As gambling destinations go, Atlantic City and Monte Carlo should not rightly be in the same phylum let alone the same category. South Jersey, South of France. Yet they are, for better or worse, among the world’s top spots for casino-themed vacations.
Now, as everyone knows, people who take casino-themed vacations tend to be quite rational. They would likely compare and contrast their destination options across an array of key variables: the likelihood of winning money (supposedly the whole point), the appeal of the surrounding city (i.e., your life savings will be gone by lunch), or the opportunity to enjoy fine dining (as opposed to falling face first into a labyrinthine buffet the size of Trump’s ego and quality of his ex-wives).
And yet that is the dilemma, isn’t it: On what basis do you choose what’s right for your particular desires, delusions, tax bracket, and mental stability? Despite the odds makers’ likely kneejerk, I say the decision of whether to gamble in Atlantic City vs. Monte Carlo is not as “hands down” as one would think. Because it’s all so relative, you see, like cell phones and morality; it all boils down to what you want and what you’re lacking in the first place…
I choose Atlantic City and Monte Carlo because I know them both quite well and because Las Vegas can bite me. It’s splintered and confusing and is no longer about gambling at all (somewhere around 2002 having become about Celine Dion, pyramdis, dyspeptic tigers, and wanting to leave as soon as possible).
Atlantic City, on the other hand, exists solely because of gambling. Trust me, had gaming not shored it up in the 1970s the entire city would have collapsed into a dismantled crack den of hookers, mobsters, and badly bribed dead mayors.
Monte Carlo, of course, is known the world over as the pinnacle of high stakes, high fashion, and men in eye patches who may or may not be MI-6. (They are. I checked.) Whereas Atlantic City specializes in aggressive pigeons, unionized showgirls, and busloads of Philadelphia semi-fatties with barrels of nickels and a three-day weekend. In short, Monte Carlo is where you go in search of leggy Latvians with immaculate hair who will stroke the shoulder of your tuxedo while staring blankly into space wondering how they got from their tiny village into a designer gown worth more than their country’s GDP; and Atlantic City is where you go when a night of drinking leads you and three friends to simultaneously realize that, deep down, you all hate the people you’re dating. These are the basics of these two places.
In a belated disclaimer, I should also disclose that I grew up in Atlantic City, the daughter of a casino executive, moving there at five and eventually fleeings state lines at 13 with tall hair, teal eyeliner, a fistful of Dairy Queen coupons, and very little in the way of a formal education. Monte Carlo, on the other hand, was the site of a fairly recent trip overseas—a romantic and spontaneous five-day whirlwind with a man I’d known for exactly twelve hours. Handsome, British, precise, and self-possessed. We cooed like lovebirds, painted the town, and were about as well-suited in the long run as Dick Cheney and Cher.
One of the first things you notice about Atlantic City is how unattractive the people are. This is also true of the casinos themselves and there are many to choose from. Bally’s, Harrah’s, Bedbug’s Blackjack Inn. The range of options is overwhelming—although, to be fair, casinos are a lot like bad marriages: They all look the same from the inside.
The first thing you notice about Monte Carlo is how unattractive you are. And also that your casino choices are limited to just the one. But oh what a one it is. The casino in Monte Carlo (cleverly named The Monte Carlo Casino) is a feast of Empire architecture and beaux arts design, regally perched at the end of a grand roundabout lined with the world’s rarest and most coveted cars—Bugattis, Ferraris, Reventons, and Roadsters—all constantly being photographed by awestruck tourists while the Barons and Sheikhs who own them mill about the valet stand sipping champagne-flavored espresso and trying to figure out whose keys are whose and whether it even matters.
If you want to drive around Atlantic City, on the other hand, there is something called The Jitney, a sort of golf cart-cum-Short Bus that shuttles liquor-filled revelers up and down the Boardwalk, enabling Atlantic City visitors to cheaply combine their two favorite activities: ogling Cape May pre-teens in ill-fitting half-tops…and avoiding walking.
