A weekend in New Jersey
Not quite a tour diary… not quite a best of column…
the group spends time in Atlantic City and Beach Haven

Over the days of September 11, 2009 thru September 14, 2009, Terry, Ellen, Richard and I took off for a bit of a long weekend.

I had purchased tickets to see Tommy Emmanuel perform at the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven on Sunday night. And… as is our way… we decided to blow it up a bit and turn tickets to a single show into a long weekend away. Plans were made and Atlantic City was targeted.

The whole trip was well-planned and yet chaotically crazy. We left late at night for the drive down… the concert brought us from Atlantic City over to Beach Haven and then back to Atlantic City… and there was never going to be a ton of exploring. Instead of the normal attempt at a tour diary that chronicles the weekend… and instead of a simple best of column with all of us thinking about the events that took place and people we met… I thought a different approach might be a bit more fun for this one.

I’ve divided this piece up into four sections… the great, the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Yeah… I know… really basic. We’ll try to make up for it with some good stories. Here we go…)

The Surflight Theatre – One of the most pleasant surprises you will ever experience when it comes to entertainment is located in Beach Haven, New Jersey.

Surflight seats about 450 and puts together a pretty impressive listing of shows. And it’s a theater in the sense of the small-theaters with intimate seating and decent names appearing on the schedule that I grew up with but rarely find these days. Sure, there are the Broadway-stage-style presentations… 2010 marks the theater’s 60th season, and the schedule shows some great productions. There are also some great shows for children. And, perhaps most importantly, catch this listing for such a small theater… John Davidson returns after his 2009 holiday performance for a 2010 summer concert…Tommy Emmanuel is scheduled for four shows in three days… and this place fits it all in a room where the seats furthest from the stage are no more than 13 rows away. I guarantee you… with the combination of theater size, ticket prices, and calendar of events… you will find something to interest you taking place here.

And if you visit once… they’ll have you. The experience is simply extraordinary. Imagine a main road full of options for a meal before the show, from casual to fine dining, with virtually all offered in a relaxed, summer atmosphere. There’s plenty of parking right next to the theater. And… this was the part that just sealed it all and put a ribbon on it for me on my first visit… the beach is literally right there. In 2008, before a show, Justin, Jason, Gabe and I spent about a half-hour staring at the ocean while perhaps two hundred yards away from the Surflight’s front doors. On this 2009 trip, Terry, Ellen, Richard and I ate dinner and drove a mile or two down the road to spend time near the water, check out Atlantic City in the distance, and then watch a nice sunset before heading in to the theater.

Honestly… the setting is amazing. Just another world.

Tommy Emmanuel and Rick Price at the Surflight – I would recommend either of these wonderful performers to you without hesitation. To see them both together was fantastic.

Tommy comes to the Surflight pretty every year for multiple shows. This year he will be performing there in September, with four concerts scheduled. No word on the opening act yet. (In July I will be seeing him perform at Showcase Live… the same location where I saw him last September when I interviewed Rick Price. On that date his opening act is Troy Cassar-Daly. It is almost always someone with an Australian background that will deliver a great set.)

The penny slots at Harrah’s – Or… more specifically… the 1-cent Double Diamond Progressive slots at Harrah’s.

Terry and Ellen spent way too much time here. And I say that only because it reached a point where Richard and I knew exactly where to look to find one of them, and, Harrah’s was really the only property that we felt a need to visit multiple times. (Ellen sort of begged… often wondering if we’d even have time to visit again on the day we left.)

Ellen’s floor show, multiple performances, Harrah’s – Kind of a personal touch. You won’t be able to find a listing of her shows at Harrah’s if you look for it. It’s one of those perks that comes from traveling with her. And it goes something like this…

I’ve gambled with Ellen at dozens of casinos in at least four different states. And if you had asked me about five years ago what her gambling style was, I would have told you something along the lines of someone that liked to gamble while saying she doesn’t like to gamble.

But that’s not quite right. In fact, it’s probably not quite fair.

A more accurate description would involve two concepts… first, gambling is supposed to be fun… second, winning is nice but value is more important.

I don’t think this is an unusual combination. And, the union of those two concepts is actually easy enough to understand. She doesn’t want gambling to be like work and she doesn’t want to watch her money fly out of her hands. Losing is ok… as long as it isn’t happening way too fast.

