At a mere 20 storeys high, The Chelsea is one of the least imposing of Atlantic City's hotels, dwarfed by the huge, gaudy casinos that surround it. However, its distinctive sign - set in a retro 1950s font and lit up in dusky pink - heralds a change in direction for the New Jersey beach resort.
Not only is The Chelsea the first boutique hotel in Atlantic City, it is also the first non-gaming hotel on the boardwalk since the 1960s. There are no slot machines or strung-out gamblers here; instead, stepping into the main lobby of The Chelsea feels partly like stepping into the chill-out room of a Miami nightclub and partly like stepping into your (rather cool) grandmother's living room.
Split into two halves, the retro-styled Chelsea was formerly a Howard Johnson motel (now the motel-style Annex) and a Holiday Inn (the more formal Luxe Tower), but reopened its doors last year. Since then, it has been gradually rolling out its facilities, from a bejewelled ballroom (where Louis Vuitton was hosting an event the weekend I stayed), to the budget-minded Annex rooms and Sea Spa.
So how does it capture the imagination in this gaming playground without slot machines and roulette wheels? By conjuring up the louche glamour and sophistication of Atlantic City during the mid-20th century. The main lobby is all dark wood panelling, retro furniture and an enormous fireplace, with a small library of "popular classics," as well as a plastic bird in a birdcage.
Unlike the legendary Hotel Chelsea in New York (to which it bears no relation), The Chelsea is not a residence for artists, musicians or writers, but rather a hip hangout for the trendy, hedonistic, twentysomething crowd that travels up from other parts of New Jersey and Philadelphia for the weekend.
When I checked in at about 4pm on a Sunday, I was immediately whisked up to the Cabana Club by a friend. Dubbed "Atlantic City's answer to a Vegas-style beach club and the only open-air nightlife experience in the city," the Cabana Club had to be seen to be believed. Situated around the impressive rooftop swimming pool, it is open on Friday and Saturday nights and, as we discovered, for daytime weekend pool parties. We immediately felt as though we'd stumbled on to the set of MTV's Spring Break Miami, where statuesque girls in tiny gold bikinis and enormous heels tottered around bronzed, wallet-wielding men sipping exquisite cocktails. We made a hasty exit.
The Philly connection is bolstered by two restaurants conceived by Stephen Starr, a well-known restaurateur in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. On the fifth floor, Chelsea Prime is a steakhouse modelled on a 1940s supper club. With an enormous cocktail bar, a white grand piano and stunning views of the ocean, it feels genuinely decadent.
Back at street level, Teplitzky's is a relaxed 1950s-style diner serving excellent breakfasts and lunches. My boyfriend and I breakfasted outdoors by the salt water pool, basking in the sunshine. The salt water harks back to Atlantic City's past: at the start of the 20th century, every building in the city had two taps: one for fresh water and the other for saline. Its restorative properties had people coming to Atlantic City as early as the 1880s (incidentally, if salt water is your thing, you must try the salt water taffy, which was created here in the 19th century).
Later that day, the pool party long finished, the lounge area felt perfectly blissful. Surrounded by Brazilian walnut-wood planters and drinking a Long Island Iced Tea at the Island Bar, I couldn't believe this was the same place.
The Chelsea has direct access to the beach and wooden boardwalk and you can hire bicycles from the hotel to explore. In autumn, I was told, it is possible to see dolphins swimming in the sea. The hotel is in Atlantic City's Chelsea neighbourhood, next to its most famous casinos, the Tropicana and Caesars Atlantic City. There are designer and outlet shops galore within walking distance.
Rooms are split between the Annex and Luxe Tower, although all hotel guests have direct access to the same services and amenities. The Luxe Tower has contemporary, luxurious rooms and suites with the odd kitsch touch (we had a snow leopard-print chaise longue in ours), while The Annex has cheaper and smaller retro motel-style rooms which are less elegant, but have the same enormous beds and white bedding. Annex rooms feature their original, slightly faded bathrooms and balconies, many of which overlook the pool. All rooms have iPod docks and free Wi-Fi.
The Chelsea Hotel
111 South Chelsea Avenue, Atlantic City, New Jersey, US (001 800 548 3030; thechelsea-ac.com)
Doubles start at $80 (£50) in the Annex and $144 (£90) in the Luxe Tower, room only.Reuse content