"I used to win like crazy," my friend Juanita Mendonca would tell me. "Every slot machine turned to gold. I'd come home and my purse would be stuffed with money."
Juanita, a retired parochial school teacher with a magic touch at the slots, loved to regale me with tales of her exploits at Valley View Casino. I had never been there, so when my husband, Lou, suggested we take a quick trip to Las Vegas, I proposed an overnighter to check out Valley View's new hotel instead.
So there we were, driving into the hills of Valley Center in north San Diego County's backcountry. Visions of pots o' money danced in my head as we pulled up to the casino's somewhat lackluster exterior. The 10-year-old gaming venue expanded a few years ago, adding new restaurants and a nonsmoking gambling wing; the hotel, which opened in November, is its latest effort to keep up with the competition.
I inhaled half a pack of secondhand cigarette smoke crossing the noisy, crowded casino before I reached the nonsmoking hotel and coughed my name to the clerk at check-in. She smiled and handed me a free bottle of water.
They're big on hydration here; there are also free, self-serve soda fountains in the casino.
Passing through the hotel's glass doors puts you worlds apart from the casino's boisterous atmosphere. The light-filled lobby's warm earth tones and eggshell-colored marble floors are quietly elegant.
Patterned rugs, a fireplace, bright-red retro chairs and statues from Indian artist Johnny Bear Contreras are highlights. Some high-end touches are not what they appear to be: On closer inspection, wood walls turned out to be wallpaper.
The eight-story hotel has 96 rooms and 12 suites; our seventh-floor, 520-square-foot king bed room had dark- and light-brown tones in its textured carpet and bamboo-design headboard. Cream-colored bedding blended with the wall's neutral tones; red accent chairs gave the room some pop. Striking black-and-white prints were scattered throughout.
Floor-to-ceiling windows showcased sweeping vistas of the rural countryside framed by the Palomar Mountains. When you get tired of the scenery, there is a 42-inch high-def flatscreen TV; there's a small sofa as well as a desk where you can set up a laptop and use the free Wi-Fi.
The bathroom's marble and granite surfaces were neutral yet classy; a glass-enclosed shower had its own room. The house-brand toiletries were nothing special, but the towels were as plush as those in any luxury hotel..
It was hot, so we headed to the stunning infinity pool. There's no need for private cabanas; everyone gets cushioned rattan lounge chairs, and large umbrellas give plenty of shade. I plunged in — make that stepped in; the first half of the pool is only 10 inches deep — and screeched: The water was freezing. I waded into the back half, which was only 4 feet deep.
Enough lollygagging, it was time to get down to business — eating and gambling. Valley View touts its lobster buffet and "Certified Loose Slots" (they have 2,000 machines). Join the Players Club and get a free buffet.
After waiting in line 20 minutes to sign up for the club, which also offers gambling rewards, I asked, "How long is the wait for the buffet?" Relax, clerk Ryahn Spece said, hotel guests get to use the much-shorter VIP line.
We decided to celebrate our first "win" with a drink. The small Main Stage Bar offers the only entertainment. In many respects, Valley View is a second-tier casino. It doesn't have, say, Pechanga's range of eateries or nearby Harrah's Rincon lineup of touring bands and comedians.
Blues singer Missy Anderson was good, but the cigarette smoke was bothering me. When a well-dressed gentleman (he stood out; most folks were in sweats or jeans) in a dapper suit, black hat and shades sat down next to us and lighted up a giant stogie, I hit my limit.
We moved to one of the casino's newer venues, Black & Blue Steakhouse (Juanita raves about its steaks and baked potatoes), and had a drink in its chic lounge. I had a glass of Chardonnay; Lou groused that there were no local brews on tap and settled for a bottle of Pacifico.
The buffet was next. Its theme is a tour of the world, with Mexican, Asian and Italian fare as well as an All-American carving station with prime rib and turkey. The big draw is the seafood spread: lobsters, crab legs, clams, oysters, mussels, shrimp and sushi.
The highlight was endless lobster. These were primo, with huge claws that spilled off the plate. Served with drawn butter, every mouthful was delicious.
Desserts were endless as well: crème brûlée, opera cakes, tortes, bread pudding, pies, you name it. I couldn't get past the cream puffs and the chocolate fountain — until I found the chocolate truffles. Lou had to drag me out.
We headed for the gaming tables, Lou to use his Players Club pair of table vouchers (if you bet $10, you can double the bet with a chit) while I opted for the slots.
Lou started with $50 at the roulette table; after an hour and two $10 vouchers, he left with $60, then broke even playing blackjack. I went off in search of Juanita's golden slots. Revenge of the lobster: The "Lobstermania" machine clawed up a quick $10; "Wolf Tea" gobbled another $15. "Nefertiti" and "Miss Kitty" were equally unkind, and my cash stash evaporated. Insult to injury: I didn't reach the "20 points in the first 24 hours" it took to get my $20 More Play bonus.
In the morning, Lou yanked open the curtain and let in the sun — he was hungry again. After eating a steak, a lobster, fried chicken and four kinds of shrimp — and that was just his first course last night — he was patting his belly and wondering if he had lost weight. I would have thrown a shoe at him, but I was still too stuffed from dinner to move.
He was persistent, and it was a complimentary breakfast, and so I somehow found room for the mini-buffet that was set up in the lower lobby and outside by the pool. The hot dish was cheese, egg and sausage on an English muffin. Healthy highlights included fruit kebabs, cups of fresh berries and yogurt parfaits; on the more sinful side, almond croissants and berry scones were yummy.
On the way out, I hit the slots one more time. "Lucky Pumpkin" wasn't lucky, but when I tried "Star Drifter" I hit pay dirt and won $88.25.
Sometimes, you can have your lobster and eat it too.