It’s well after 10 p.m. on a Friday night and I’m in a familiar spot—pressing my luck at the Pai Gow poker table. My skin is crisp from spending the afternoon at a rollicking pool party, my belly full from a gourmet dinner. In front of me, somewhere next to my towering stack of green chips, is a craft cocktail made with some of the best bourbon made anywhere in the United States.
Sounds like a scene from a night on the town in Las Vegas, right? Except this time I’m just outside of San Diego, at Harrah’s SoCal. In the spring of 2014, this resort wrapped the second phase of a US$160-million renovation, making it a Vegas-style hotspot just east of the I-15.
The place is one of a quartet of Native American-owned casino resorts that have made the San Diego area one of the country’s most exciting gambling destinations in recent years. The casinos sit in a line: Valley View Casino & Hotel, Harrah’s Resort Southern California (the formal name), Casino Pauma (which doesn’t have a resort) and Pala Casino Spa & Resort. When I’m itching for a casino vacation and I don’t want to deal with the crowds of Las Vegas, I come here.
The Lazy River at Harrah’s SoCal
Without question, the gem of the Valley Center resort scene is Harrah’s SoCal. Formerly known as Harrah’s Rincon, the property is about 45 minutes northeast of San Diego. Part of the US$160-million renovation included a new 403-room tower, expanded pool, new food and beverage options and an overall refresh to the entire resort.
The result: A legitimately cool place to spend a long weekend (or more).
Start with the new rooms. Modern furnishings, giant flat-screen televisions, cavernous bathrooms and stunning up-valley views come standard across the board, while suites have outdoor balconies and spacious sitting rooms. Overall, the hotel now has 1,065 rooms, by far the most in the area.
Downstairs, on the pool deck, the Lazy River is a great place to while away an afternoon—unless you’d rather throw back pina coladas at Southern California’s only swim-up bar. The resort even hosts thumping pool parties on weekends, complete with deejays, laser lights and more. Jokingly, I asked one of the bouncers how the place gets party people to make the drive. The answer: Harrah’s busses them in.
(It’s also worth noting that Harrah’s hired some graffiti artists to come in and paint murals near the pool.)
This kind of hip and forward thinking is evident on the casino floor, too. New food and beverage options include an indoor taco truck and Spiked, a pop-up bar that specializes in craft cocktails (including some with moonshine) and bourbon. I was impressed to see Pappy Van Winkle on the menu here.
Finally, of course, is the casino itself—more than 1,700 slot machines and almost 60 table games, including Double Attack Blackjack and more. There also are California variations of craps and roulette (these are like the Vegas games, only the state’s compact with Native-American tribes prohibits the outcomes from being decided by dice or a ball). So long as you stick to card games, you’ll feel like you’re in Sin City the entire time.
Moonshine cocktail at Spiked
At the other end of the valley—about 75 minutes from San Diego—is Pala Casino Spa & Resort. This resort, with 507 rooms, is popular among locals from North San Diego County and the southern reaches of Orange County. It also draws overnight visitors from Long Beach, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara (among other, more faraway spots).
Rooms at this resort are functional but not spectacular; the most notable feature in the bathroom is a separate soaking tub. Downstairs, the pool deck can best be described as subdued; you’re more likely to spy guests reading quietly than slamming beers.
The resort is perhaps best known for its spa, which offers standard treatments as well as innovative options that incorporate algae and other newfangled ingredients, as well as local stones and herbs.
(Bling-lovers also tend to like the resort’s Swarovski Crystal shop.)
As for the casino here, it’s massive—more than 2,000 slot machines, nearly 90 table games, and an 11-table poker room. If you go with a friend, make sure your phone is charged so you can text to figure out where to meet.
Viewfinder Tip: When partying in California casinos, bring your own alcohol to the gaming floor to save money on drinks.
The final two stops on my casino crawl: Valley View Casino & Hotel and Casino Pauma. These are the smallest of the foursome; Valley View’s hotel is considered boutique because it has only 108 rooms and suites, Pauma doesn’t even have a hotel (and actually sits in a tent).
At Valley View, in between slot-machine sessions be sure to make time for a meal at Black&Blue Steakhouse, which serves up phenomenal steaks in an atmosphere that includes a 3,300-gallon saltwater aquarium. At Pauma, get ready to stretch your bankroll—it is the only casino in the area to offer $3 blackjack at all times.
My suggestion: Connect all four of the properties in an epic casino-crawl weekend. Leave San Diego in the mid-afternoon and get to Valley View in time to dine at Black&Blue. Later that night, head to Harrah’s, and check in for the weekend (be sure to hit the pool party Friday night). The next morning, take a day trip to Pauma for the cheap blackjack, but be back at Harrah’s in time for the Saturday pool party. On Sunday, drive north to Pala, grab brunch and head south on I-15 from there.
So many casinos, so little time. Who says you need to go to Vegas for all the action?
(Speaking of casinos, be sure to check out our handy and mobile-friendly guide for casino-bound travelers.)
What sorts of non-gaming amenities do you seek from a casino resort?