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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

The Indian Casinos of East San Diego County

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 native son.
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 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.
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 Observatory.
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 destinations.
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 casinos.
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 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.