Old world charm still crucial to splendour of New England
ATLANTIC CITY & BOSTON
'Meet me tonight in Atlantic City", New Jersey's most famous son, Bruce Springsteen, sang during his sell out show this past summer in Nowlan Park.
The Boss was nowhere to be seen as I wended my way down the interstate from New York into the New Jersey gambling Mecca for the first time, but maybe he doesn't travel by greyhound bus. We arrived in the middle of the night at the door of a big casino whereupon everyone seemed quite excited to get to the blackjack tables and I was concerned I'd feel like a eunuch in a brothel. Try as I might, I have never quite managed to include gambling in my stable of vices.
Luckily there is ample life outside the casinos in Atlantic City and, even if you don't gamble, it's worth watching the life inside them. The city is a hotspot for stag and hen (sorry, "bachelor" and "bachelorette") parties and people come from all over the north east of the US and further afield to have them here. It's also host to the Miss America pageant. This time of the year is one of their busiest because after the bustle of summer comes the build-up to Christmas, which is their peak season.
The first thing I did was marvel at how wrong my fellow journalists had gotten it in their recent portrayal of the city. Atlantic City suffered a devastating bout of adverse publicity after Hurricane Sandy swept through it and The Today Show – the most watched morning programme in the US – broadcast images of the city's famous boardwalk area looking like the remnants of some post-apocalyptic funfair.
In fact the shots were taken from another piece of boardwalk, but, as often happens with these things, the tweets of clarification didn't get the same billing as the original images and though the boardwalk is better than ever – illuminated as I walked down it by a laser light show – the tourist chiefs in Atlantic City braced themselves for a long, hard publicity drive.
Perhaps that would explain the beautiful hamper in my gorgeous room at the Chelsea Hotel, which overlooked the sea. Outside, a white stretch limousine waited to take me wherever I wished. As I got into it, feeling quite movie starry, a passer-by, taking in the majesty of my carriage, tentatively asked me "are you somebody?" For the late, great Nuala O'Faolain this query was the starting point for a best-selling memoir. For me, it was merely a precursor to an orgy of consumerism at the local outlet malls. I didn't have the heart to tell the would-be autograph hunter that I was, in fact, down to my last pair of clean underwear – not very VIP at all.
I decided I needed some really good wine to numb the pain of not "getting" gambling so I decided to take a tour of Renault Winery Resort. This is one of the oldest continuously operating wineries in the US – they got through prohibition by selling wine to churches. There were some spectacular Merlots on offer and the Tuscany theme seemed both incongruous (given the setting in New Jersey), and beautifully imagined. Because I'm a pro, I followed this up a day later with a trip to the famous Tun Tavern in the downtown, which brews its own range of beers. It was also the site of the very first Marine Corps recruitment drives, during the American Revolution and to this day retains strong links with the US military. I was given some tasty beer samples and some truly memorable crab cakes to go with them.
From Atlantic City it was on to Boston, which is just a short and inexpensive flight away (definitely better than taking the train, which would be more expensive and take about five times as long). Some might call it New York for those who can't be trusted to stay up too late, but Beantown in "the Fall" is a sight to behold – a blaze of colour and life as college students return to campus.
As a fan of the movie Good Will Hunting, the first thing I wanted to see was the city's South End. In the eighties Southie was one of the no-go areas of Boston. As these things tend to develop, the area quickly gentrified, becoming too expensive for the first settlers. It's not hard to see why young, well heeled families and finance industry bigwigs are drawn here today: street after tree-lined street of red-brick townhouses dating to the 1800s, along with some of Boston's best restaurants, designer stores and boutiques. It would be easier to imagine Ben Affleck living here than the character he played in the movie.
It felt like there was real history unfolding in Boston while I was there – the streets were thronged with people protesting at the American government's lack of incursion in Egypt. Some held up an effigy of Obama with blood on his hands while others carried photos of relatives in Egypt. The visitors to the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum didn't seem too perturbed by this sight however, they had a virtual protest waiting inside for them. After years of painstaking restoration, the Tea Party Ships are moored at the reconstructed Griffin's Wharf, alongside a refurbished museum.
I'm not a big one for sightseeing, but this was impressive. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to meet actors in period costume, explore the ships, learn about misconceptions about the American revolution through multimedia presentations and even participate in the protest.
After a day walking around I was exhausted and headed to Boston Chop, a fantastically buzzy urban steak bistro on Washington Street, where I had a very salty, yet nonetheless delicious steak with all the trimmings. After that it was back to the Omni Parker House hotel, where I stayed for the duration of the trip. The hotel is situated at the foot of Boston Common and has a pleasing old-world feel to it, as indeed does much of the city.
There was a slightly shorter flight home from Boston than I was used to from my days in New York. It blew my mind that I had lived in the north east of the US for almost four years and never visited either of these city gems. I'll certainly be back.
Brand USA: Discover this land, like never before at www.DiscoverAmerica.com
Atlantic City: Website: www.doatlanticcity.com
Boston: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
Contact: Patricia Purdue
Irish Marketing Consultant, Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism