased by Harrah's.  One of the most important country clubs in the early history of American golf, this long-time private haven played host to captains of industry along with 6 USGA Championships, including the 1901 U.S. Amateur and 3 U.S. Women's Opens.  Legend has it the terms "birdie" and "eagle" were coined among ACCC's undulating fairways and hallowed halls.  The course received an $8 million renovation by Tom Doak in 1999 and features views of the Atlantic City skyline across the bay. 

  ACCC #17

The well-pedigreed routing is a study in the heavy use of strategic bunkering (George Crump was a member here, presumably drawing some inspiration from ACCC when he designed Pine Valley), and you will find yourself in a beach or twelve during your round.  Add in the different types of silky soft sand used for fairway and greenside traps, and it'll test your bunker game like few other courses will. So skip your typical range run-through for a 10-minute bunker session at the practice green.  The place also sports some of the best public course greens in the country:  true, fairly quick, and rolled so hard you'll be hard-pressed to find your ball mark with a rain-maker wedge, let alone hold the green with anything lower than 8-iron.  The front is a brutish but manageable prelude to the windswept, bayside back.  The final stretch of holes at Atlantic City Country Club is why you drove all the way down here, why you booked a room at The Borgata, and why you bucked up a couple hundu for greens fees without a stripper being involved.  A sampling of the closing charms include tempting risk/reward par-4s over the bayside marsh to angled fairways littered with bunkers, peninsula tees and greens, par-3's dead into a 2-club sea breeze, and sandy moonscapes reminiscient of Pine Valley's Hell's Half Acre.  The finish here is second only to the closing holes at Kiawah Island's Ocean course.  The traditionalists' Must Play, and worth the $100-$200 greens fee if you're liquid.

Other worthy newcomers include Shoregate (Ocean View, www.shoregategolfclub.com) by the West Coast design team of Fream & Yale.  Per T&L Golf, "Shoregate is a precision fire breather gouged from a thickly wooded, sandblasted site, and already ranked as one of New Jersey's best courses." To quote my friend Tom, "The sides of the bunkers are so steep, I have no idea how they keep sand on them. You play the first hole and think, 'This thing's not too bad,' then it spends 17 holes stealing your lunch money." Well worth the 40 minute drive down the Garden State Parkway from AC.

Blue Heron Pines (Cologne, www.blueheronpines.com) is a country-club-for-a-day experience. Blue Heron's straightforward front 9 is repised by a tougher back, highlighted by the par-5 14th, its gaping fairway hazard inspired by "Hell's Half Acre" at Pine Valley. Stephen Kay's tree-lined parkland course lacks many of his usual nods to Old Tom Morris designs, like his other area sand quarry stunner Scotland Run (45 minutes west in Williamstown, www.scotlandrun.com). 

Hurzdan & Fry had originally designed a parkland course for the site at Sand Barrens GC (Swainton, www.sandbarrensgolf.com) before they discovered the layer of sand just beneath the topsoil. Soon shapers on bulldozers were half-improvising 27 pine-lined target links holes with free-form bunkers, lengthy waste areas surrounded by wild grasses, and massive, four-puttable greens. Pine Valley will come to mind regularly during the round. "Fry, the aesthetician of the design team, thinks about such things as how shadows will define the bunkers.  Play late in the day to fully appreciate his art." [T&L Golf].  Avoid the first few tee times of the day here; I once booked an early bird summer start, and the staff showed up collectively late, hungover, and surly (I was also hungover and surly, but at least I was on-time).

