Travels

Classic Philadephia and Atlantic City road trip

Richard Burnett
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I ate lightning and crapped thunder on the “Rocky Steps” outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art on my summer road trip to Philadelphia, with my Tooma Road Trip pal, photographer Seb Oran. Seb and I have pretty much travelled around the world: We first met when I accidentally peed on her legs in Munich after a day of boozing at the Hofbrauhaus in 1986. A long story, but suffice it say the acronym “Tooma” stands for The Object of My Affection, the 1998 gay boy - straight gal buddy film starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. Seb and I have done these road trips many times before over the years. On this trip, we packed in a lot sightseeing in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Cape May and Wildwood in a classic summertime road trip where Seb even filmed me (in one take!) jogging up the “Rocky Steps” outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a slow-motion video. I was even wearing a headband and hoodie! 

PHILADELPHIA

Many LGBTQ travellers know Philadelphia as the city of “brotherly love” where Hollywood director Jonathan Demme filmed his groundbreaking 1993 film Philadelphia. This is also the city where Sylvester Stallone filmed the original Oscar-winning Rocky movie, and one of the city’s most popular photo ops is the famed “Rocky steps” outside the enormous Philadelphia Museum of Art.
 
Philly – the fifth largest city in America – is much like New York, but without the madness. I return to the city mainly for two reasons: Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies and the city’s truly amazing museums. In fact, when it comes to museums, few cities compare to Philadephia. For instance, once you get beyond the “Rocky steps” outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, wander around inside. Do not miss the new blockbuster exhibition Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection, which runs from November 3 to February 19, 2018.
 
Story goes, back in 1917, John G. Johnson, the most famous lawyer of his day, left his astonishing trove of European art to the city of Philadelphia. A century later, witness this mind-boggling exhibition of Italian Renaissance painters, Dutch masters and French Impressionists.
 
Meanwhile, down the street, check out the Barnes Foundation – whose “priceless” art collection is worth billions and features 181 Renoir, 46 Picasso, 69 Cézanne and 59 Matisse (including his Spirit of Life, worth an estimated $100 million) – which is located next door to the spectacular Rodin Museum which boasts over 120 of the French master’s sculptures, the largest collection of his works outside of Paris.
 
These art institutions are just the tip of the iceberg in a city packed with historical landmarks everywhere you look. The Historic Philadelphia tour, for instance, covers one square mile in the Old City, the area between Front to 7th Streets and Spruce to Race Streets.
 
 
America’s most sacred historic sites – Liberty Bell and Philly’s red-brick Independence Hall where George Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the U.S. Continental Army, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was signed and the U.S. Constitution was adopted – stand alongside world-class museums such as the National Museum of American Jewish History, which is just a couple blocks away from the National Constitution Center.
 
Here, every stone speaks, none more than Benjamin Franklin’s grave in the Christchurch burial ground just off Philly’s historic Independence Mall.
 
Also, Philly’s anti-graffiti mural program, Mural Arts Philadelphia, is America’s largest public art program. Since 1986, Mural Arts engages communities in 50-100 public art projects each year, and today half of the more than 4,000 commissioned murals are still on display throughout the city, including the iconic Philadephia Muses mural by Meg Saligman, located in the heart of the "gayborhood".
 
When I visit Philly, I also always attend a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. It is true that the Phillies are having a wretched 2017 season, but since the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, DC, in 2004, Philadelphia has become my "home" team, all the more since 24-year-old Montrealer and right-handed relief pitcher Jesen (pronounced Jay-son) Therrien was called up to the majors by the Phillies the same week we were there.
Seb and I saw the Phillies beat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-1 at the classic, retro Citizens Bank Ballpark.
 
The Phillies organization also hosts their official annual Pride Night (this summer, it was held on August 22), which in 2016 replaced the unofficial Gay Community Day, which began in 2002. Surf to m.mlb.com/phillies/tickets/info/pride-night.
 
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There’s plenty more to do and see for LGBTQ tourists in Philly: Make a point to visit Giovanni's Room Bookstore, the oldest gay book shop left in America (founded in 1973 and named after James Baldwin's gay-themed novel Giovanni's Room). This time, I bought music critic Martin Aston’s new book Breaking Down The Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out. 
 
Philadelphia will celebrate their 30th annual Pride Day LGBTQ Parade and Festival in June 2018. Visit www.phillygaypride.org. The City of Brotherly Love, indeed.
 
HOW TO GET THERE: US Airways has direct daily 75-minute flights from Montreal to Philadelphia: www.usairways.com. Seb and I drove, pit-stopping at Mom-and-Pop diners on the way. The leisurely ride from Montreal took us eight hours.
 
WHERE TO STAY: I have overnighted at countless hotels in Philadelphia over the years, and my all-time favourite is the superb Sofitel Philadelphia centrally located in Center City West, in Philadelphia’s up-and-coming so-called "French Quarter". The hotel is in the old stock exchange building, a modern-era high-rise tower that – to quote VisitPhilly.com – is «a modernist exception in a traditionally Georgian and Federal city». You are literally smack in the middle of all the action and can walk everywhere. The hotel is also home to the French brasserie Chez Colette which serves up a fantastic breakfast. Free wi-fi and the most comfortable beds in the city. Highly recommended. Visit www.sofitel-philadelphia.com. 
 
