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Interested in doing a little gambling, dining in a first class restaurant, lounging poolside, perhaps playing a little golf or catching a stage show? Well, you can make that five hour drive into the desert, to Las Vegas - or you can turn south toward San Diego and find similar action in less than half the time. I was enticed to make that trip recently by the media blitz put out by several newly built Indian hotels and casinos. I drove through the picturesque rolling hills of east San Diego County to experience California’s newest “resort and casino” destinations - Barona Valley Ranch, Pechanga, and Harrah’s Rincon. Gone are the shabby tent and stucco façade gaming halls set alongside dusty parking lots, places no more exciting a gambling venue than a 7-Eleven selling lottery tickets. Barona, Pechanga, and Harrah’s Rincon – well these are not your old Indian casinos anymore. These casinos have lavish gaming floors, first class hotel accommodations, and many resort amenities. And new ones are sprouting up. Only seven miles from the new Pechanga Casino in Temecula, the Pala Indians are nearly finished building their five hundred room hotel and casino. While it’s not a “Vegas Strip” yet, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a half dozen or more first class hotel-casino venues within 20-30 minutes of each other in this area. Big time Vegas style gambling has arrived in California. Indian casinos, by law, are permitted to have up to 2000 slot machines and the three casino-resorts I visited have taken maximum advantage of that right. The slot games they offer are as varied as those in any Vegas casino. While craps and roulette, for reasons that defy logic, have been forbidden to Indian gaming venues, Blackjack and Poker table games are plentiful. Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino (888-7-BARONA) in Lakeside, about 60 miles northeast of San Diego, was conceived by the same designers who
created Las Vegas’ Mirage, Paris, and Caesars Palace. The Barona Mission Indians were, until their recent foray into “gaming,” predominantly ranchers and farmers. Their hotel and casino’s design theme is meant to integrate the concept of a modern resort with their agrarian heritage. The hotel is California ranch style with an attached casino that resembles a grand barn with copper gables and a stone tower. There are 397 spacious guest rooms and luxury suites in the eight story hotel. Standard room rates run from $79-129 with suites from $250. Each room has a balcony with views of dramatic hillsides or the resort’s beautifully landscaped 18-hole golf course, ranked by Golfweek as one of the best in Southern California. Scattered about the property, other features enhance the ranch-style theme. There are several lakes, an old mill waterwheel, a footbridge, and a collection of antique agricultural tools and machinery. Set off to the side of the main entrance, between the casino and hotel, is a somewhat incongruous but charming Disneyesque fairy book wedding chapel. Inside the casino, you’ll discover that same Vegas furor of flashing lights and ringing machines with players lined up at the slots and packed around the tables. There are three excellent dining venues in Barona – a grand buffet, a café, and a superb elegant dining restaurant, the Barona Oaks Steakhouse. There’s also a concierge lounge, a business center, a fitness center, and a pool and spa area. Only open since January 2003, the Barona already excels in service. In Temecula, closer still to L.A., you’ll find the Pechanga Resort and Casino (1-888-PECHANGA). With 522 guest rooms, it is (to date) the grandest of the Indian hotel-casinos. Here standard rooms go for $99-129 with suites starting at $279. There’s no golf course here – although they’re planning to build one. But they offer Vegas style entertainment. There’s a grand showroom with a 1200 seat theatre that has hosted top talent like Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Kenny Loggins, and Winona. And they have a smaller cabaret lounge where live bands play nightly. On the hotel’s top floor, in their Eagles Nest lounge, there’s an intimate piano bar
with an outdoor patio and views of the valley below.
There’s a pool and spa, a
fitness center, a health club offering a variety of massage therapies, and 40,000 square feet of convention space. They have seven restaurants with three gourmet choices – Paisano’s for Italian food, The Grotto for seafood, and their Great Oak Steakhouse. The casino floor has the 2000 allowed slots – all state-of-the-art and sixty tables for playing Blackjack, Pai Gow, Let It Ride, 3-Card Poker, and MiniBaccarat. One of the main advantages of Pechanga is that it’s close to a major freeway exit. The others are deeper in the heartland and take some navigating to get to. It’s also just a five minute drive from Old Town Temecula, a quaint little village with wooden sidewalks, old west storefronts, and lots of antique shops. And though not as renowned as their more northern competitors, nearby Temecula wineries are worth a tasting. There is an interesting evolution to the architecture of the three casinos I visited. Barona’s style maintained a loyalty to its Indian roots. Pechanga’s had more Vegas grandeur but still had an “earthy” feel with lots of woodwork and stone and even an Indian feather logo. By the time I reached Harrah’s Rincon, most reference to anything Indian was gone. Even the casino’s name – Harrah’s - said Vegas. Harrah’s Rincon Casino and Resort (877-777-2457) was the smallest of the three casino-resorts I visited. Their casino floor, with fewer slots, was more spacious with flashier machines and more Vegas glitz than Barona or Pechanga. Its pool was the largest of the three, though none could be described as having a grand pool area. While Harrah’s has six restaurants, all are open to the noisy casino floor. There’s just no quiet or intimate dining possibility here as is offered at Barona and Pechanga. Like Pechanga, Harrah’s has entertainment venues - an outdoor concert pavilion that can accommodate more than 1000 and their Oasis lounge with local talent and bands performing on weekends. But Harrah’s has only 201 rooms and you can’t make a reservation to stay here. Since they opened last year occupancy has been nearly 100%. They provide all their rooms as “comps” to their loyal players.
So, unless you have your Harrah’s card already and a track record of gambling at their casinos, you can’t plan to overnight here. None of the casinos catered to children. None had arcades or daycare services. None are family destinations. And there are also a lot of smokers in these casinos. California laws ridding public places of smoking don’t apply to sovereign Indian nations and their casinos. While Las Vegas’ history is rife with stories of its mafia origins, Howard Hughes’ eccentricities, and movie star connections, there’s an interesting history of Indian gaming as well. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 said that Indian tribes could offer gaming that was legal in their state. So, when the California lottery started and made certain types of gaming legal, the tribes understood that they could offer gaming too. Most tribes were poor, the extent of games they could offer was limited, and there remained doubts about the state’s rights to control their gaming operations. So, Indian casinos remained shabby enterprises, fearful of expanding, fearful of regulation that would make them extinct. With the passage of Prop 5 and Prop 1A in 1998, the tribes became more secure that their gaming operations would not be regulated out of business. And so, many went ahead with grand building plans that have reached fruition in the past year. The stodgy casino buildings of the Barona Indians, the Pechanga, and the Rincon have been torn down. New bold resort-casinos have taken their place. And, with billions of dollars at stake in the California gaming business, other tribes with similar dreams are close behind. Before the Spanish conquest there were 300,000 Indians living in California. By 1900, only 16,000 remained. Native Americans were not declared U.S. citizens with the right to vote until 1924. Up until ten years ago, when Indian gaming
became legal, seventy percent of them were on welfare. They had no paved roads. Many had no electricity. And now – well now, many of the Sovereign Indian Nations are “in the chips.”
In the Barona tribal museum I read one woman’s interesting comments: “In the 1950’s they wanted to do away with the reservations,” she says. “They wanted us to be part of the melting pot. They did not want us to be Indian. You can’t make a person what they’re not. We have our land. They wanted to take us, make us “hemmu,” move away. That’s why I think it is important to preserve our land. It is our base. Some have no base. They are lost Indians. We still know where we’re from. Our goal is to preserve our culture and tradition.” I don’t know if 2000 slot machines and a few dozen table games is what she had in mind, but Vegas had no noble traditions when it sprouted from a desert. Imagine what the Indians will do.