Marrriott's Seaview (Absecon, www.seaviewmarriott.com) is another former private club, started by railroad magnate Clarence Geist circa 1914 after stewing over waiting for a tee time at the aforementioned Atlantic City Country Club. Seaview's original 18 is a breezy bayside links with a distinctive pedigree: designed by Donald Ross, with a 1927 renovation by A.W. Tillinghast, and it was once considered as a site for the fledgling Pine Valley Golf Club before George Crump stumbled onto the famed current site. The Bay Course also hosted the 1942 PGA, won by Slammin' Sammy Snead, with a 35 yard chip-in on the 37th hole on the final day of the then-match play event. It still hosts an LPGA event annually. The Bay is complimented by the Pines 18, rumored to be Tiger's favorite local stop when he visits his A.C. All-Star Café. An elegant, relaxed Georgian Revival-style hotel hosts an Elizabeth Arden Red Door spa, and the on-site Faldo golf school completes the experience.

Good Values:
Tradition abounds at Brigantine GL (Brigantine, www.brigantinegolf.com), a 1920's-vintage VanKleek & Stiles Scottish seaside links on a small barrier island. This windswept layout was used by greats such as Walter Hagen as a warm-up course for the British Open before the long boat ride out of New York City across the pond. A great value, but there is one caveat: the sand flies can be an issue here when there's a land breeze, so bring the heavy duty bug spray and a pair of wind pants, just in case.

Sea Oaks (Little Egg Harbor Township, www.seaoaksgolf.com, Ron Hearn) incorporates wind, sand, fingers of wild grasses, and lakes into an up-and-down design.

McCullough's Emerald GL (Egg Harbor Township, www.mcculloughsgolf.com) is a nice Italian-style links (just seeing if you're paying attention) with diabolical architect Stephen Kay's trademark winks to the quirky elements of British Isles courses. Here Kay loosely based his design on 18 famous holes from great links courses across the pond, although none are instantly recognizable copies.  They're approximations at best, with less nooks and crannies than true links fairways, but the quirky links style comes through on the whole.  Elevation changes approach 100 feet thanks to the terrain of this reclaimed landfill, with miles of fescue surrounding the holes.  Wind is a major factor on these rolling slopes.  The blind uphill tee shot on the 11th is enjoyably different.  The long downhill par-3 13th over water to a quirky catcher's mitt green was the funnest shot of the day.  The three holes routed through the former sand quarry pit feature plenty of sand and water, with massive drops from tee to fairway.  But the "driveable" short par-4 16th is a near-joke of a shoe-horned afterthought, a 90-degree doglegged sub-terrainian trench that has you standing on the tee with a driver in one hand and a 6-iron in the other.  McCullough's is one of the better values at the Jersey shore, but the course features several blind shots requiring local knowledge, and some of the holes lack definition from the tee for the first-timer (Kay's ability to elevate tees was restricted by landfill drainage and construction regulations, and it shows).  So this one is much more enjoyable if played with a local, and definitely buy a yardage guide.  Also, there's no driving range, and the on-site grill doesn't serve breakfast.  So for early tee times, grab something on your way to the course.

Other Great A.C. Tracks You've Never Heard Of:
Harbor Pines (Egg Harbor Township, www.harborpines.com) was one of South Jersey's original daily fee upstarts back in the early '90's. It's slightly more forgiving for an early season round or high handicapper, despite navigating 12 ponds.

Combine your loves of wine and golf at Vineyard Golf at Renault Winery (Galloway Township, www.renaultwinery.com). With a vintage more Northern California than South Jersey, Vineyard at Renault exudes a Tuscan feel. The course skirts vineyards, fruit orchards, blueberry patches, and tall trees planted years ago as windbreaks beside one of the nation's oldest continually-operated wineries (established in 1864). The breezy layout utilizes classic design elements including diagonal hazards, false-front greens, optical illusion bunkers, and ponds. A few concessions to the Jersey terrain are stomped in with the classic grapes, including--you guessed it--waste areas and an old sand quarry. You can even rent your very own "villa in Tuscany", ala Seinfeld, at the on-site Tuscany House Hotel.  If you're wondering about the wine, Golf Digest characterized it by saying it "wouldn't make it past the spit bucket" of wine connoisseurs.