Another thing to note is that you can’t possibly compare Atlantic City and Monte Carlo without taking into account the timing. Monte Carlo’s weather is ideal…basically always. But if you aim for late April you can catch both a Masters Series tennis tournament and a star-studded Grand Prix event involving insanely hot Italians relaxing along the race route at outdoor cafes, smoking cigarettes and making very good arguments as to why one should never get engaged to British people they’ve only known for twelve hours.
Atlantic City is either too cold, too hot, or too humid all year round—but autumn does hold the ever-popular Miss America pageant, a once-a-year Boardwalk procession of powder blue Cadillacs carrying anachronistic Barbi dolls in satin sashes who wave adoringly to the crowds and only sometimes get hit in the head with beer bottles. (Ok, maybe it was just the once but I was there.) And if you wait until springtime, you can instead participate in Atlantic City’s annual “Around the Island Swim,” a grueling test of courage and stamina in which well-trained entrants leap off the Steel Pier, land on used syringes, and wash up in Brigantine with Hepatitis C.
When I say timing, I’m also of course referring to what’s going on in your life—or, more specifically, your bank account. You go to Monte Carlo when you have $500,000 to either lose or quadruple. You go to Atlantic City when you have $250 to either lose or to lose six times over. Monte Carlo is where you go when you have enough money to buy a diamond watch, procure a beautiful woman, and purchase a steak that would cover most mortgage payments. Atlantic City is where you go when you’ve sold your watch for petty cash, your wife is bleeding you dry on QVC, and you haven’t made a mortgage payment in two years. I should also note that after your casion-themed vacation to either of these destinations, the Monte Carlo leggy Latvian will continue to speak no English and ask no questions, while your wife will ask many many questions and then never speak to you again.
The apple crepe vs. orange sherbert nature of things thus far does, indeed, leave us far from a winner—and we’ve bearly tipped the iceberg when it comes to the cities themselves. Nowhere have we mentioned Grace Kelly, the famed Monte Carlo opera house, or perlious yatcht-things off Prince Albert’s quay. How can one begin to fathom a trip to Monte Carlo until they’ve stood beneath the rococo ceilings of the European Salon and blown on the dice of a freshly disposed Duke? How can one begin to appreciate Atlantic City without knowing about Lucy, the six-story concrete elephant who’s been patiently letting tourists enter her faux intestinal tract for fifty years without once raising a complaint or stopping to point out that female Indian elephants are genetically incapable of having tusks.
To me the winner is clear but clearly I’m biased, having stacked the deck too early and spun the wheel too recently. When I hear the words “Atlantic City” I think of glittering lights, eccentric magicians, and running across the casino floor in tap shoes and poofy dresses—too young to be around liquor, joyous and bleary-eyed, on my way to meet Frank Sinatra, wondering how life could be so good. When I hear the words “Monte Carlo,” I think of fast cars, warm breezes, and standing in a French airport wearing linen pants I couldn’t afford, heartbroken and stunned, wondering how I could have been such a chump in the firstplace.
All of which brings me to the revelation that we’re talking about the wrong things entirely. For the average gambler, tourist, courtesan, or king, the contest between Atlantic City and Monte Carlo simply comes down to one’s definition of The Good Life. Which means the only advice I can provide is to tell you this: Envision a trip to Monte Carlo as a dream-like collection of lazy days in which you’ll lap in luxury and fall in love—with the city, with yourself…maybe even with a Latvian beauty who’s too terrified to open her mouth lest she split her dress and show her hand. Envision a trip to Atlantic City, on the other hand, as a long hazy weekend in which you’ll guffaw your way down the Boardwalk with five drunken friends, mercilessly ridiculing girls from Cape May and—with any luck—being completely content with the $20 in your pocket.
Know your limits, hit on 18, and travel hard my friends.