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90 miles from L.A., shades of Las Vegas

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The burly bouncer whisked us off the casino floor and up the high-speed elevator to the 26th-floor Space Bar. The manager waived the $20 cover — it was still early — and we quickly got drinks from the Jetsons-esque waitress in the silver miniskirt and platform boots. The DJ was spinning hits from dance-floor royalty — Prince, Queen — as we looked out the windows with a 360-degree view.

Darkness.

There is no neon in Cabazon.

I'd been skeptical about the Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa since I first heard about its mammoth construction next to Interstate 10. It was completed in December.

"Whatever happens in Vegas … Also happens at Morongo," the roadside billboards said. Still, I imagined dropping $200 on a room just to lose my nickels alongside busloads of Leisure World gamblers.

But when I stepped away from the viewless windows and slipped back down the elevator, I felt as if I had walked into Palms, the ultra-hip Las Vegas casino by the Maloof brothers and recent site of MTV's "The Real World" series.

Belly Italiano, the casino's boisterous two-story restaurant decorated with color-shifting chandeliers and Renaissance art projected onto flat video panels, was mobbed by 8 p.m. A Saturday night throng of older couples and large parties of twentysomethings overwhelmed the place, which was why my boyfriend, Joe, and I spent 90 minutes in the Space Bar waiting for a table.

Our waiter tried to make it up to us with complimentary glasses of sparkling Italian wine, a mini crab salad and a basket of focaccia, olives and chunks of Parmesan cheese.

Joe's Caesar salad, hand-tossed at our table, was so good that he admitted considering licking the plate. My salad was also divine: roasted tomatoes, basil and fresh Italian mozzarella that practically melted in my mouth.

We grudgingly passed on the $125 1 1/2 -pound Sicilian lobster tail. Joe — half-Italian and picky about his pasta — proclaimed the linguine in a white clam sauce a tasty $19 substitute. I couldn't finish my huge portion of chicken Parmesan, but we splurged on dessert anyway — chocolate, caramel and vanilla gelato topped with nutty toffee.

Dinner was nearly a two-hour affair, but our friendly waiter provided excellent service. The couple to our left, however, complained at volume about the wait and left in a huff.

In the casino, Joe tried his luck at craps and was surprised that there were no dice. The dealers pulled cards from decks stacked with aces through sixes.

*

California-style gambling"California Craps" — a fact of life when it comes to gaming here — took some getting used to. "It's just so weird not to have dice," Joe kept saying. The action didn't seem quite as fast-paced as Vegas to him.

I agreed after trying my hand at "California" roulette. There was no dealer, only an unmanned wheel and people huddled around touch screens. Instead of putting chips on a numbered square on a table, you placed bets by touching squares on the screen. I lost $20 just trying to figure out how to play.

Truth be told, I'm not much of a gambler, but something about this version of roulette made me feel more like a video-keno player in a Laughlin, Nev., diner than a high-roller in Monte Carlo.

Aside from those oddities, there were 2,000 hungry slot machines ready to take our nickels or bills. Dealers worked the blackjack and poker tables. Morongo Casino did offer "whatever happens in Vegas," with two exceptions: sports betting and free drinks. The waitress charged Joe $5 for his beer.

I also later learned that there was a reason Morongo seemed so much like the Palms. The $250-million, 685,000-square-foot resort was designed by the Jerde Partnership, the same architectural firm that created the Palms, Bellagio and TI (the casino formerly known as Treasure Island). It also gave Los Angeles Universal CityWalk.

Morongo, just like the Palms, has a N9NE Steakhouse and Desert Rain, modeled after the nightclub Rain, complete with a long line to get in.

The hotel prices are just like the Palms' too. When we first made our reservations, the cost was $224.50 a night, not including taxes or the $9 daily resort fee that covers high-speed Internet access and valet parking. I called back to inquire about a better rate, and they said weekend rates had been lowered to $199.

With those rates and its location only 90 miles from Los Angeles, Morongo may be more of a day-trip destination. The management seems to knows it too: It has about 300 hotel rooms but 3,400 parking spaces.

Our deluxe king room was very nice with such amenities as a 27-inch flat-screen TV, a CD player and an inviting bed with fluffy down comforters and pillows. The bathroom, too, was spacious and bright, with a tiled bench inside a huge shower.

Outside, though, it was cold. Otherwise we might have ventured into the pool via the sandy beach or floated down the man-made "lazy river." We also considered the spa but thought it might still be working out the new-hotel kinks. There was no spa literature in our room, and when we popped into the spa lobby, the only brochure was a photocopied sheet. The spa offers many desert-themed massages and facials at prices typical for a resort, running about $85 for 50 minutes.

*

There's always shoppingSince we were already in the hole from gambling, we decided to lose money the old-fashioned way: by spending it.

If gambling's not your thing, Cabazon is still a shopper's paradise. The Cabazon Outlets and neighboring Desert Hills Premium Outlets have about 150 shops between them — upscale Armani and Gucci as well as Crate & Barrel and the Gap.

My shopaholic friend Claire had wisely suggested we stop by the management offices at both outlets and show our Auto Club membership card. We were rewarded with coupons for 10% to 25% off at many of the stores. In many cases, that was off the already-reduced prices.

Our last day, we sampled the Sunday champagne brunch at the resort's Potrero Canyon Buffet. For $21.95, it was standard Las Vegas fare — an omelet bar, a build-your-own Mongolian barbecue. Not all the dishes were labeled, however, so I had to ask or guess (not advisable) the ingredients.

Our stomachs full, we drove home, debating the merits of Morongo versus Las Vegas.

We agreed that Morongo Casino was nicer — and more hip — than we had expected. And we were home four hours earlier. We even figure we'll go back. But Sin City? That's an experience that just can't be duplicated.

Budget for two

Expenses for this trip:

Lodging

Two nights at Morongo Casino with tax and resort fee $452

Dinner

Belly Italiano $102

Entertainment

Space Bar $19

Brunch

Potrero Canyon Buffet $47

Other meals $26

Tips $12

Gambling $20Gas $25

Final tab $703

CONTACT:

Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa, 49500 Seminole Drive, Cabazon; (800) 252-4499, http://www.casinomorongo.com . Doubles $99-$119 (weekdays) to $199-$219 (weekends).

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