Best Bar Nearby, Atlantic City: Coming off the AC Expressway starts the debate. Where to head first?

For a good spot to catch the game out near many of the area golf courses, hit the "down the shore" outpost of South Philly's Chickie & Pete's Sports Bar (Black Horse Pike aka 322, Egg Harbor Township), famous for their buffalo chicken fingers and crab fries.  Across the street you'll find Gentlemen's club Volcanic Eruptions (tell me that doesn't make you chuckle), which regularly brings in feature dancers.

Summer daytime arrivals should mean a beeline to any of AC's sexy new "beach bars" (although plopped on the sand, the category is somewhat misleading, as the envisioned sand floors and palm trees with hammocks are in reality big wood plank decks with band stages, with an aura more like a pool bar).  Do the Buffet thing at Landshark Bar & Grill (Resorts Casino, 1133 Boardwalk, www.atlanticcity.landsharkbarandgrill.com), or head for Sammy Hagar's Beach Bar at Bally's.  Think 'Mas Tequila'.  Travel Channel and Philadelphia Magazine both love the massive Deck at Trump Plaza.  Travel Channel named it as one of the 25 Sexiest Beach Bars in the world, saying, "Open seasonally and voted the 'Hottest Beach in Atlantic City,' the bar is packed nightly with exuberant dancers and drinkers. Grab a piña colada and a lounge chair, and relax on the shores of the Atlantic." However, Fat Guy found it to have a bit too much of a swim club feel where $9 frozen drink prices are slightly offset by the ease of getting a table, live tunes, and watching nearby bikini-clad volleyballers amongst an eclectic crowd. Then check out the sun-drenched action at the elbow-to-elbow Hilton Beach Bar.

For those with late afternoon munchies or that powerful post-round thirst, stop at the first bar over the bridge from Route 322 (and AC's best kept secret), Wonder Bar (3701 Sunset, www.wonderbarac.com). You'll find live rock and an eclectic mix of local characters at the outdoor bar. Order perfect Cosmos and every side dish on the menu. Or join a boozy line-dance at Flying Cloud Cafe (800 N New Hampshire, Gardner's Basin), and get a pitcher of margaritas and their famous hot wings.

Early evening arrivals should shoot back to the hotel for a quick shower, scurry to the dinner reservation you made weeks ago, then hit the town dead on to cruise for cocktails at the likes of:  Jay-Z's new 40/40 sportsbar/lounge (2120 Atlantic, on The Walk next to Caesars), with a décor likened to 'the ultimate MTV fantasy crib' (the VIP rooms come equipped with X-Box and PS2) which draws the celeb/pro athlete set, in addition to the best-dressed crowd in South Jersey. Try the eponymous house drink, Absolut mixed with Godiva white and brown chocolate liqueurs; or hit sexy lounge 32 Degrees (@ Tropicana's "The Quarter"); the recently redesigned Liquid (Trump Plaza, www.trumpplaza.com) which sports live cover bands, waitresses in black satin and rhinestones, and an eclectic crowd; the NYC-vibe at soon-to-be-discovered Luna Lounge (Resorts, www.arkrestaurants.com) for a more subdued experience; or try the stylish Romanesque Temple Bar & Grill (Caesars $$$$) with a bar menu ranging from caviar to burgers. For martinis, hit Blue Martini (Bally's) or Tomatoe's (9300 Amherst, Margate). At any of the above, arrive early for intimate conversations in stylish settings, or late night for the Scene. You'll be amazed there's enough hip cats to fill a bar in this former blue-hair town.

Late evening arrivals to AC could use the energy from the live tunes at the Northeast's first House Of Blues (Showboat). Book tix for big-name headliners well in advance.

