Atlantic City: going beyond the casinos

beach1My bet is that Atlantic City isn’t on the radar of football fans heading east to watch Wisconsin play Rutgers on Nov. 1.

Atlantic City, 100 miles south of New Jersey’s largest university, is quickly losing its reputation as a gaming mecca. Four of the city’s 12 casinos closed this year, and a fifth (Trump Taj Mahal) is expected to go down before November ends.

The Washington Post reports that Atlantic City’s casino revenue is one-half of what it was in 2006. The Baltimore Sun attributes the spiral to the opening of 40 casinos in neighboring states, a big change from when New Jersey legalized gambling in 1978.

Add an unsavory news peg: the Ray Rice connection to Revel Casino Hotel, the $2.4 billion property that survived only two years. Revel is where the suspended Baltimore Ravens player in February was shown assaulting his now-wife on an elevator.

So, game off? Not necessarily. It’s a world where Big Ten now means 14 teams, and first impressions mislead at Atlantic City, too.

Here are a few things that I learned while visiting a year ago.

Discounts at casino hotels are potentially profound, if you know where to look. Example: Overnight rates were as little as $46 (at Harrah’s) and $48 (at the Tropicana) through a recent hotels.com promotion. These deals are fleeting, so start looking early, be patient and know when to pounce, to avoid paying four or more times as much.

The remaining casino hotels aren’t necessarily the most charming accommodations. Call me quirky, but I like the personality and European feel of The Irish Pub’s upstairs inn. Rates, with private shower, start at $55. Share, and the cost drops to $25.

The inn used to be good enough for Joe DiMaggio, it might remind you of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and the street-level pub is a pretty mesh of stained glass, tin ceilings, sports memorabilia and affordable food. Look for it on St. James Place, just like in Monopoly, because the game’s streets are named after what exists in Atlantic City. theirishpub.com, 609-344-9063

You don’t need to gamble to enjoy Atlantic City. I didn’t wager a nickel and loved roaming the boardwalk, which was the world’s first when introduced in 1870. It’s a four-mile stroll, or get pushed along on a rolling chair, just like in the late 1800s. The fare depends on how far and how long the ride lasts. 609-816-4965

Beach access is easy. Summery breezes feel welcome. Sunbathing areas feel spacious and private, in part because sand dunes and vegetation buffer the presence of boardwalk walkers.

The city has a sweet history. Saltwater taffy was invented here (by accident), and Fralinger’s has sold it since the 1880s. The candy maker has lots of other treats whose recipes also are generations old. fralingers.com, 609-344-1519

Edgy boutiques, unusual souvenir shops and an outlet mall contain surprises. Where else can you find such a grand assortment of tiaras – cheap bling to studded gems? The selection is especially good when Miss America pageant contestants are in town (mid September) at Boardwalk Hall, constructed in 1929.

Free outdoor light shows are projected onto the building when dusk arrives, and this is the city’s major event center all year. boardwalkhall.com, 609-348-7000

Make no mistake: The future of Atlantic City is tenuous, but I think the best thing city planners can do is move beyond the casino crowd, figuratively and literally, and fish for new ways to embrace that gorgeous beachfront.

For more about what to do in Atlantic City: doatlanticcity.com, 888-228-4748.

Tickets to that Wisconsin-Rutgers game are based on “dynamic pricing” – perceived demand – and recently began at $87 for end zone seating, then topped out at $225.

Against Indiana, one week later, the price range for tickets was a mere $45 to $100. scarletknights.com, 866-445-4678