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 drive time.
I was enticed to make that trip recently by the
media blitz put out by several newly built Indian
hotels and casinos. I was curious to see what
the buzz was all about. So, I drove about three
hours south through the picturesque rolling hills
of east San Diego County and spent three days
experiencing California's newest "resort
and casino" destinations - Barona Valley
Ranch Resort and Casino, Pechanga Resort and Casino,
and Harrah's Rincon Casino and Resort.
While there are plenty of Indian casinos scattered
about the state, it has only been in the last
year, that many tribes have expanded their operations.
Barona, Pechanga, and Harrah's Rincon - well these
are not your old Indian casinos anymore. Gone
are the shabby tent and stucco façade gaming halls
set alongside dusty parking lots, places not much
more exciting as a gambling venue than a 7-Eleven
selling lottery tickets. While the "resort"
designation is perhaps still an exaggeration,
these casinos with their new first rate hotels
and gaming floors are lavish. 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
East San Diego area.
While there is plenty of political controversy
about the state's right to tax and control the
Indian casino business, if you visit these new
casinos, you'll have no doubt that big time Vegas
gambling has come to California.
Indian casinos, by law, have been permitted to
have up to 2000 slot machines and the three casino-resorts
I visited have mostly taken maximum advantage
of that right. The slot games they offer are as
varied and in some ways better than those in the
theme park Vegas casinos. Most of the Indian casino
slots are coin free. Only bills go in. Payouts
come with classic coin payout sound effects but
instead of getting a bucketful of coins, you get
a printed receipt that can be inserted in other
machines or taken to a floor or main cashier for
pay out. Craps and roulette, for reasons that
defy logic, have been forbidden to Indian gaming
venues, but black jack and poker tables are plentiful.
Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino (888-7-BARONA)
in Lakeside, about 60 miles northeast of San Diego,
is a $260,000,000 project conceived by the same
designers who created Las Vegas' Mirage, Paris
Hotel, 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 modern amenities of a 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 rooms in the eight story country modern
hotel- 364 spacious guest rooms and 33 luxury
suites, several larger than many homes - from
1000 to more than 3000 square feet. There are
balconies in every room with views of dramatic
boulder strewn 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, a
functioning old mill waterwheel, a footbridge,
and a collection of antique agricultural tools,
machinery, and bronze Indian statuary. Set off
to the side of the main entrance, between the
casino and hotel, is a somewhat incongruous but
nevertheless charming Disneyesque fairy book land
wedding chapel. Standard room rates run from $79-129
with suites from $250.
The Barona casino is up to Vegas standards. The
valet parking entrance is covered by a grand porte-cochere
with an immense multi-tiered western style chandelier.
Once inside, you'll discover that same Vegas furor
of flashing lights and ringing machines and players
packed at the slots and around the tables. There
are three excellent dining venues in the casino
- a great buffet, a café, and a superb elegant
dining restaurant, the Barona Oaks Steakhouse.
Having only been open since January 2003, the
Barona already excels in service. From its golf
club, to restaurants, to casino floor, service
personnel were plentiful, charming, and helpful.
There's also a concierge lounge, a business center,
a fitness center, and a pool and spa area.
If you plan a trip to Barona and tire of golf
or gambling, two quaint California towns - Ramona
and Julian are about twenty minutes away. And
on Labor Day weekend each year, there's the Barona
Pow-wow, an Indian festival where tribes come
from all around the country to compete in Native
American costumes and dance and art. I found it
interesting too to visit the Barona tribal museum.
Here they do a great job in displaying pride in
their heritage. Exhibits describe the tribe's
history. They even display an army sword. It's
not from a long ago battle. It belongs to one
of their current tribal members who graduated
from West Point and is now serving in Afghanistan.
In the entire history of our country, I was told,
only seven Native Americans have graduated from
West Point. The Barona are justly proud of their
In Temecula, closer still to L.A., you'll find
the Pechanga Resort and Casino (1-888-PECHANGA)
which opened in June 2002. Built at a cost of
$262,000,000 with 522 guest rooms, it is (to date)
the grandest of the Indian hotel-casinos. Here
standard rooms go for $99-129 with two bedroom
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, the Righteous Brothers, and Winona.
Two or three big shows come here each month. To
see one, you may need reservations a month or
more in advance. When there are no headliners,
the main showroom has also put on specialty shows
- tributes to the "Fab Four" and the
"Rat Pack." 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. There are 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 Mini-Baccarat. There are separate rooms for
Bingo and table poker.
One of the main advantages of Pechanga is that
it's right off 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 yet up to
the fame of is more northern competitors, Temecula
wineries are worth a tasting.
There's was an interesting transition to the architecture
of the three casinos I visited. Barona's style
maintained a loyalty to its Indian roots. Pechanga's
architectural style 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. But
Harrah's has only 201 rooms and you can't make
a reservation to stay here. Since they opened
their $125,000,000 property 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 there.
While Harrah's has six restaurants, all are open
to the noisy casino floor. And while the food
may be excellent, there's just no quiet or intimate
dining possibility here as is offered at Barona
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.
It also has nearby sights worth visiting. About
20 minutes to the south is San Diego's Wild Animal
Park. Twenty minutes to the north is Palomar Mountain
While Vegas casinos often advertise their slot
payoffs - 95% plus - no Indian casino administrator
would quote a percentage return on their slot
payouts. The best response I could get was, "it
would not be wise business- wise not to have a
competitive return with Vegas style action."
I guess we'll just have to gamble on that.
None of the casinos catered to children. None
had arcades or daycare services. None are family
There are also a lot of smokers in the casinos.
California laws ridding public places of smoking
don't apply to sovereign Indian nations and their
While Las Vegas' history is rife with stories
of mafia origins, Howard Hughes' eccentricities,
and movie star connections, there's an interesting
history too of Indian gaming. 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, 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 until 1924. They were not given the right
to vote until years later. 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, the Sovereign Indian Nations are "in
In the Barona tribal museum I read one woman's
"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.