And for those ill-advised, late-night/early-morning, Seemed-Like-A-Good-Idea-At-The-Time arrivals from Philly or NYC, grab a Red Bull & vodka to perk up after braving the line at NYC-style club and hotspot Casbah (Trump Taj Mahal), recently remodeled in crushed velvet chairs, Morroccan light fixtures, and illuminated concrete tables (specifically designed to be danced on) with a stable of hottie house dancers, and the attached open-air Star Bar. The new Harrah's built a $40 million jungle pool complex which converts to a club on Wed/Fri/Sat nights at 10.

The latest in high-end AC clubs is dusk (Caesar's, www.duskac.com, open Tues/Fri/Sat). Or try '05 Reader's Choice The Wave (Trump Marina). But pay attention to your surroundings, boys; I amusingly discovered that AC is fairly rainbow-friendly (Club Tru).

Boys' weekend arrivals will want to head for AC's Gentlemen's clubs: Bare Essence is a cozy little BYOB club with decent talent and $30 nekkid good-grind-hands-off couch dances, and it's the only decent club in town that's open Mon-Wed. Weekends, go upscale at Diving Horse Cabaret & Steakhouse (9 MLK Blvd, www.divinghorseclub.com), part of a 55,000 square foot entertainment complex that also features Luxx Lounge Nightclub, along with a swingers club.  Diving Horse features top-level talent and Vegas-like decor, and the steakhouse is legit. Order the wedge salad, the King Crab chowder, and the 8-ounce Kobe filet.  For something more casual, try Stiletto at Sporty's Sports Bar (just off the boards on S. Carolina) or Babes (Tennesee Ave).  Closer to area courses, try nekkid BYOB Allure (Rt 322 aka Black Horse Pike), or the South Jersey outpost of Philly upscale club Delilah's Den ($10 couch dances Noon-8 PM, AC Expwy Exit 4, R on Franklin, R on Delilah, 1 block on R, Pleasantville, www.delilahsdennj.com).  Skip the more urban surroundings at Coconutz (Florida Ave), AC Dolls (2600 Pacific), and Playground (2405 Pacific).

TipA.C. isn't quite the 24/7 town that Vegas is. It's more like a 24/3 town. While you can pretty much get a strong drink, an open blackjack table, and a decent meal 24 hours a day 7 days a week... unlike Vegas, some of the better AC nightlife seems to be centered around weekends. So if you're the party-type, plan accordingly. That $100/night you're thinking about saving on the room during the week might put a serious crimp in getting your party on. Cases in point: Borgata clubs Mixx and Mur Mur are only open Fri/Sat (Mur Mur is also open Mondays). Next-door Harrah's massive pool/club complex only parties on Fri/Sat/Wed. Trump's NYC-style club Casbah is only open weekends. Many of the big name shows also run only on weekends. And our Tuesday night scouring of the city revealed only one decent Gentlemen's club with a good crowd of both talent and patrons (Bare Essence).

Where To Grub: For a good post-round spot a little closer to many area courses, hit nearby BBQ chain Dave's Famous BBQ (Black Horse Pike, Egg Harbor Township) for ribs which may actually be better than my own on the smoker at home (you have no idea how hard it is to admit that). For upscale, T&L Golf likes Joseph's (N Bremen @ Tuscany House Hotel, The Vineyard @ Renault, Egg Harbor, $$), where blueberry champagne from the attached winery compliments Mediterranean/American entrees.

Fat Guy Recommendations, AC:  In AC, try a delightfully surreal meal at Safari Steakhouse (Trump Taj Mahal $$$). The Rainforest-Café-meets-Liberace's-dining-room décor and over-the-top service border so close to being high-end, tongue-in-cheek kitsch, you almost think they're kidding about the whole experience… until they bring out the steak. One of the finest filets I've ever had, with $8 ala carte sides. Trump Plaza's Max's Steakhouse ($$$$) is a pricey meal amidst a classic darkwood-and-white-table-cloth vibe. Despite serving a pretty nice filet, the experience is hardly worth the price tag ($250 for dinner for two with drinks and tip), thanks to the $38-$54 entrée prices, $10 top shelf cocktails, and experienced-but-somehow-overly-casual service, all while tucked away in a hard-to-find 6th floor location (when we asked for directions on the casino floor, we ended up following an elderly greeter through the bowels of the casino including the employee break room to an employee elevator).