Generally speaking, Ellen usually watches us play roulette or blackjack, and if we appear to have settled in at a table, she might wander away to a video poker machine or… well… anything that catches her eye.

At Harrah’s, it was a specific penny Double Diamond slot machine.

And she couldn’t stop thinking about it. We had to go to the machine a few times to wait for her to finish playing before we moved on to something else. Multiple times. (She even stalked a couple of people that were playing it when she moved for one reason or another. And one time, she even sat and waited for Terry to finish playing it so she could jump on.)

Sunset in Beach Haven, NJ – There are plenty of places in Beach Haven to just pull over and take it all in. I’ve never been there for a sunrise, but imagine it would be sensational. The only problem… and it isn’t a major problem… is that sunset isn’t Oceanside.

House of Blues – Located in Showboat, we decided to eat dinner here on Saturday night. And, of course, there’s a bit of a story involved…

We couldn’t think of a single place we wanted to eat.

The way our weekend was set up, dinner on Saturday was really the only meal we needed to think about. On Friday we didn’t arrive until the vicinity of midnight… on Sunday we were in Beach Haven… and on Monday we were home. Any other meal would more or less be based on whether or not we were hungry.

So we started kicking around ideas and quickly dismissing them. We weren’t looking for fancy or expensive… we weren’t looking for all you could eat… we didn’t want crowded… blah-blah-blah. Everything kind of came together when we arrived at Showboat during our drive around to a few properties, checked out a couple of menus, and were able to get seated right away at the House of Blues.

The beauty of it wasn’t that anything was great… it was that everything was good. The service was really outstanding (and of course I can’t for the life of me find our server’s name now). The food was delicious… nothing knock-you-off-your-seat beyond belief, but everything was in the have-you-tried-this-yet-because-you’re-going-to-like-it range or better. And… best of all… we were just looking and pointing at things… lots of appetizers… an entrée apiece, even though as I said, lots of appetizers… and yet the final bill was pretty reasonable considering everything we had arriving at our table.

Don’t go here expecting to leave talking about the food. Go hear expecting to have a great time while being able to eat good food. If you do, you won’t be disappointed.

Beach Haven, NJ – I list the town itself here with the good for one very simple reason… I’ve never spent the night. In fact, in two trips, I’ve never been there to eat more than a meal, spend some time on the beach, and see a show. I just can’t recommend it as something superb when I’ve never made reservations to stay there.

And that said… I wouldn’t have any hesitations of staying there should the opportunity suddenly arise.

The staff of the Atlantic City casino properties – Overall, the majority of employees we dealt with were far friendlier than we ever expected them to be. Most of them smiled… tried to get conversations going… and seemed generally attentive to our questions and needs. A few seemed burned out and cranky… but that was the exception in our experiences. It was the physical buildings that disappointed and never matched the enthusiasm of the staff.

As an example, in a minute I’m going to list the Virginia City Buffet as a “yawn” for our trip. But… in line to check in, the staff was good. The people that made my eggs and got my orange juice were friendly enough. The food was just nothing more than plain (at best) and the atmosphere so-so.

There were several examples of problems we had… often with specific individuals… but overall we were not impressed by Atlantic City. It was a dump. And for the majority of staff to be polite, friendly, and smiling while trying to get your mind off the dirty and aging structures is worth noting.

Richard plays roulette – Many of my theories about gambling fly right in the face of the numbers. I know that having a good time honestly and truly has no impact upon the way you play… instead, it is far more likely that the reason it seems like you win more when you’re happy is exactly that, you’re winning and therefore your happy.

That said, our dear Mumbles is an amazing gambler when he is having fun. And when he isn’t… stand back. Canasta has exemplified this. Here in New Jersey, Richard was having a ball.

We weren’t really playing as much as you might think, and Richard rarely sits down at a blackjack table alone. That led him to roulette, and over the course of our weekend, he was winning a bit more often than he wasn’t.

DealersBobby and BJ at Harrah’s, Barbara at The Ridge – Just three people I’d like to mention because we had alot of fun at the tables with them.

Bobby and BJ were the dealer and the floor supervisor at a blackjack table. They kept things light and friendly, and we had a good time being around them.

