By Nate Storey
August 26, 2013

Atlantic City’s boardwalk hummed with activity on a balmy Saturday afternoon in July. A cavalcade of families roamed the sandy platform, dawdling over soft-swirled ice cream cones and baskets of fried Oreos, flanked by the umbrella-laden Jersey Shore. A gaggle convened outside Caesars for the annual food and wine festival, this year headlined by a group of Food Network stars: Robert Irvine, Rocco DiSpirito, and Pat and Gina Neely. Kitschy shops were full of tourists snatching up t-shirts and knickknacks. The scene was a snapshot of Americana at its best, a throwback to AC’s heyday.

But despite the robust crowds on this weekend, it has been a frenetic road for a relic that once thrived as the eastern seaboard’s entertainment epicenter. The Great Recession, Hurricane Sandy, and overall tourism shifts (Pennsylvania is now the northeast's gambling capital) have taken their toll. The gleaming 2012-opened, $2.4 billion Revel was supposed to be the antidote, a Las Vegas-grade temple to Michelin-star restaurants, clubby pool parties, and an ultra-luxe spa. The brain trust used Sin City’s evolution as a template, one that focuses on self-indulgent pleasures over blackjack and roulette tables; gambling was supposed to be an afterthought. A $111 million loss and March bankruptcy later, the hotel is now switching its attention, unveiling slot machine promotions and advertising campaigns—“Gamblers Wanted”—to draw visitors to their casino (they’ve even lifted the ban on smoking).

Still, on a recent stay at the Chelsea Hotel, it was easy to see ribbons of hope for this town’s future; that Atlantic City may turn it around yet. The boutique hotel, set on the southern end of the strip, next to Tropicana, was lively with families, young couples, and a few bachelorette parties. Caramelized guests spilled out of plush cabanas and bathed under a hot summer sun on daybeds at the pool terrace. The 5th-floor restaurant was boisterous at night with dapper guests clinking champagne flutes and gazing out at the sea. Good times were alive.

And for all of Revel’s troubles, the new HQ Beach Club explodes with cavorting weekenders each Saturday; super chef Jose Garces’s Andalusian tapas bar draws New York City foodies; and Revel is still the most upscale casino hotel this side of the Nevada desert.

There’s optimism too, that a $20 million tourism campaign coupled with openings like the $35 million Margaritaville complex, which boasts the city’s first beachside restaurant, will be a boon, along with the return of the Miss America Competition after eight years in Vegas (the winner will be Atlantic City’s new spokeswoman).

How many comebacks can a destination attempt? For “America’s Favorite Playground,” at least one more.

Nate Storey is an editorial assistant at Travel + Leisure.