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Sun, spa and slots near San Diego

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Lakeside, Calif.

Las Vegas is selling itself as sexy Sin City again. Take a tour of the new Indian casinos along Interstate 15 in and near San Diego County, and you begin to see why. Slots? You bet. Golf and spas? Check. Luxury accommodations? Surprisingly, yes.

My wife, Alison, and I took in four of them — Pechanga, Harrah's Rincon, Barona Valley Ranch and the newly expanded Pala, the last two of which barely escaped October wildfires that burned much of the county. We found the rooms above par, the amenities respectable, the staffs friendly and, above all, the gambling floors teeming with people. On a Saturday night, you may have to wait your turn for a seat at the blackjack table.

Even so, don't expect Vegas. The shows, the shopping, the spectacle — those things aren't here on nearly the same scale. California's tribal gambling palaces are still more a threat to Nevada's budget destinations such as Laughlin and Primm than they are to the Strip's mega-resorts, and games are mostly limited to slots and blackjack.

Yet there is little doubt that by adding spas, fancy restaurants and plush hotel rooms, the Indian resorts are hoping to pull off the same trick Vegas did: providing something for people to do when they get weary of losing money or for tag-alongs who didn't come to gamble. Though the Cedar wildfire forced the temporary closure of the Rincon and Barona Valley casinos, both are again open for business.

We began our trip one September weekend at Barona Valley Ranch in San Diego County. You may have seen its billboards — the ones with Kenny Rogers beckoning gamblers in all his white-bearded glory.

"I think they're trying to attract old people," my 16-year-old son had said one day as we drove past a Kenny sign on the freeway. No, I thought, just people with enough years to appreciate the wisdom of his signature song: "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em ..."Naturally, I asked the friendly women at Barona's front desk where I could find the Gambler.

"Oh, he isn't here — but he has been on the property," one said. Her colleague figured me for slow. "He has been here," she said. "But he is not actually here. This is not where he lives."

Cash cropThe $260-million resort, which opened in January, does have something very Vegas: outlandish architecture. The theme, however, is very un-Vegas: a 1930s farm. Giant silo, barn, the works. Maybe my son had a point.

The surprise, however, is that unlike the other Indian casinos in the region, Barona allows people to gamble at age 18, not 21. The other surprise: no alcohol, not even in the hotel or restaurants. That may change, but so far San Diego County officials aren't keen on having booze at a place that can be reached only by a winding two-lane road.

We had a late supper on the patio of the upscale coffee shop, the Branding Iron. Nice, but every few minutes there would be a loud, breathless announcement over the speakers, something like: "Bingo is about to begin!" or "The Smith group — your poker table is ready!" So much for conversation.

Our room was big and furnished like guest quarters at a rich uncle's house. We booked it for $189, but the desk clerk (unaware I work for The Times) slashed it to $159 on arrival, saying there had been cancellations and this was the current rate. Smart.

Perhaps the best surprise of Barona is the golf course. Golf magazine put it on its top-10 list of new U.S. courses last year. We didn't have time to play but got an excellent hour of instruction with a golf pro who charged $50 for us both.

After our lesson, we headed back to Interstate 15 and north to Pechanga, opened in June 2002. For location, it can't be beat — just two miles off the interstate in Temecula. At noon the place was already packed. Pechanga doesn't seem to need many amenities to draw crowds — no spa or golf course, for example, although it does have four lounges and a 1,200-seat showroom with the kind of acts you might find headlining the county fair.

We asked for a peek at one of the 522 rooms but were told the place was booked and none was available. We did take advantage of Pechanga's outsize buffet. Like the three other resorts we visited, this one also boasted a high-tech ventilation system and nonsmoking gambling areas, which are a plus.

We had reservations for Saturday night at Pala, which opened in 2001 as a casino and added a 507-room luxury hotel and spa in August. Set amid green hills and avocado ranches on Highway 76 in north San Diego County, Pala is the most scenic of the resorts.

We arrived at 2 p.m., an hour ahead of check-in time, and found a traffic jam. Valet parking was full. We self-parked, then waited in line for about 30 minutes to register.

Our room was similar to the one we had at Barona, with an oversize tub and separate shower, a comfortable sitting area and desk. We moved on to the Olympic-length pool to enjoy a swim and strawberry daiquiris.

The spa is near the pool, and I wandered over to see what a massage might cost. No dice, the staff said; the place was booked. You're supposed to make appointments a week before arrival. This wasn't mentioned when I reserved the room or in the confirmation e-mail. I pressed, and they found time to get Alison in at 8 a.m. Sunday.

We decided to try Pala's first-cabin restaurant, the Oak Room, to see if it approached what you might find in Vegas. Though we were hotel guests and had a reservation (and I was wearing pants, unlike some other guys), the maitre d' placed us near the door.

The Oak Room has white tablecloths but not much soundproofing, so diners get to hear the party band playing on the casino floor. After our salads arrived, Alison found a bit of hard plastic among the greens. Our server promptly took it to the maitre d', who did his best to avoid us. Water glasses went empty; no refill was offered on the coffee. The halibut was excellent.

Plenty to playI found a seat at a blackjack table while Alison played the slots. Like Barona Valley and Pechanga, Pala has 2,000 machines, which is the maximum allowed under the state's gaming agreement with tribes. That's about the same number of slots as the New York-New York resort on the Las Vegas Strip, and there's no wanting for players. On a typical Saturday night, the Pala Casino draws about 15,000 people.

Sunday morning Alison got a back massage and cleansing. I took advantage of the well-equipped gym.

Our last stop was Harrah's Rincon, the smallest of the four. Opened in summer 2002 nearly 20 miles east of I-15 in Valley Center, Harrah's is a bit out of the way. But still, on a late Sunday morning it was crowded.

Resort amenities are relatively few here, but the oasis-like pool area was inviting. The rooms are on par with Barona Valley and Pala, and Rincon also offers six places to eat and a large gift shop. If you're looking for a smaller casino, it's a nice option.

All in all, the weekend was good, the relatively short drive a major plus. If you don't want to spend 10 hours driving to Nevada and back, the tribal gambling palaces in Temecula and San Diego County offer a stripped-down version of the Vegas experience. Stick to the buffets, and you'll have few complaints.

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Expenses for this trip:

Barona Valley Ranch

One night with tax, tips $183.31

Dinner

Barona's Branding Iron $42.95

Barona golf lesson, tip $60.00

Pala Casino Resort

One night (no tax) $139.00

Dinner

Pala's Oak Room $127.00

Pala spa treatment, tip $65.00

Pala poolside drinks $10.00

Other meals $57.78

Gas $57.09

Final tab $742.13

CONTACT:

Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino, 1932 Wildcat Canyon Road, Lakeside, CA 92040; (888) 722-7662 or (619) 443-2300, fax (619) 443-2856, http://www.barona.com .

Pala Casino Resort & Spa, 11154 Highway 76, Pala, CA 92059; (877) 725-2766 or (877) 946-7252, fax (760) 510-2194, http://www.palacasino.com .

Pechanga Resort & Casino, 45000 Pechanga Parkway (formerly Pala Road), Temecula, CA 92592; (888) 732-4264 or (909) 693-1819, fax (909) 695-7410, http://www.pechanga.com .

Harrah's Rincon, 777 Harrah's Rincon Way, Valley Center, CA 92082; (877) 777-2457 or (760) 751-3100, http://www.harrahs.com/our_casinos/rin .


John Corrigan is an assistant business editor.

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