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Rock on

Pechanga Casino gets you up-close to big-name acts

By CARY ORDWAY

There was a time when, to enjoy top-drawer entertainment, you had to drive to the nearest big city and sit with at least 25,000 other music fans straining to see tiny musicians on a stage so far away it could be in another county. And just like any other "big event," half the battle was creeping along in a conga line of traffic that literally added hours going to and from the event.

California's Indian casinos have changed all that. While many of them do offer entertainment that hasn't seen the musical charts since the days of disco, some of the casinos are stepping forward with current big-name entertainment that may play a casino one night and a stadium the next. In San Diego County, for example, local casinos in recent months have featured such top-drawer country acts as Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley and Trace Adkins.

We took a short drive recently to Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula — just south and east of Los Angeles in Riverside County — where we combined a great dinner, some small-time gambling (really small-time, as in slot machines), a top-notch concert and a romantic stay in Pechanga's modern hotel. This proved to be a perfect weekend escape because, once we got there, there was no traffic, no stress and lots of interesting diversions right on the Pechanga property.

This particular weekend we went to see an old musical favorite — Chicago. The band has been touring for nearly 40 years, but the four original members and several talented new members continue to draw huge crowds from at least a couple of generations of fans.

While concert tickets can be a little more expensive in a smaller, more intimate venue like Pechanga, the experience is worth it. This 1200-seat theater is designed so that there is not a bad seat in the house. Fans are never far from the stage and the rows of seats are on an incline so that you could see over the Jolly Green Giant if you had to.

This really is no-muss, no fuss concert-going. No need to brave the traffic or struggle with parking — if you're coming for the weekend, just pull into the hotel's circular driveway and have them valet your car. You won't need it until checkout because there will be plenty of activities at the resort to keep you occupied.

After checking into to our comfortable room — a somewhat typical mid-scale hotel room, although perhaps a little larger and with a great view of the golf course — we walked downstairs to try our luck in the casino. While we have friends who swear they pay for every trip to Las Vegas with their gambling proceeds, we never have — so we set a modest limit when we visit a casino and just play the simpler games or slots. But it's fun watching the "high rollers" and the atmosphere at Pechanga is every bit as electric as most casinos in Vegas. (Note to non-smokers: Pechanga seems to have a better ventilation system than most California casinos that we've visited and a larger-than-usual non-smoking area.)

Next it was time for some dinner at the Seafood Grotto. Actually, the Great Oak is reputed to be the best restaurant at Pechanga but it was fully booked on the Friday night we visited. As it turned out, the Seafood Grotto was surprisingly good — the menu offered fascinating combinations of seafood that, judging from our experience, all seemed to be fresher than you would think being so far inland. It was a relaxing choice and we settled into our big padded booth for a thoroughly enjoyable 90-minute feast.

We finished at the Seafood Grotto just in enough time to walk over to the theater for the 8 p.m. concert. People sometimes begin arriving up to an hour ahead, but most folks seemed on this night to be spending every last minute in the casino and then finding their seats just before the concert began. Drinks and refreshments are available in the theater area so the atmosphere was like a cocktail reception or maybe what you'd experience at the intermission of a Broadway play. But there was one big difference: there was no discernible dress code and concert-goers were wearing everything from jeans to business-casual.

It's safe to say that very few people, if any, were disappointed in the Chicago concert we attended. Acoustics were great, the band was every bit as "on" as they might be in a large arena, and the crowd was on its feet through a good portion of performance.

Afterward, it was back to the casino for a few minutes and then upstairs to bed. No conga lines, no long drives home at night. Just total relaxation, a good night's sleep and a quiet and delicious buffet breakfast the next morning at the Pechanga Café before venturing on to explore more of the Temecula Valley.

Temecula wineries

An added bonus when you visit the Temecula area is that, in recent years, several wineries, inns and restaurants have been built in this picturesque valley. While the 20-plus wineries of the Temecula Valley are a fraction of what you might find in ever-popular Napa — with at last count, something like 300 local wineries — Temecula's wine-tasting experience is getting high marks from travelers who have happened on this scenic valley almost by accident.

Wineries continue to pop up at the rate of two to four per year, according to Linda Kissam, executive director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association. Big resorts have opened, too, such as the South Coast Winery's new Resort and Spa that was estimated to cost $20 million but ending up costing well over that.

"The whole goal here," says Mark Zovic, South Coast's general manager, "is for Temecula to be taken seriously." With many more visitors every year making Temecula part of their Southern California vacation plans, it seems like the area is now being taken plenty seriously.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Temecula is easily reached on Interstate 15, the inland route between the Los Angeles basin and San Diego. From Los Angeles, take the 10 freeway east, then I-15 south.

WHAT: Pechanga Resort and Casino has been operating since 1995 as an Entertainment Center, and since 2002 as a resort with the addition of hotel rooms, more restaurants and other attractions. While providing an enjoyable escape for weekenders, the resort's revenue is used to fund the Pechanga nation government, its school, senior and health services for tribe members and other services.

WHEN: Any time of year. Temecula weather is almost always sunny, temperate most months except summer when 90-degree days are not uncommon.

WHY: Pechanga is an especially good place to see top-drawer entertainment. The resort books more current acts than most Indian casinos. An added bonus is the 20-plus wineries located in the region so be sure and allow time to take a tour of the valley's tasting rooms while you're in the area.

HOW: For more information on Pechanga Resort and Casino, please visit www.pechanga.com or phone 951-693-1819. Room rates range between $99 and $349.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Huntington Beach, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach

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