Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Luxury in Atlantic City Without Breaking The Bank

How did a non-gambler like myself -- well, not exactly non-gambler; I do play craps every once in awhile -- who thrives on nature end up staying in (and enjoying!) Atlantic City, New Jersey? After all, I was seeking out a budget destination with peace and quiet where I could sit in a sun-filled environ -- a perfect ambiance for me to finish writing Act 1 of my second feature-length script.

I set some difficult-to-fulfill criteria: I needed a four-night getaway that was close to New York City and accessible by bus or train. The accommodations couldn't cost more than $100 a night. There should be an array of restaurants with cuisine that would satisfy the foodie in me but with menus that also fit a budget-minded trip. And, because, I'm not like writers who gravitate to dark, brooking enclaves, I needed an abundance of natural light and venues that provided access to botanical views. The Borgata and the Water Club at the Borgata to the rescue. These connected properties fit all my criteria. So much so that I'm hoping to return in a couple of months to work on Act 2.

I didn't want to battle traffic and deal with parking fees by driving to Atlantic City. So instead, I took the bus and spent a relaxing 2.5 hours reading the Sunday New York Times. The Greyhound Lucky Streak buses run almost every hour or so (depending on the time of the day and whether it's a weekend or weekday departure) directly from New York City's Port Authority to several different Atlantic City casinos, including Bally's or the Trump Taj Mahal. (The round-trip ticket is a mere $35.) Supposedly the buses are equipped with WiFi, but my buses were not equipped with it.

Once we arrived, rather than hopping in an expensive taxi for the short, 20 minute ride to the Borgata and The Water Club at the Borgata, we jumped in the Atlantic City Jitney - the fare is a mere $2.25. (The Route 2 or Route 3 Jitney serves the Borgata.) Sure, it makes a multitude of stops, but it's still better than the $15+ for the cab.

Both the Borgata and the Water Club have midweek specials (not during high season, of course) that hover around $99. And for this highly inexpensive price, we had a spacious contemporary room with massive windows overlooking the nearby marina as well as the adjacent protected salt marshes that is along a bird migratory path. (You're probably wondering could this really be Atlantic City?)

One of the highlights of a stay at the Borgata or The Water Club is the Borgata's Spa Toccare along with the adjacent health club, the Pump Room. We plunked down $40 a day and had full access to the spa facilities as well as the health club. (The gym by itself is $12 a day.) It's easy to spend the entire morning or afternoon here luxuriating in the various hot tubs, sauna and steam bath. The lighting is subdued as I snuggled in a thick robe, sipped a fresh juice, nibbled on Granny Smith apples and lounged about. (A perfect de-stresser before starting work on my script each day.) The health club, that stocked copies of the New York Times as well as bracing cold towels, was relaxed and hardly crowded. Among the multitude of machines, the one that became my favorite, the Wave by TechnoGym,  simulates a skating action, whether on roller blades or Nordic skis. I was told that no one ever uses it so I always had it to myself.

I spent every day at the Water Club's heated indoor pool (actually pools) since, in a sun-saturated room that looks out to a foliage-laden garden, there is the main heated pool as well as a smaller infinity, plunge pool and a couple of hot tubs. This was my "office" over three days where I settled in on one of the chaise lounges for hours with my laptop. No one under 18 is allowed in the pool area -- it's only available to Water Club guests -- so the quiet atmosphere was conducive to hours of creativity.

My only break during the day was for lunch where I ordered from the poolside service: the Mediterranean platter (with humus, baba ganoush, tabouleh and pita), or the tuna salad (made with olive oil rather than loaded with mayonnaise, plus red onions, anchovies and roasted peppers) and a glass of Gramona Cava from Spain. (These were splurge options since the salads ran $17 to $20 and the wine another $13.) The food is all prepared in the nearby Sunroom, an appropriately named bar/restaurant that resembles a greenhouse with plants, including bamboo, draped in clusters, and a wall of cascading water. And, given that celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian is the culinary consultant, it's no wonder the menu is highly focused on modern American cuisine. When I was seeking a low-key spot to hang out at night, I also chose to sip a glass of wine at the Sunroom beside a blazing fireplace.

