I peeled a $100 bill out of my wallet and fed it into the dollar slot machine as my two new friends, Shauna and Jennifer, looked on.
First spin, and the machine gave me $5.
"Wow," said Shauna, who was wearing impossibly low hip-huggers. "You won!"
"You don't mind us looking over your shoulder, do you?" asked Jennifer, sheathed in a tiny black miniskirt.
Well no, not at all, actually. At the moment, life is good. The casino floor is lively, the cocktail waitress has just floated by taking orders, and I have pleasant company at the slots.
This might have been Las Vegas, but in fact I was at the Trump 29 Casino east of Palm Springs. With its plush appointments and expansive main floor, it was the closest thing to a real-deal Vegas casino I would see last month during a tour of Coachella Valley gaming palaces.
Las Vegas has long been a popular holiday destination for Southern Californians. But the Palm Springs area offers a decent alternative, as the casinos on Native American lands have become a far cry from the converted bingo halls of years past. Besides, the drive is shorter and great outlet shopping is nearby.
Just keep in mind: Although you can get a good gambling fix, the experience is no match for the adrenaline rush of Vegas.
My wife, Alison, and I headed out on a Friday afternoon and made our first stop at the two outdoor outlet malls in Cabazon, off Interstate 10 about 90 miles east of downtown L.A.
We knew we were in trouble when traffic was backed up on the freeway -- perhaps not surprising, since this was the Friday after Thanksgiving. The parking lots at Desert Hills Premium Outlets and neighboring Cabazon Outlets were jammed.
The shopping would have to wait, but the gambling could begin. We drove a couple of miles down Seminole Drive to Casino Morongo, which was jampacked.
While Alison checked out the slots, I circled the blackjack tables looking for an open seat. The only one I could find was at a table where the minimum bet was $25 -- too rich for my blood.
In Vegas, the casino would have opened a new table. Not here. The place was apparently operating at capacity. We played the slots awhile -- Morongo has 2,000 of them -- but the lack of elbowroom became tiresome, and we left for our hotel.
We had booked two nights at the Miramonte, a Mediterranean-themed resort off Highway 111 in Indian Wells. The best rate we could get from the hotel directly was $269 a night. On a tip, we tried the booking agency RoomStar (formerly SaveCash Vacations, http://www.savecash.com), which negotiates discounted rates for hotels in Palm Springs, San Diego and Phoenix. It offered the Miramonte for $169 Friday and $179 Saturday, plus tax and the $15 nightly resort fee charged to all guests.
There were a few catches: RoomStar charged my credit card immediately, and if I canceled the reservation within three days of arrival, I would have been reimbursed for the second night only. Our room preferences -- nonsmoking, king bed -- weren't guaranteed. But it's a great way to save money if your plans are firm and you can be flexible about the room.
Hotel merits and miscues
The Miramonte was laid-back and relaxing. We got the kind of room we requested, and the staff and concierge were especially helpful. There are three pools, including one big enough for lap swimming, as well as nicely landscaped grounds. Our room was satisfactory.
But there were minor annoyances. We arrived more than an hour after check-in time, yet the room wasn't ready, despite a call ahead to confirm our arrival. We used the cotton swabs in the bathroom the first day, and they weren't replaced the second. We had to call the front desk to get a key for the mini-bar. And when we returned to our room Saturday night, our keys didn't work.
For dinner, at the concierge's recommendation, we tried Pacifica of the Desert. The swordfish, shrimp and Chardonnay were excellent, but the service was spotty.
Saturday we headed to the Trump 29 Casino in Coachella. The former Spotlight 29 Casino was renamed in April after the Twentynine Palms Band of Mission Indians signed a development deal with Donald Trump.
The contrast with Casino Morongo was striking. The place has the look of a Nevada casino. The floor is brightly lighted, and customers have ample room at the tables. There's even a 2,500-seat theater showcasing talent such as Bill Cosby, Brian Setzer and Tony Bennett.
I planted myself at a $10 blackjack table. Before I could get change for my hundred, the pit boss yanked the dealer and installed a replacement: a white-bearded gentleman who's a dead ringer for Kenny Rogers, the Gambler himself.
I battled the dealer up and down; a half hour later my $100 stake was at $80, and I wagered half of it. The dealer slipped me two aces. I split them, sliding out my remaining $40. No luck. I drew small cards, and the money was gone.
I headed for a cluster of Bally "Playboy Slots" to chill, and that's where I ran into Shauna and Jennifer. The demographic here skews older than Vegas -- besides winning cars at the slots, you can win golf carts -- and these two stood out. Both were wearing Playboy T-shirts.
"Are you real Playmates?" I asked. (Mr. Suave, that's me.)
It turned out they were: Shauna Sand was Miss May 1996, and Jennifer Walcott was Miss August 2001. They said I could get a signed T-shirt if I just played the slots, so into the wallet I went. Later I introduced them to Alison, who was bemused by my heightened interest in slot machines.
From Trump, we pushed on to Fantasy Springs Casino, one I-10 offramp west in Indio. Although not quite as upscale as the Trump casino, Fantasy Springs also has the look of a Vegas gambling hall. And to my surprise, there was a craps table.
California's 1998 Indian gaming initiative legalized slot machines and card games (such as blackjack and pai gow poker) in which the house is the bank but not roulette and dice games such as craps.
Unless those games are played with cards.
That's the idea behind Carde Craps at Fantasy Springs: Draw two cards instead of rolling the dice. I put $20 on 6, but the dealer drew 7 -- craps. I moved on.
Of course, most players stick to slots and blackjack. But craps tables and roulette wheels generate much of the energy and excitement in Vegas. That, and the fact that you can walk outside, into a blizzard of lights and themed hotels, and take your pick of giant casinos within walking distance.
In the Coachella Valley, you walk outside to parking lots with charter buses.
Still, with so many casinos in the area -- including the big new Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage, operated by the same tribe that runs the Spa Casino in downtown Palm Springs -- you definitely can have some gambling fun. Compared with Nevada, the dealers aren't as sharp (cards took errant flight more than once) and the options aren't as plentiful, but the drive is far more pleasant.
And with the short drive, we had time and energy to check out El Paseo shopping district in Palm Desert and the Shields Date Gardens in Indio, and enjoy a late-night dinner at LG's Prime Steakhouse in La Quinta. The rib eye and filet mignon were served perfectly cooked to order and sizzling hot, accompanied by an Edna Valley Pinot Noir and sides of sautéed mushrooms, spinach and fried potatoes.
And yes, the next day we had enough stamina to hit those Cabazon outlets on the way home.
John Corrigan is an assistant business editor for The Times.
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