Tuesday, June 2, 2009

AC Tripping

I'm back. Sorta. My brain's still clogged, and I'm about to pack up to leave for the weekend. Again.

But this is for a happy occasion: my brother's getting married on Saturday! Hurrah! I'll be in the Baltimore area doing bridesmaid-y things like making sure the bride doesn't get a nervous stomach and that my brother doesn't blubber through the ceremony (and if he does, I have permission to walk across the aisle and smack him).

In the meantime, a post about the weekend.

On Friday, I took an early Amtrak train from Philly to New York City for Book Expo America, a big annual publishing conference. I usually go for two or three days, but I could only squeeze in a few hours this year. And look who I found: my publisher!

We had a nice chat about travel writing, and how a travel book can help you build a platform that leads to more work, which is what this book has turned into for me. I was very flattered when he told me that they use me as a model for other authors in the "how to build a platform" sector. It was so great to hear, especially since my mind was still mush from that deadline -- a deadline that I'd never had if not for the shore book.

Then I hoofed it over to Penn Station to catch the ACES train to Atlantic City.

First: the schedule for ACES sucks. My only two options were to leave at 2:28pm or 8:17pm. If I took the first train, it meant cutting short my BEA trip. If I took the second, I'd get into Atlantic City late. I know that this isn't ACES fault -- they are at the mercy of NJ Transit and Amtrak since they're using train tracks already in place. But I've been writing a piece about ACES for NJMonthly.com as a follow up to my earlier report, and this is the number one complaint (I also got a few emails about how they did not run trains on Memorial Day for people who wanted to enjoy the entire holiday weekend -- again, not their fault, but people buying tickets don't know this. It's a PR problem).

Second: the ACES folks are not releasing ridership numbers. They're giving me a lot of flowery prose about how the train's not supposed to make money, blah blah blah. But given prices have now dropped twice ($29 one way tickets June 1 through July 5) and they're not bragging about high numbers, I didn't expect a packed train, and it wasn't. My coach car was about half full, and the first class sections even less. Still, not a bad crowd being deposited into AC.

Third: If you want to shell out the cash, you can rent a lounge that gets you drink service and access to entertainment systems. I thought this was a great idea when I first toured the train. I didn't realize, though, that the lounges aren't closed off from the rest of the train. A thin curtain that resembles a divider you'd find in a trailer did little to shield the rest of the car from the four men (two in faux straw cowboy hats) drunkenly singing karaoke and stamping their feet. So annoying and irritating to everyone else who paid to be on that train and happened to be in my car.

Fourth: The train stopped six times (plus the one usual stop as they switch from Amtrak to NJ Transit tracks) and was 45 minutes late. One time was announced as a mechanical problem. Lovely.

STILL: if the ACES train wasn't available, I never would have come down to AC on Friday. I would have taken Amtrak back to Philadelphia and probably driven down to Sea Isle. It helped expand my AC plans, too, though probably not in the way the casinos subsidizing the train would want. I didn't spend a dime in Harrah's, Caesar's or the Borgata.

Instead, I booked a tower room at the Chelsea. Despite the rock bottom prices in the annex section of the hotel, I've heard less than positive things about that side and I figured a few extra bucks for a nicer room was worth it. The fee was only $200 for a Friday night in season, which isn't bad at all.

I'd hoped to get in a Boardwalk run, but the late train prevented that. Instead, I checked in, quickly showered and changed and then headed out to dinner at the Knife & Fork, which was splendid. If you go, pay special attention to the menu additions, which take full advantage of Jersey Fresh produce.

Then we checked out C5, the new nightclub at the Chelsea that used to be called the Living Room and the Game Room. We had no problem getting in at around 10 pm -- no line, no cover -- and the crowd was a little thin. So we took a walk through the Tropicana, had a beer at Hooters (Why not when I'm in a cocktail dress and Bill's in a suit?) and then a mohitio at Cuba Libra. When we got back to the Chelsea, C5 was more crowded, so we danced, people watched and hoped the rain would stop so we could have a drink by the pool (it didn't, but oh well).

The next morning, we had brunch at Flames on the Boardwalk, which I do NOT recommend. Despite the nice outdoor Boardwalk location, the food was blah, and they messed up my order and still charged me for the mess up. We stopped in at the Trump Plaza Beach Bar just to see the scene, and had a drink at the pool-side Cabana Club back at the Chelsea to see that scene, too.

The bloody mary, I'm happy to report, is just as good at the Cabana Club as it is at Congress Hall (which makes sense because they're owned by the same company).

The crowd at the Cabana Club was, um, interesting. We stopped by around 1pm. The folks on the lounge chairs ranged from 40 and 50 somethings on a weekend away to younger folks getting -- sorry if you're reading this -- wasted and being slightly obnoxious in the process. I also overhead whoever was running the operation at the pool say how poor the waitress service is (Bill, a former bartender, agreed) and list all the problems they had and how they can be corrected. It's not exactly something that the staff should be saying in front of paying customers (even if a reporter isn't in the midst).

I'm not sure if this is the right way for the Cabana Club to go. I understand this scene at night, but if the Chelsea is trying to present a more refined image than the casinos, pool side DJs during the day and allowing smoking in the enclosed pool area is not exactly going to help (or if it's not allowed, it needs to be enforced). I didn't have my bathing suit, so we sat to the sidelines. But if I had my suit and had the chance to lie in one of the pool chairs? I don't know if I'd have found it relaxing or even inviting. It's disappointing since one of my favorite memories of last summer was sitting by the pool at Congress Hall and zoning out after running through a gamut of shore articles and TV interviews. I don't think I'd have found the same bliss at the Chelsea on Saturday.

This is going to be my last shore report for a while given that I'll be away this weekend and plan on staying home next weekend. I'm tired. I'm traveled out. Bill and I didn't stay down the shore on Saturday night because I was a zombie, and I wanted to disappear into something that I didn't feel I needed to write about (we went out with friends in Philly instead). I only get this way rarely, but it has been an exceptionally busy shore writing season. A short break and I'll be all good. I think recognizing the need for that break is important. I'll still be writing about the shore (of course), but my next "here's where I was report" will start out on June 20 when I'm in LBI working on a story.

Speaking of TV appearances...I'm going to be on NBC 10 on June 10 at 5:30pm. I'll be talking about how to get good deals at the shore. I've already written my outline to send into the producers, but if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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