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Beyond the slots, the city's famed boardwalk, an aquarium and other activities offer plenty to keep the family entertained.

This New Jersey seashore resort may not have the growth, glitz and celebrity power of Las Vegas, but it appears to be heading in that direction. Despite recession jitters, increased competition for the gambler's buck and declining casino profits this year, the city is experiencing an extraordinary hotel building boom in a race to lure families as well as high rollers.

Four-thousand hotel rooms have been added since our 2001 visit, another 2,500 are under construction and there's been predesign and development work on three additional hotel casinos, including a $4-billion MGM-Mirage behemoth modeled after Las Vegas' vast City Center project. However, work on the MGM-Mirage complex has been put on hold in the face of declining operating profits by most of the city's 11 operating casinos so far this year and more stringent money lending practices.

There are many new designer shops and ritzy new restaurants run by nationally known chefs, a fancy wedding chapel a la Las Vegas scheduled to open next year, and more things to keep the whole family busy and entertained.

Room and boardwalk

That's the impression we came away with after a midweek, three-day visit.

We headed toward the water well before the plethora of souvenir and clothing stores opened their doors. The 4-mile boardwalk was alive with strollers and cyclists. (Bicyclists and skateboarders are banned after 10 a.m.) Aside from a few joggers, the city's free beach appeared deserted.

My wife and I concluded a half-hour exploratory stroll with coffee and a toasted bagel at a boardwalk concession near our hotel, the Hilton Resort Casino. The Hilton is a 28-year-old, 800-room oceanfront enclave with seven restaurants, a theater, health spa and a 60,000-square-foot gaming spread that we tried to steer clear of, preferring instead to explore the resort, sample a few interesting restaurants and take in a luau show.

Our ninth-floor deluxe room with a three-night price tag of $900 had a king bed with an ultra-soft mattress cover, sofa bed, 32-inch TV, and it overlooked a sliver of beach and the northern part of the 11-square-mile city of 40,500 residents.

For a while, it seemed as though my wife, Dorothy, and I wouldn't be able to get into Patsy's, the Hilton's popular new Italian restaurant that's an offshoot of the 64-year-old, mid-Manhattan landmark eatery made famous by Frank Sinatra. The maitre d' had no record of our reservation. Ultimately, though, he found a table for us.

Dorothy thought her hot antipasto appetizer and eggplant parmigiana entree were rather ordinary. But my Caesar salad and rigatoni fra diavolo were very satisfying, and she agreed after sampling my rigatoni served in a pleasant light sauteed garlic and tomato sauce. For dessert, we shared a tartufo, an always reliable chocolate-covered ice cream ball. With drinks, the tab came to $100.

At Harrah's the next night, we joined several hundred other celebrants at a festive outdoor Hawaiian luau and show ($49.99 each), featuring enthusiastic grass-skirted hula dancers, native drum-pounding musicians and dancing male fire-eating performers. Quite a show. Aside from the pork roast and pulled pork, the assortment and quality of the food choices were nothing to write home about.

Izakaya (pub in Japanese), the newest of the Borgata Hotel's 11 restaurants, was a delightful culinary adventure. We shared small portions of eight menu items recommended by the maitre d' - spicy tuna cracker, crispy rock shrimp, edamame dumplings, seared scallops, kabocha squash, pork gyoza, heated lobster morsels and speared Kobe beef. The warm lobster pieces and Kobe beef were standouts. Washed down with hot sake, it was a rare, fulfilling experience, literally, that added up to a $124 tab.

While at the Borgata Casino Hotel and Spa, we toured its recently opened $400-million, 800-room, nongaming tower called the Water Club. Billed as a separate boutique hotel and connected by a bridgelike walkway, the 43-story building, designed Asian-style with plenty of marble, has five swimming pools in tropical settings and an expansive top floor spa aimed at luring a younger, monied crowd. Rates go from $299 to $600 a night.

Also this summer the Chelsea, a new 300-room, $105-million oceanfront nongambling hotel, debuted. It was created by gutting an old Howard Johnson hotel and adjacent Holiday Inn and turning them into a single retro-style family hotel with $199 to $399 room rates.