Philly Mag likes the plush Chinese atmosphere at next-door Fortunes (Trump Plaza) for the hot & sour soup, steamed dumplings, soft shell crabs, and pork in garlic sauce. La Palais (Resorts $$$$) has stunning decor and the flavors of Paris and Provence. Try the rack of lamb. Ray likes the 5-course price fixe feast of Roman excess at The Bacchanal (Caesars, 800-223-7277), with flowing wine and backrubs from serving maidens included. The old Havana feel of Tropicana's "The Quarter" shopping and restaurant area features Vegas import Red Square (imagine gourmet cuisine with Russian and American influences bathed in red light, red furniture, red everything), Philly import Cuba Libre for spicy/sweet Cuban/Carribean fare (after dinner, Philly Mag says insiders prefer the less-crowded second floor club), and also features ultra-chains Palm Steakhouse and P.F. Chang's. The Quarter gets jumpin' with an upscale mixed-age crowd from Early Bird through late night, so make reservations in advance or don't arrive starving. Restaurants at The Pier at Caesars include Ocean City MD institution Phillip's Seafood (order anything with crab meat, and try not to fill up on the best warm sourdough rolls on the planet), as well as two eateries from Philly restaurant icon Steven Starr, El Vez (nouvelle Spanish cuisine amonst a low-rider bicycle décor) and Buddakan (Asian on a whiteboard acid trip). For family dining, Roberto's (Trump Plaza) takes Sunday Brunch way beyond the typical ($32, 10-2), or La Piazza buffet (Caesars $$). And kids will love the Fantasea Reef Buffet (Harrah's).

For old school AC, Fat Guy digs Angelo's Fairmont Grill (2300 Fairmont), where Sinatra used to order takeout.  Angelo's is tops in AC Italian at surprisingly reasonable prices, but it's popular, so go early. Good pasta in homemade marinara and good veal parm, but not quite as good as D'Angelo's back in Philly (then again, what is?). Fat Guy loved local institution Dock's Oyster House (2405 Atlantic), which has been serving up AC's best seafood since the '90's… the 1890's. Order oysters on the half shell from their raw bar, then move on to the buttery richness and smoky bacon finish of their Maine Clam Chowder. The clams are steamed right in the creamy broth and left in the shell. For an entrée, have whatever they're serving for the fresh fish special. Newly re-opened landmark Knife & Fork (Albany & Pacific $$$$) was once a clandestine speakeasy and infamous gentlemen's club that was raided by Federal agents during Prohibition, and has served simple, top quality food for decades. If you're somebody who knows a guy who knows somebody, T&L Golf digs Chef Vola's (111 S Albion Pl off Pacific, www.chefvolas.com, 609/345-2022, BYOB $$$$). Legendary for being legendary. Back in AC's heyday, the address & phone number were secret. Good home-style Italian and epic banana cream pie. It's worth the constant busy signals and pedigree inquisition to score a reservation. White House Sub Shop (2301 Arctic), an AC tradition since 1946, showed they're still going strong 50-plus years later when they won '02 Best Of Philly hoagie, with a fine amalgamation of textures and flavors.

Get fresh salt water taffy at Fralinger's (at Bally's) on the boardwalk.

Where To Stay/Gamble:

Tip: Due to it's easily drivable proximity to New York and Philly, AC room rates behave a lot like Vegas room rates:  They double or triple on the weekends.  A 2012 perusal of off-season AC hotel room rates revealed average weekend pricing of about $220 a night and up for most of the midscale/upper-midscale boardwalk casinos, and $350 and up for the newer upscale joints like The Borgata. Sun-Thurs room rates run about half those prices.