Another tasty lunch option is Roma, a casual Italian spot serving thin-crust individual pizzas ($13 plus extra for additional toppings), such as the San Remo with anchovies, mozzarella, olives and arugula.

My breakfast choice was The Metropolitan. Though the prices are not cheap by any means – oatmeal is more than $6 and pancakes are $9 -- I found that the huevos rancheros ($11) were well worth it. They were filling, the salsa provided the right balance of heat and the easy-over eggs were not overcooked, making this the one of the best huevos rancheros dishes I've ever eaten. (I just had them go light on the monterey jack.)

For dinner, each night I found a different budget-minded menu at myriad restaurants. But, when I think about eating on a budget, upscale dining hardly comes to mind. But, at the Borgata,  it's de rigueur.

SeaBlue –  As part of their Social Hour, every Sunday night a half-price menu is in effect until 7:00pm. The setting, with its blue palette including a blue-hued marble bar, conveys an ocean motif. Among the items on the Michael Mina-designed bar menu are the fritto misto with shrimp, calamari, snapper and smelt; and deviled eggs with white anchovies and shallots.

Izakaya – Every item at this contemporary Japanese eatery is just $7 all night on Mondays. Among the most well-crafted dishes are the duck meatballs with foie gras, terikayki skewers atop soba noodles, and crispy chicken bao bun with mint and shallots. Don't miss the dessert: a rich trio of milk shakes with smores.

N.O.W (aka Noodles of the World) – Tuesday is a good night to dine at this Asian-focused restaurant that's a bit hard to find. (It's on the casino floor adjacent to the Asian gaming table gaming area.) Most of the dishes, including the broth noodles and creations from the wok, are under $15. Two of us shared the Kyoto Udon which consists of udon noodles with shrimp, chicken and roast pork; and the Hong Kong shrimp wanton that's accompanied by egg noodles and shrimp dumplings. The seating options are at the sushi bar or at long communal tables.

Fornelleto – During Wine Down Wednesdays, this upscale Italian restaurant offers small plates and Napolitana pizzas for just $10. Even the paired wines – and their selection is extensive – starts at $10. Popcorn shrimp with  spicy aioli, grilled beef sliders topped with gorgonzola cheese and dried tomatoes, and an oyster mushroom pizza sprinkled with goat cheese are some of their flavorful options.

Among the many surprises I discovered during my stay was a lovely pedestrian walkway that's saturated with the sounds of nature. It extends some two miles from the back of the Borgata to Harrah's and then on to the Golden Nugget. Interestingly, I found that few people who knew anyting about this path which hugs a protected salt marsh that's along a migratory bird path. All along the trail, which is lighted at night, are benches and placards documenting the many birds and other natural phenomena that can be viewed along the way. It's not unusual to spy peregrin falcons, brants and other birds. For the most bird sightings and sounds, walk, jog or bike this path early in the morning.
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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gear Reviews: Keeping Valuables Safe While Traveling

Even though I'm a very savvy traveler, skillful pickpockets -- they're pretty much all skillful if they want to survive on the streets -- managed to get into my backpack when I visited Madrid several years ago. Within seconds, while I was engaged in conversation with a stranger, the second member of what was a team took all my valuables: passport, driver's license, all my credit and bank cards, and my money (luckily there was only about 50 Euros). Since then, I altered the way I carry my gear but a number of theft-proof items are also now available.

Below are my reviews of two of these products: Adam Rapp of http://clothingarts.com/ offered me a pair of his Pick-Pocket Proof Pants (the Adventure Traveler Pants model), and Alex Ivory, the founder of Dovetail Travel in Peace, sent me a small zippered black pouch containing two of her body bands. While the latter is a women's product, the Adventure Traveler Pants are currently only available for men -- though Clothing Arts will soon be manufacturing women's pants. (My friend tested out the pants and provided detailed feedback while I also tried them on to check out the multitude of features.)

