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Weekend Getaways


 WHEN A SPRING GETAWAY to the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa in the desert gateway town of Cabazon was proposed, I was mortified. I’d heard Indian casinos around the state were being transformed into high-end Las Vegas–style resorts, but I had yet to visit one. And my last encounter with one of these casinos was Viejas, circa 1992 — which was then a dark, smoky room populated mostly by the type of folks you might find at Saturday-night bingo parties.

There’s nothing even remotely trailer trash about Morongo. This posh, new $250 million resort, open only since November, is a class act in a Euro-chic sort of way, similar to the Met in London or the Palms in Las Vegas. Rooms in the 27-story hotel tower start at just $109, and for that you get full use of the gorgeously landscaped outdoor resort — an enchanting network of pools, Jacuzzis, water slide and even a “lazy river” where you can float away on inner tubes.

The 272 standard guestrooms are on the small side, but the appointments are tasteful, beds are comfortable, and the amenities include plasma televisions and free high-speed Internet access. The casino, in contrast, is mid-scale Las Vegas — reminiscent of the Sands right before it was torn down. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s no signature, nothing to make it stand out and distinguish itself.

Upon arrival Friday night, the first thing that really stood out was the friendliness of the staff, from the valet (Lucias) to the bell captain, bellmen and even security guards charged with keeping casino regulars — a rough lot — out of the hotel and pool area. We immediately headed for the pool and were so delighted with what we found that we picked up dinner in the food court — at Fatburger, one of the guilty pleasures of the Los Angeles dining scene — rather than take the time for a sit-down meal at Serrano or the Potrero Canyon Buffet, both highly recommended.

casino towerWhen the stars came out and the hotel tower was lit up — gentle color changes, from orange to pink to purple to blue — we were mesmerized. My 9-year-old, Justin, asked if he could have his next birthday party here. And when the perfect Margarita from the pool bar arrived — and was handed to me as I floated by on an inner tube — my day was complete.

The next morning my wife, Diana, went to the spa — oh, sorry, “Sage, The Spa” — while I took our three boys to the Living Desert, always one of my favorite places in the Palm Springs area. Diana’s report: The Radiance Facial, administered by a fellow named Sebastian, was the best facial she’s had, ever. The massage, on the other hand, was a letdown. Diana was on the books for the signature Desert Bouquet Massage, with aromatic “earth spirit” essential oils, but wound up with the Swedish Massage. The spa manager blamed the mixup on a scheduling error; the appropriately trained masseuse was out to lunch.

Casino pool 2The afternoon was again spent by the pool, and the day was again capped by a perfect Margarita. The bartender confirmed my suspicions that the Morongo had parallel clienteles: those who come to gamble, and those who come for a conveniently located resort. As the hotel’s brochures note, Cabazon is just 20 miles from Palm Springs. But it’s also less than 10 miles from Banning and Beaumont, two blue-collar towns on the fringes of the desert. “You should come here on Wednesday nights,” the bartender said with a sigh. “I don’t even like to go inside.”

The next morning, we had a quick breakfast at Serrano’s Coffee Bar — great donuts, although a bit steep at $1.50 each — and spent our remaining hours at Morongo around the pool. On my way to check out, I scanned the crowd behind the slot machines and found significantly more tattoos and fewer teeth than among the general population. The Morongo’s promotional flier calls it a “four-star caliber” resort. Yes, the Morongo could get four stars. But only if the judges are blindfolded as they walk through the casino.


If You Go
The Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa (800-252-4499; morongocasinoresort.com) is about 135 miles north of downtown San Diego. The inn has 272 standard rooms, 32 suites and six casitas around the pool, each with its own private Jacuzzi. Standard room rates start at $109 midweek ($189 to $269 weekends).

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