For those Impress-The-New-Grrlfriend weekends or those Renew-The-Old-Chemistry weekends or those Party-Like-A-Rock-Star weekends, The Borgata (www.theborgata.com) is your only choice. The bayside mirage in purple neon has been the catalyst and rock foundation of the recent AC cool-factor turnaround. Philly Mag says, "This joint has been hummin' with young singles on the prowl and 20-30-something couples checking in looking like they're about to have sex. You can feel the energy. There's a party going on. Young couples at Mixx don't talk politics or social issues, they smoke and sip cocktails and talk about the curvaceous bartender in her barely-there Zac Posen uniform. Sinatra would be proud." It's the AC version of The Bellagio (the nicest casino/hotel in town) and the Hard Rock (the wildest/sexiest hotel in town) all rolled into one.  Grub at one of five upscale restaurants including Suilan by Susanna Foo and Luke Palldino's Specchio. Drink at Gypsy Bar, a lively tequila joint just off the casino floor, with a college-bar-meets-cheaters-bar-meets-bingo-parlor vibe, and a slogan reading: 'Management has the right to strip you of your inhibitions.' Bruce Willis took it over one night and kept it open 'til dawn. Or luxe lounge B--Bar, for less-crowded environs, and a sophisticated martini infused with jasmine tea, Indonesian vanilla, and rhubarb syrup. Club at Mixx, which morphs weekends from a Latin/Asian restaurant into a sexy club, or Mur Mur (open Fri/Sat/Mon).

I'd highly recommend saving up for a long weekend stay at Borgata, rather than the $100 slot-budget pop-in.  My first quickie visit left me disappointed in the whole experience, but a full-on Borgata party weekend could cost you a few grand. You can't expect to walk in this or any other high class casino for a couple hours, drop $50 or $100, and get the full experience.

Book a room here though, and here's what you can expect:  unbelievable food at world-class restaurants, sexy/cool rooms with an understated modernist décor, a high percentage of good-looking clientele, a highly visual environment where everything from the glass-sculptured lighting to the sheen of the Italian marble floors to the uniquely-shaped restrooms to the sexy understated modern club/lounge tunes pumped through the sound system and even to the designs on the elevator doors.  The word 'sexy' comes to mind often when describing many aspects of The Borgata.  There's something about the vibe here that oozes sexy; it makes hotties want to dress slutty, attractive women want to dress hot, housewives to dress attractive, and even seniors to put on their Sunday best.  Cleavage was out front and center on just about any woman with a half-decent set.  Most younger guys here stick to what I call The New Century Uniform (untucked pressed button-down over jeans and trendy shoes). Our early-week stay was greeted by a surprisingly eclectic crowd; I was shocked to see so many of the retiree set here, and although not prevalent, there were a small percentage of nimrods who thought it would be fun to bring the kids.  I also saw 3 or 4 sets of gorgeous 20-something blondes paired with unattractive guys in their 50's, so the sugar daddy/escort biz is still alive and well in A.C.

A summary of tips for a long weekend at The Borgata:  This is not the spot to start skimping to try to save $500.  Do it once, do it right, then spend the next 2 years saving and figuring out how you can afford to come back.  Buck up for a Fiore suite, a good value upgrade at these prices, with floor-to-ceiling mirrored windows just begging for, ahem, natural fun on display.  Then go for the couple's massage at Spa Toccare ($660, tip included); you get a slobber-inducing 80 minute Swedish massage plus 30 minutes of "cool down" alone time in a sensual suite complete with hottub, mini-living room with 42" plasma, and a full tile open bathroom with shower.  Make restaurant reservations well in advance.  Hit Wolfgang Puck for the fresh breads, the crab app, and the steak or salmon entrées.  Order the filet cooked medium at Bobby Flay Steak if you don't like it really bloody, and skip his sweet-tinged steak sauce.  Budget $1,000 a day for a Borgata suite, upscale gourmet dining, generous drinks, late-night room service, "entertainment-level" gambling, a little shopping, a little clubbing, and a show or two.  This slice-of-Heaven-meets-the-best-parts-of-Hell will plaster that smile back on your face, make you stop checking voice mail, and ease you back into your old self, despite the hangover you'll be sporting on your begrudging departure.  Well worth the dough if you're even temporarily liquid.

