Clever names attract attention, as can be seen in the ACES train (www.acestrain.com) to Atlantic City, a service from New York's Penn Station that began running in early February this year. The acronym stands for "Atlantic City Express Service," and if it reminds you of a poker card, so much the better for its sponsors, who include three of the town's biggest resorts-casinos (for the record, they are the Borgata, Caesars, and Harrah's). Having experienced the uncomfortable bus ride between the two cities, I can say definitely that the train is the only way to get to the New Jersey casinos from New York City, better in comfort and convenience, and taking about the same amount of time.
Using remodeled double-decker cars from New Jersey Transit, ACES runs two trains southbound on Fridays and four each day on Saturdays and Sundays. The fare one-way is around $45 to $50 coach and about $75 first class. There are coach seats both up and down on some cars, while first class seats are always upstairs. The only difference between the classes is the width of the seats and more legroom in first, just like airplane seating, with two seats on one side of the aisle in first, only one the other side. In coach, it's two and two on either side of the aisle, and narrower seats, less legroom.
In first class, you also have attendants who will take your drink and food order and bring them to you. There is nothing free, even bottled water or such in first class. If you want to party en route, you can rent the lounge in each car, which seats four, comes with two video screens and recorded music, costing from about $239 and up for four people. (There were plenty of coach passengers clogging the aisles and having a long happy hour without the lounge, too.)
There's a snack bar at one end of each car, toilets at the other end. Typical prices: hard liquor $11 to $16 per small bottle (including mixes), beer $6 or $7, yogurt $3.80, turkey club sandwich $7, coffee $2.25. When I took the train out on a Friday afternoon, back the next afternoon, both were exactly on time. One oddity is that you have to experience part of the ride backwards, unless you change seats when the train switches power units in the northern Philadelphia suburbs.
The owners of the train have signed up New Jersey Transit to handle the equipment, and Amtrak to take care of reservations. They say there are two trains with 300 seats per train and nine round trips each weekend. There is only one stop, at Newark Penn Station, each direction, with the exception of the change from electric to diesel or vice-versa near Philadelphia. The trip time in either direction runs about 2 hours and 35 to 55 minutes. The regular train from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to Atlantic City takes about 1 hour 30 minutes, according to New Jersey Transit -- but it doesn't have the services or comfort of ACES.
When you arrive in Atlantic City, you walk a short distance through the rail terminal and board a free bus for one of the three resorts that sponsor the train. (Of course, you can stay anywhere you want and take a free Jitney from the rail station to your destination, or a taxi.) In my case, the bus for Harrah's left nine minutes after the train arrived, and we were at the casino ten minutes after that.
You can also go by Amtrak from New York to Philadelphia and change there to regular New Jersey Transit trains to Atlantic City, but it takes longer and the changeover can be fretful at times. Regular bus service schedules say the trip from New York to Atlantic City takes only 2 hours 35 minutes, but the rules say no eating or drinking and I found the road much bumpier than the train. The bus from Philadelphia takes just 1 hour 30 minutes, schedules say.
The Big Three Casinos
Luckily, I picked Harrah's (www.harrahs.com) to stay at on my most recent trip, and I was impressed with its newest feature, the Waterfront Tower which, at 44 stories, is the tallest casino hotel in Atlantic City. Wrapped around the tower is the world's largest LED light display, they say, with ever changing pictures and motifs along the side of the entire structure. This was part of a $550 million upgrade and expansion. Equally innovative is the Pool After Dark nightclub experience, in which you can have bottle service in your hot tub or cabana, for instance (if, for instance, you still have money to spend like it's 2006).
I hadn't seen the Borgata (www.theborgata.com) before, and it is awesomely shiny, with the usual plethora of restaurants, gaming and show times tucked inside. Reflecting its part owner, MGM Mirage, perhaps, are the 12 destination restaurants here with name chefs in charge. (Think Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay, etc.) Attached to the Borgata is a new hotel, the Water Club, which says it is "the first non-gaming cosmopolitan hotel experience in Atlantic City" Among other amenities, it has five heated indoor and outdoor pools. Between the Borgata's 11 signature boutiques and the Water Club's six designer retail boutiques, you could shop all week here.
I enjoyed dinner at Borgata's Izakaya restaurant, which was Japanese in inspiration but Vegas nightclub in design -- though a tiny sushi bar in the back guaranteed authenticity. My meal included an overcooked robatayaki skewer of shrimp ($12), a (somewhat dry) rice dish with crab and shiso (beefsteak plant) at $14, a Sapporo beer ($7) and a yummy yuzu cheesecake ($9). (Yuzu is a Japanese citrus, somewhat like a grapefruit.)
Caesar's (www.caesarsac.com) remains czar of the Boardwalk, and is one of the town's oldest casinos, dating from 1979. It says it has the highest table stakes in town. Right now it is proud of its recently built Centurion Tower, adding 680 rooms to the hotel's complex. With more than 90 shops and restaurant, the Pier Shops here could keep any visitor busy for days.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our New Jersey Forum today.