Not to be outdone, Donald Trump, whose company operates three casino hotels in the city, upgraded the Trump Taj Mahal's seven penthouse suites, also upgrading their rates to $2,500 to $25,000 a night. In addition, a $400-million, 800-room Taj Mahal tower is nearing completion and due to open in December.

Sights and shopping

The last thing we expected to see in a casino hotel proved the most interesting, memorable and educational - an exhibition in the Taj Mahal Xanadu Theater of human body specimens preserved in a polymer substance. The exhibit, titled "Bodies" ($27 admission), has been touring the country for a few years. It was a real learning experience. Among other things, we learned that the blood vessels in an average body, if stretched out, could wrap around Earth twice, that body nerves transmit messages at 200 miles an hour, and that the body is 70 percent water.

Along the main drags of parallel Atlantic and Pacific avenues, mom-and-pop shops coexist with eight of the city's 11 giant casino hotels. And there are still those small no-name stores with "Cash for Gold" signs - seemingly testaments to the voracious appetites of the gambling palaces.

Within easy walking distance of most casinos and the city's 31-acre Convention Center, there's a new, $76-million, 320,000-square-foot outlet complex on Michigan Avenue with embedded sidewalk metal plaques, memorializing names of past Miss America winners. Retail designer names such as Ralph Lauren, HM, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger and Liz Claiborne abound. Many window signs promised 60 and 70 percent discounts, but we found no extraordinary bargains.

The old Million-Dollar Pier has undergone a $175-million makeover by Caesars Palace, its owner. Simply called the Pier now, it's a luxe three-story shopping and entertainment mall jutting out over the ocean from the boardwalk and a skywalk connection to Caesars.

Rather than use our valet-parked car at the hotel ($5 a day), we relied on the Atlantic City jitney service to get around. The jitneys, oversized vans, are privately owned, seat 13 and are air-conditioned. They run minutes apart around the clock along four routes. They charge $2.25 per person and stop at every casino hotel.

Taxis, also available around the clock, are not allowed to charge more than $11 to any location within the city's 17 square miles.

For the kids

One afternoon well spent was at the city aquarium (adults $7, seniors $5, students $4 and those 3 and under free). The three-story science education center houses more than 100 fish species and other creatures. Eleven tanks offer close-up looks at a giant moray eel, seahorses, jellyfish, an octopus and a coral reef. A 23,000-gallon tank showcases New Jersey coast fish - among them, sea bass, sharks, a northern stingray and kingfish. And at one tank visitors are allowed to handle sea urchins, shrimp, whelk, mussels and hermit crabs; it was a joy watching groups of youngsters excitedly availing themselves of that opportunity.

For families, the Atlantic City Aquarium is not to be missed.

Retired newspaper reporter and editor Si Liberman splits his time between Palm Beach and New Jersey.

Fast facts

How to qualify for casino comps

You needn't be a high roller to get in on an Atlantic City casino freebie gravy train - just a confirmed steady patron. According to records filed with the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, the city's 11 casinos last year rewarded their players with comps worth more than $1.5-billion, including complimentary hotel rooms, meals, shows, special events, gifts and even money back.

"Generally speaking," says Brian Hickey, Resorts International spokesman, "players are rated for comps on the basis of how much money, how long and at what game they play."

Here's how to qualify:

- After arriving at the hotel, check in with the Player's Club Desk. Show your ID and pick up a Player's Club Card. You must be 21 or over.

- Insert the card in the slot machine slot each time you play, making sure the machine acknowledges it. If playing at one of the tables, give the dealer your card so he or she can note your activity.

- After a while, have a casino host check your card to see if you have enough registered points to qualify for a free hotel room, meal or whatever. You can also query the Player's Club Desk or VIP desk before leaving.

- Casinos carefully guard their standards for rewards, claiming the information is proprietary.

- Compwise, the most generous Atlantic City casino is the 2,002-room Borgata Resort, Atlantic City's newest and largest casino resort. Faced with declining profits, though, the hotels have tightened their perk qualifications.

- In the three months ended in June, the city's 11 casinos gave away $375-million in rooms and other freebie to gamblers, about $35-million less than the same period last year, records of New Jersey's Casino Control Commission show.

Si Liberman