Another hip option for AC digs is the new Harrah's Casino on the marina, complete with a $40 million indoor jungle pool complex which converts to a nightclub (Fri/Sat/Wed 10 PM).

For a quick weekend with the wife without completely breaking the bank, go for the value, shopping, and nightlife at Tropicana, or the midscale glitz of Trump Marina.  Resorts pulls in big name entertainment amidst upscale rooms and art deco touches.

Guys' golf weekenders will want to stay within stumbling distance of Boys' Night Out adult entertainment, so stick to centrally-located Midtown boardwalk casinos like Caesars, local's fave Trump Taj Mahal, Sands, or Showboat. My buddy Ray loves staying at Bally's just for the day-killer spa, where a glass atrium overlooks the boardwalk and ocean, encouraging one to sip wine and read a low-brow best seller for hours while dipping in and out of a Jacuzzi. AOL Travel named it their #3 Best Budget Beach Hotel. The Taj and Tropicana have low stakes Texas Hold 'Em tables for you WPT wanna-be's.

Shopping and Further Distractions: The high-end boutiques at many of the AC casinos are beginning to rival those in Vegas (whatever… like anybody I know can afford anything from them). Upper-midscale shopaholics will wanna hit The Walk (Michigan Ave), a string of higher-end outlets done up like a suburban main street. Anchors include Hilfiger, Banana Republic, Nautica, Coach, Brooks Brothers, and Kenneth Cole (much like your local mall… why'd we leave home again?... ah, the homogenization of America). After exhausting The Walk, stroll the extra block over to Tun Tavern (Sheraton Convention Center, 2 Ocean Way, www.tuntavern.com), aka "The Shoe" for its horseshoe bar. Philly Mag and Jarheads both love this Marine Corp-themed-and-owned microbrew/club/grub spot for live tunes and white-hot barmaids. Or, shop and pamper at the 25 hip boutiques at  Tropicana's "The Quarter" (Brighton & Boardwalk, 800-THE-TROP), including Bluemercury Spa, Tinder Box, or the Spy Store for everything Double-O-Seven. Or take in a flick at the IMAX theater.  The Pier at Caesars is a slick, contemporary complex for chi-chi retailers Bebe, BCBG, and Tommy Bahama.

When To Go: Summer visits "down the shore" mean hotter, tanner masses of younger bodies showing more skin.  So if you're the party-type, plan accordingly.  If crowds, 2 hour table waits, and paying $300-a-night for an oceanfront room at the Days Inn aren't really your thing, you may want to take advantage of the discounted room rates and more manageable reservations available during the off-season of October through March, although I'd stick to the shoulders of the off-season for golf, and it'll still be a bit of a dice roll on the weather. Again, Sun-Thurs room rates are roughly half of weekend rates during the off-season.

Tip: For those within driving distance, summer day trips to AC aren't really worth the effort. A "spontaneous" mid-July Saturday day trip via Rt 322 a few years ago took us twice the normal drive time due to traffic volumes (4 hours vs. the normal 2 from the Philly 'burbs), and we heard the AC Expressway was worse. Arriving mid-afternoon meant parking was tough. We ended up on a casino parking deck's sunbaked roof, then fought through crowded elevators carrying beach chairs. Plus the beach was already well-staked out. All this pushed us into a very late dinner; but even at 9:30 PM, table waits were 40-150 minutes at every restaurant we checked. We wasted nearly an hour and plenty of walking looking for a nice restaurant that could seat us quickly, and then overpaid for the privilege. The assumed advantage of wrapping up dinner at nearly midnight wasn't all it turned out to be; our late night departure ran into a volume-caused traffic jam on the AC Expressway just a few miles out of town (at 12:30 AM!), and traffic remained heavy until we got through Philly after 2 AM. Apparently half the free world in a 3 state radius goes down to AC for the day every Saturday during summer, and then departs late night. Do yourself a favor and skip the weekend day trip headaches for a well-planned weekend or off-season overnighter, and make show and restaurant reservations well in advance.