WHERE TO EAT: Philly is a fab city for foodies. If you’ve never had a Philly cheesesteak, be sure to enjoy this local iconic sandwich. A terrific place for a cold beer and hot meal – including the Philly cheesesteak – is Molly Malloy’s at Philadelphia’s historic public market, the Reading Terminal Market. Visit www.readingterminalmarket.org
For everything Philadelphia, visit www.visitphilly.com.
 

ATLANTIC CITY

There is nothing quite like strolling along a boardwalk on the Jersey shore in summertime, and the quintessential New Jersey boardwalk can still be found in Atlantic City, whose mythical boardwalk was first built in 1870 to help hotel owners keep sand out of their lobbies.
 
By 1874, some 500,000 tourists visited Atlantic City by rail and, when American Prohibition was the law of the land from 1919 to 1933, tourism peaked during what many historians now consider Atlantic City’s golden age, when the booze flowed and gambling took place in the back rooms of nightclubs and restaurants.
Today, Atlantic City – inspiration for the Monopoly board game – welcomes some 27 million visitors each year to the "Gambling Capital of the East Coast".
 
If you’re thinking of making a road trip, Atlantic City is a great choice. Seb and I drove down from Philly (easy 75-minute drive) and valet-parked our car at The Water Club at Borgata, the city’s first boutique-lifestyle hotel where we stayed two nights.
 
 
The iconic Atlantic City boardwalk is everything you expect it to be: Chock-full of palm-reading fortune tellers, cheap souvenir shops, casinos, five-star restaurants and beach bars, notably the always entertaining Ballys Casino beach bar, popular with folks of all ages drinking and dancing.
 
The bustling boardwalk with its spectacular ocean views is packed during the daytime, when families crowd the beaches (no alcohol allowed unless you’re in a beach bar). There are plenty of water sports such as surfing and parasailing, young men fishing off the piers, and the hot lifeguards are easy on the eyes. You will also get a kick out of the iconic Steel Pier, an amusement park that features more than 25 extreme rides and an old-school amusement arcade.
 
We also saw a great concert by British rock royalty The Who at Boardwalk Hall, the intimate arena that opened in 1929. Boardwalk Hall is also home to the Miss America Pageant which, by the way, was founded in Atlantic City in 1921.
 
Today AC is also home to the annual Miss’d America drag queen pageant, created in 1994 to raise funds for local LGBTQ charities. Miss’d America 2017 will feature some of America’s finest queens competing for their coveted title at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa’s Event Center on October 7.
 
LGBTQ nightlife in Atlantic City (whose current mayor, Don Guardian, is gay) has something for everyone, from Miss’d America to the annual Bears on the Boardwalk weekend which runs from September 28 to October 1. Also, be sure to check out the Rainbow Room, Atlantic City’s year-round LGBTQ nightspot.
 
Seb and I rediscovered the nostalgic Atlantic City of our childhoods, as well as a modern-day adult playground packed with superb shopping (be sure to check out the Tanger Outlets across the street from the boardwalk, still a deal despite the U.S. dollar exchange), five-star restaurants and A-list entertainers like The Who, Mary J. Blige, Jay Leno, Chaka Khan, Santana, Jerry Seinfeld, the list goes on and on. Many of them – including Sting on September 3 – perform at the Borgata.
 
 
 
We also did day trips to Cape May and Wildwood, with its incredible boardwalk intact, just the way we remembered it. When we were there, there were also live shows in neighbouring Ocean City by the likes of Gloria Gaynor, Graham Nash and the famed Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
 
Meanwhile, at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, Cape May is especially vulnerable to hurricanes, nor’easters and blizzards that have all left their marks on the region, which you can explore at the terrific Cape May’s Stormy Past exhibition, which runs at the Carroll Gallery until October 7.
 
Most important of all, the classic Cape May beaches are clean, popular, staffed with hunky lifeguards, and still look like a set from Jaws.
 
WHERE TO STAY: Just steps away from the nightlife and dining of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, the 43-story, $400 million hotel features 800 finely-appointed guestrooms and suites, as well as a pretty nice two-story state-of-the-art spa located on the 32nd floor. The Water Club is hands-down the swankiest, most complete resort in Atlantic City, and is just a five-minute drive from the boardwalk and beaches. Visit www.theborgata.com. The Borgata also has a superb LGBTQ specials and programming, called Out at Borgata. Visit out.theborgata.com.
 
WHERE TO EAT: Seb and I spoiled ourselves, enjoying a superb five-star dinner at Borgata’s new restaurant Angeline, Iron Chef and James Beard Award winning chef Michael Symon’s ode to classic Italian food. The service was also excellent (we loved our first-class waiter and connaisseur Mario).  Reservations recommended. Visit www.theborgata.com.
For everything Atlantic City, visit www.atlanticcitynj.com.
For Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance events, visit acglbt.org
 
Read Richard Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.