Barbara was at a roulette table… geez, must have been around midnight… one night when we were heading up to our room. (I believe it was after Sunday’s show in Beach Haven.) Richard had the itch to play, sat down, and managed to hit a couple of numbers right out of the gate.

Buckalew’s – Just a couple of blocks from the Surflight, this is where we had dinner before the show. The food was good… but our time there had a strange side event take place.

The food was ok. Not spectacular. I need to stress that… because I don’t think any of us were overly impressed by our meals, and we each reached in a different direction. But when we arrived and said we were there for dinner, they seated us in the dining room.

Does that matter? Yeah… I think so.

See the food was ok, but we had good service and enjoyed our visit. Nothing was wrong… just nothing on the plate to encourage a return.

Around the corner though was the bar. (Excuse me… their tavern.) And they were playing football games on the television… and they had a different menu of things that probably would have encouraged us to share appetizers and order a bit differently and… yeah, that looked like fun.

If I had a room within walking distance of the Surflight… and had tickets to a show… I could easily see myself at Buckalew’s again, enjoying a drink or two, and maybe some wings or nachos, and finishing it off with a sandwich or burger or some bar food item.

And if a restaurant has me thinking of coming back, I’m willing to think about it in a good way.

This is a bonus category. I never thought I’d need it when I started this effort, and now I think I do. I’m inserting it to allow me to include some of the places that we visited that weren’t bad… but I can’t say they were really good either. To me, including something with the good (or better) indicates that there’s a chance we would actually look for it in the future. Almost seems like a recommendation. And if something is in the category of bad, then there would really need to be something extra taking place to get us back again. Ugly… well… I don’t expect to ever return and would purposely do my best not to.

For the places here though, they just weren’t that impressive. It wasn’t that something was wrong… it wasn’t that any aspect of it was even right… it was just pretty boring and average.

Reflections Café – In the back corner of Harrah’s is a nice little restaurant that should offer a fabulous experience. Since it’s off the beaten path, it isn’t noisy. Since it’s off the beaten path, my experience with other casino resort properties would suggest that while it might be busy, it likely won’t be as busy as other locations. And the menu looked very appetizing.

And yet, here’s a test. I can guarantee you that if I walked up to Ellen, Richard or Terry right now and asked them… “What do you remember about Reflections Café?”… none of them would remember where it was, when they had been there, or anything about the place without being given some additional information. If I told them only that it was in Atlantic City, they likely still wouldn’t know the property. Heck, if I gave them everything from the property to when we ate there, they wouldn’t have a clue what they ordered.

Sound like a yawn to you? (Me too.)

Virginia City Buffet – A second ago I told you that the staff leading us in to this buffet, and serving us at it, were good. And that is pretty much the only redeeming element of the place.

I have this running theory about bakeries. It’s simple really… generically speaking, try the brownies. If a bakery can’t make a decent brownie, then they don’t make anything at all that you really want to eat.

Same deal with this restaurant. I get it… at a buffet alot of food will be stored in hot boxes, and it’s been mass produced. Pasta at a buffet? Time your serving perfectly or risk the results. Still…

Even understanding those limits from a buffet… the pancakes shouldn’t taste like they were made, then frozen, then developed some type of freezer burn, then were reheated in a toaster, and ultimately they managed to be served to you cold. Is it too much to ask for pancakes and waffles warm enough to at least soften butter? It is too much to ask for the outer half-inch of the pancake to not be crispy, especially when the middle is still frozen? The answers are no… not when many hotels are now offering you the ability to make fresh waffles as part of their complimentary breakfasts.

Was it really that bad? No. My omelet was pretty good. And the cook making it was great.

Still… it’s the people that make it a yawn. Because I don’t think we will be going back here… and I wouldn’t tell you to pay it a visit either.

Bally’s (Claridge… The Ridge… whatever) – Wow… where to begin?

Do you want to know about the leftovers in the room? (I’ll actually get to them in the Ugly section.)

The stench of urine in the public parking? The charges for parking even when staying in that hotel? (Ok… more on these in a moment.)

The miles upon miles of walking that seemed to put everything out of the way of everything else might be the funniest note… and best worth sharing.

The Virginia City Buffet was off the floor, down the hall, and in another building.

Most of the restaurants were across the casino floor and then upstairs.