What To Read Before You Go: Guys who wish they'd have been around for the Rat Pack glory days of AC will want to pick up a copy of The Last Good Time by Jonathan Van Meter, which chronicles the heydays of AC's 500 Club.

See also:  Altantic City NJ Golf Weekend reviews by the major golf mags.

Here are a few sample 3-day weekend itineraries, based on your traveling companions and budget:

Guy's Golf Weekend, Upscale
Play:  Atlantic City Country Club, Twisted Dune, Blue Heron Pines (East or West), Shoregate, Seaview (Pines), Vineyard Golf at Renault Winery

Stay:  Borgata, Harrah's, Caesars, Tropicana, Trump Taj Mahal
Eat:  Chef Vola's, Safari Steakhouse, Specchio, Doc's Oyster House, El Vez, Knife & Fork, Angelo's Fairmont Grill
Party:  40/40, Gypsy Bar, B--Bar and Mixx at The Borgata, Liquid, Luna Lounge, Casbah, The Wave, Lace
Shop:  Gifts for the wife and kids from Caesar's The Pier or the boutiques at Tropicana's The Quarter

Guy's Golf Weekend, Midscale
Play:  Sand Barrens, Brigantine GL, McCullough's Emerald GL, Sea Oaks, or any of the courses listed above on fringe-season or twilight rates

Stay:  Sands, Showboat, Bally's

Eat:  Chickie & Pete's, White House Sub Shop, La Piazza Buffet, Dave's Famous BBQ, Phillips Seafood
Party:  Warm up with beers in the room or max out on free drinks while playing nickel slots.  Then hit Wonder Bar, Flying Cloud Café, Tun Tavern, Bare Essence

Shop: The Walk

Golf Digest Buddies Weekend Itinerary:

LODGING: Tropicana Casino & Resort.

TIPS ON RESTAURANTS: Diamond Jim's, P.F. Chang's, Carmine's and A Dam Good Sports Bar at the Tropicana. "It's good food, and they serve 40-ounce beers for $5," Vermont-based buddy tripper Zig Zag LaCroix says.

COURSES: "We've benefited from private courses opening up to the public," he says. "This year was the first time we played Atlantic City Country Club." LaCroix also recommends Ballamor and Stone Harbor. "Bring at least 14 balls in your bag for Stone Harbor," he says. "There are island fairways and island greens."

Couple's Weekend, Upscale
Assuming the wife/grrlfriend plays:  Blue Heron Pines (East), Seaview (Bay), Vineyard Golf at Renault Winery, Harbor Pines

Stay:  Borgata, Trump Plaza, Resorts
Eat:  Sulian, Fortunes, Max's Steakhouse, Chef Vola's, Doc's Oyster House, La Palais, The Bacchanal, Cuba Libre, Buddakan

Party:  Mixx, 32 Degrees, Luna Lounge, Casbah, Temple Bar, Blue Martini
Shop:  Wherever she wants.  Casino boutiques, The Pier at Caesar's, The Quarter at Tropicana, The Walk

Couple's Weekend, Budget
Assuming the wife/grrlfriend plays:  Brigantine GL, Sea Oaks (twilight)
Stay:  Tropicana, Bally's
Eat:  Phillips Seafood, White House Sub Shop, La Piazza Buffet, splurge at Angelo's Fairmont Grill or P.F. Chang's
Party:  Wonder Bar, Flying Cloud Café, Tun Tavern, Hilton Beach Bar
Shop:  The Walk