Barona: A bit of Vegas in S.D.

By DAVID MCKEAN

With all of the "Vegas" style casinos springing up in San Diego County, it has become time to explore the options right here in our Southern California backyard. The casino of choice for this outing was the Barona Valley Ranch Resort Casino located 30 miles east of downtown San Diego.

Barona's website boasts a 310,000 square foot casino with 2,000 slots and 54 tables. Without actually counting, it appears from the seemingly endless array of machines and tables that the patron truly is in "Vegas". The only thing missing is alcohol. For the drinker, Barona does not have a license to serve. The reasons for this vary but it appears that, because the casino is reached by a winding road, those in charge of such things do not want the intoxicated driver heading down that road. This may change soon, as Barona has received law enforcement support of a proposal to sell liquor but limit those sales to the steakhouse restaurant, a private VP gambling lounge, hotel room service, the golf course and special events center.

In the meantime, even without the alcohol, the casino is lively and apparently on some weekends quite crowded. Poker is available, but the Poker room is small and the wait can be grueling on a busy weekend night. It is obvious from the large number of machines that Barona caters to the slot player.

For the "high roller," Barona has a special room for high limit games. With all the variety you would expect from a property endorsed by Kenny Rogers, Barona also offers Bingo (a staple of the Indian Casino), and satellite wagering for the horses. Frequent visitors will want to note there is a players club that is generous with comps for the avid player.

Gambling is not the only form of entertainment offered at Barona and golfers will be excited that the resort offers one of the top 10 new courses – as named by Golf Magazine in its March 2002 issue. The course offers an 18-hole par 72 with a range of 5,296-7,088 yards of play and is challenging and picturesque with oak trees, rolling hills, and a series of water hazards throughout.

In our brief weekend exploration, we found the food at Barona is also on par with Vegas. The variety ranges from a food court with standard fast food to a high-end steak house. In between are the traditional buffet and a 24 hour cafe. Because the Steak House was booked, that food was not sampled. The Cafe however, serves a menu similar to the Steak House and, according to the locals, is just as good without the added service that the Steakhouse provides.

The only true way to test the locals’ theory is to order the Steak and Lobster dinner. The portions were substantial and as good as any high-end restaurant. The only people who will be disappointed will be those who routinely enjoy fine wine with their dinner – again, no alcohol is served on the property. As for the buffet, a variety of ethnic foods are available, and the menu is the same all day. This is only a factor at breakfast time unless beef brisquet is the food of choice for breakfast.

Accommodations at the Barona Resort are luxurious. The 397-room resort comes complete with a workout room and swimming pool, and there is a mountain view from every room. The rooms are well decorated and come complete with a luxury bathroom, and refrigerator in all rooms. The luxury suites are spacious and feature a wet bar and jacuzzi tub. The hotel also has four ultra-luxury suites that each come with a television in the master bedroom that rises up with a touch of the remote. The down side: these suites are reserved for special guests only.

The resort also offers a wedding chapel which is located between the casino and the hotel. The chapel sits on the edge of a man-made lake, and offers a picturesque setting.

Overall, Southern Californians will find that Barona makes a quick and easy getaway for the "Vegas" experience without the long drive or cost of a traveling by air. The facilities are luxurious and well maintained. The prices are reasonable and – Kenny, just in case you want to know if the resort’s following through on your TV promises -- the staff is friendly and quite helpful.

AT A GLANCE:

WHERE: Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino is located 30 miles east of downtown San Diego in the town of Lakeside. It is only accessible by car, and is on Wildcat Canyon road off of the 67

WHAT: Barona offers a full casino facility, and includes an 18-hole golf course and luxury hotel.

WHEN: As with any casino, the crowds and the prices increase during the weekend. Midweek the rates are most reasonable and the crowds are smaller.

WHY: Vegas style action without getting on a plane. A visit to the casino can be a short day trip, or a complete weekend excursion.

HOW: Reservations can be made on line or by calling 877-BV-RANCH (877-287-2624)