The rooms… and the elevators to them… required a map, a compass, and two subway tokens to get to from the hotel lobby.

Everything was a challenge… everything an inconvenience.

Now… funny thing. Part of this is because Bally’s isn’t really just Bally’s. They took over the Claridge, have expanded over the years… including what I recall being a wild wet theme of a casino expansion more than a decade ago. And that adds up to this stunning realization… of course everything is going to be inconvenient… it’s all stretched out over multiple properties.

But it shouldn’t be this bad. Here we go…

On Saturday we went around town. When we had left, the door between our rooms was closed. I remember this vividly because Ellen asked Richard about something (I think it was his camera). But with the door between our connecting rooms closed, Richard couldn’t get into his room. He grabbed it by entering from the hallway when we left.

Saturday night, when we got back to our hotel rooms, our room key didn’t work. I was starting to think about the long walk down to the desk when Ellen called out that the door between the rooms was open.

So… let’s see… I didn’t go get my room keys fixed that night because I just didn’t feel like walking a marathon to the darn hotel desk. And… doors between adjoining rooms were left open by the housekeeping staff, but the rooms were booked in different names and they had no real way of knowing we were together.

Great stuff. Good times. (Stay away from Bally’s.)

A vote for Terry’s luck – From… of course… Terry. She was not happy about her gambling efforts on this trip. Nope… not at all.

The parking – Ok, for this one we’re complaining about the theory of the parking. Or, more simply put, the charges for parking.

As hotel guests… we had to pay for valet parking. We would have had to pay for any parking.

Oh sure… they’ll tell you get free parking with a hotel stay. What they won’t tell you is that you need to find Waldo to get your free parking.

I’m not kidding.

We had to drive around to a different section of the parking entrance, go inside to a desk to find a specific cashier, and produce a form from our hotel stay that I just happened to luck out and have in my backpack. (Not intended to be a funny reference to the web site.) Then they told us we were welcome at all the wonderful Bally’s family of properties.


At the next property I produced the receipt I was told to produce, and they told me that was wrong. So they printed up a different receipt and…

I’m getting tired of typing about this and your patience has to be wearing thin. Look…

I had an argument with a guy in the booth because after turning down all the paperwork and receipts I had that were supposed to cover my parking, he told me to just swipe my players card next time because I probably qualified for free parking. Naturally, at the parking payment gate, he had no way of swiping any of our cards to retrieve that. Had to be done inside, miles away from the garage.

Just frustrating and annoying. Pain… in… the… ass.

The Boardwalk – This got votes for bad and ugly, so I split it into two categories… the Boardwalk for bad and Atlantic City overall for ugly. Why bad? Because the Boardwalk wasn’t as hideous as the city and so many of the properties. It was… as silly as this sounds… what it always was. To directly quote Ellen: “I didn’t see much of a difference.”

But there was nothing right about it this time.

On previous trips to AC I recall the Boardwalk having a kind of excitement. Sure… it could take forever to get to some of the properties. Sure… there’s a tackiness to it that defies description. The thing is, I recall always feeling like I couldn’t wait for what I was going to see next. Maybe it was a stupid slogan slapped on a t-shirt, and perhaps it was just a view of the Atlantic Ocean. Could have been something about the piers or the beach, and might have been the resort casino and hotel towers off in the distance. Whatever it was at any given moment, there was always something to make fun of, something to enjoy, and something that just felt special.

Not this time though.

This time it seemed quiet and depressing. And as Ellen so rightly observed… physically there wasn’t much of a difference than any previous visit. The atmosphere though… that was gone.

Rainforest Café – I happen to be a fan of the Rainforest Café. I’ve visited multiple locations in Orlando... found the place in Cancun and Las Vegas… Massachusetts and Maryland… and given some thought I might find that this is a restaurant chain with tableside service that I have visited more locations of than any other place.

And that’s one of the reasons this was so amazingly disappointing.

See… I don’t like it for the food. I like the Rainforest Café because of the fun and the surroundings. I like it because in most places the staff have been great.

Our waitress was playing a game of ignoring us. We sat down around 11:30… food started arriving about an hour later. We didn’t leave simply because we had checked out a couple of places on our way over… just to see what was nearby… and nothing appealed to us.