1. Clothing Arts - Pick-Pocket Proof Pants - Adventure Traveler Pants

Sure, these cargo-type pants are expensive at $110, but they're absolutely worth it. After all, if a pair of pants could positively protect you from theft of your passport, money, credit cards, cell phone and more, how much would you be willing to pay? My friend at first was shocked at the price. But he found these pants to be nicely tailored with a perfect fit. He noted the high quality production, whether the zippers, stain-resistant material, and thick, slash-resistant pockets. Though he doesn't travel anywhere near the amount I do, he admitted that he'd definitely wear these if pickpockets were a threat. Sometimes he has to do business in some not great neighborhoods here in New York City and these pants would come in handy. He'd put his most valuable items (such as a wallet) in one of the zippered pockets that are covered by buttoned flaps. (There are also flaps over the vertical zippered pockets.) The flaps on the rear pockets, he added, were so hard for him to unbutton that he thought it would definitely stymie a thief who, after fiddling with buttons would then have to also undo the zipper. (It took my friend 10 to 15 seconds to undo the buttons and the zipper on a pocket.) Plus, one pocket has a hidden -- so hidden that we both had difficulty finding it -- inner zippered pocket that fits your most valuable item: your passport. It's hard to imagine how a pickpocket would navigate inside that pocket. In my opinion, you'd have to be unconscious for a thief to get into these pants pockets.

These pants have so many pockets, including one that's attachable to hold a small water bottle, that you could skip carrying a tote bag. (The pants can easily accommodate a guidebook, small camera, cell phone, note book and more.) You don't even have to wear a belt since there is a buttoned waist cinch system.

My friend said he'd wear these pants if theft were an issue, which it is in many cities around the world. If you are placing valuables in the rear zippered and buttoned down pockets, choose items that you won't need to access frequently during the day. (It'll just take too long with the buttons.) He decided that around town here in New York City, he'll just forgo the double layer of security and use just the zippers. That's an option here, of course. But it's nice to know that so much thought went into the construction of these pants. I can't wait until the woman's version is available.

2. Dovetail Travel in Peace

I've been in plenty of situations, such as an overnight train to Sicily and the souks in Morocco, where I wished I could really hide valuables so no prying hands can get to them for the entire day or night. These two super slim body bands -- the Travel Band and the Travel Wing -- to the rescue.  When I opened the petite zippered bag, I found two black items that resemble lingerie of sorts. Both items (and they can be worn separately over your underwear: the wing goes over your bra and the band slips over your panties and sits on your hips) are mostly black nylon with a little spandex. The idea is that the stretchy pocket in each band is supposed to accommodate a plastic portfolio where you can slip your passport, money and credit cards.

 I found that the portfolio (stuffed with my passport and credit cards) was a snug but good fit in the Wing, which you wear with the pocket along your upper back. However, I just didn't like what appeared to be the plastic odor off-gassing from the portfolio so I dumped it in favor of simply placing my passport in the Wing. That worked out fine. Then I donned my ExOfficio shirt and my Horny Toad jacket or I wore the Wing under one of my Icebreaker dresses, and I felt perfectly comfortable and secure. (The Wing has a very low profile so it was not visible under my clothing.)

I also tried out the Band which has a stretchable inner pocket that's also supposed to accommodate the portfolio with your passport and valuables. However, no matter how much I stretched and tugged, I couldn't get the portfolio or the passport by itself into the narrow pocket. The portfolio just is too wide to fit into this pocket. No worries, though, because I simply put my rolled up bills and credit cards in a small zip lock and easily folded it into the pocket of the Body Band, which you wear with the pocket towards the back of your hips. It was plenty comfortable with its one-size fits all, up to size 10 for both bands. (At this time, these only comes in black but other colors probably will be available down the road.)

Of course, both the Band and the Wing are meant to hold items that you won't have to access during the day. They're for close-to-the-body safe keeping. It's not like you're going to peel back your shirt to access your passport at customs, or lift up your skirt every time you need money to make a purchase.

I think Dovetail Travel in Peace is a great idea for female travelers who need to keep valuables secure no matter what. And, at the price of $48 for the set, it's definitely worth it.
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