The kicker was when the food started arriving, it was warm… as if it had been sitting for a while.


Waitresses – Richard and I don’t remember a single waitress. Not one. We don’t remember seeing any boobs… we don’t recall any of the outfits they wore… we just don’t remember anything about the beverage service on the floor. Now… normally that would kind of qualify this for yawn status, except that we also don’t remember getting served at any of the properties. And as I read Ellen’s response to some of my questions, and tried to incorporate Richard’s thoughts with mine, it occurred to me that the only memory I had of getting a drink was when I ordered one at Bally’s… waited fifteen to twenty minutes for her to show up with a tray to show me how it had spilled… waited again when she disappeared after a promise to bring one right out, only to see her ten minutes later making a sweep to take fresh orders… and eventually leaving after three-quarters of an hour or more without getting my drink. So they weren’t just failing at being memorable… they were failing at service too.

Atlantic City – Over the course of our trip we actually did explore a bit more than we expected, and visited several properties… Bally’s, Caesars, Bogota, Harrah’s, Showboat, and Taj Mahal. Even ate at the Rainforest Café on the last day, so toss in Trump Plaza if you wish. And out of all of those properties, only two were… well… I suppose clean is the word I’m looking for.

We enjoyed Harrah’s. And the Bogota is nice as well. Other than that… there were some moments (as noted above), but some disappointments as well. And overall… Atlantic City you really need a facelift.

The parking – And here, we’re complaining about the actual parking. At one point we decided the hell with it, and self-parked at the Bally’s-Claridge-all-in-one-but-specifically-the-Ridge-combo-property. To say it smelled doesn’t do justice to the overwhelming stench of urine.

Succinctly put… you will know where Atlantic City’s homeless hang out.

And how about those parking fees? Doesn’t matter where you park… in a garage… valet… heck, even as a hotel guest… you pay extra for parking. Now I’m mentioning that again because I want to try and explain this one more time…

With your player’s card, most properties have swipe stations for you to use. You can check your points, perhaps print some comps, and generally work on your account. One of the things is earning free parking. And… near as I can tell… you earn free parking by finding one of these swipe stations and being physically able to slide your card through the reader. (Ok… that’s an exaggeration. You also have to be able to enter your pin number and select the free parking option on the touch screen.)

We all had free parking at, I believe, every property. Even when one of us barely played… we still laughed when we swiped that card and saw free parking. But almost every time it never occurred to us to try and get the card until we were on our way to the car and had long since passed the last swipe station. Why? Well, mainly because we were told we didn’t need to pay once we had already paid because we were hotel guests that had paid and… oh, screw it…

The places smelled like urine and at almost every one the majority of cars parked nearby look as though people were living in them.

Housekeeping at the Bally’s-Claridge-all-in-one-but-specifically-the-Ridge-combo-property – Oh yeah… I have a story for this one.

We checked in to our rooms late on Friday night. On Saturday morning we had opened the doors on our adjoining rooms, and began to get the last things together before heading off for breakfast and starting the day. Ellen asked if we had put our drinks into the fridge.

I hadn’t looked for one the night before, so it didn’t hit me to find it and put stuff like water and soda away. Figured I’d just run for some ice when I needed it. Once Ellen came up with her brilliant suggestion, I found the fridge, grabbed a couple bottles of water and went to put them away… only to find leftovers in the fridge.

Are you following the general flow here? They weren’t our leftovers. Someone else had put them in the fridge and housekeeping never emptied the fridge out.


But wait… it gets better.

As we left that morning, we spotted someone from housekeeping in the hall. She asked how we were doing… quite a friendly and pleasant person overall… and if we needed anything. Terry mentioned we had checked in late and really only needed fresh towels.

Later on… around midnight… we arrive back at the rooms.

And as I mentioned before, our key doesn’t work.

The door between the rooms was still open though, so we were able to get in… and as I described, if you know anything about the layout of the The Ridge compared to the front desk, you can appreciate why we didn’t feel like going all the way back down to the desk to change our keys. However… yeah…

Fresh towels were on the bed. Just like Terry asked for.

The beds weren’t made. And the trash wasn’t changed. So… we still had the leftovers.

And in a word… that sums up Atlantic City in many ways. It feels like a collection of leftovers.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com