As a native Los Angelino, I'm still not used to the notion of quality casino gaming so close to the city, but "Indian casinos" have come a long way since their bingo parlor beginnings. With several upscale resorts in Southern California doing a brisk business and spending huge investment dollars, visitors are likely to continue to enjoy getaways on the reservation.
For the Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa, it has been six months since the unveiling of a $250 million expansion. Billing itself as "an alternative to Las Vegas," Morongo's new 27-floor resort sits between the San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains, offering peaceful desert views. It was very relaxing, that is until I ventured into Morongo's 148,000-square-foot casino and saw a sea of 100 gaming tables and 2,000 slot machines.
The casino's decor is tasteful, subdued and inviting. Players seemed to be enjoying themselves. I saw high-fives at California Craps, Blackjack, Pai Gow and other table games. The same was true in the poker room, upgraded to accommodate the recent popularity of televised poker. Now, 22 tables operate with reasonably priced daily tournaments, jackpot opportunities and, like much of the rest of the casino, the latest in technology. However, Morongo still honors its humble beginnings via a 600-seat bingo hall with sessions and tournaments held daily.
What I found most impressive, however, was the efforts beyond the casino floor. Despite a recent falling out with entertainment partner Group N9NE (think Rain and Ghostbar at the Palms in Las Vegas) due to a "contractual dispute," little has changed. The Morongo still provides multiple lounge areas, including the Pit Bar along the casino floor, weekend music at Mystique and the reopened Vue. The Vue, formally Spacebar, offers amazing panoramic views, hypnotic lighting and flowing cocktails from the Morongo's roof. Agents should advise their clients that Vue does get crowded on the weekends.
Tower, another resort restaurant, has also reopened, featuring top-floor views and Mediterranean cuisine. Two other closed venues expect rebranding in the near future. Additional on-site eateries include Potrero Canyon Buffet, which serves lunch and dinner with semi-private seating available for groups and conventioneers. Serrano is a 24-hour diner and there is a food court with five restaurants, including Fatburger, Panda Express and Haagen-Dazs.
Outside, sun-worshipping guests can recline along the white sand that surrounds the pool, relax in one of the two Jacuzzis or float on a gentle current in Morongo's circular, lazy river pool.
Sage, the new spa at the Morongo, features 15 rooms and a wide variety of spa treatments, including exotic massages, wraps, scrubs and facials "” many of these therapies originating from Native American healing traditions. Spa day-use and couple massage options are also available.
Those looking for a touch of luxury may consider one of six detached casitas that overlook the pool area and southern mountains. Prices range $450-$950 a night based on season and room. All casitas have private outdoor patios, lounging pools and outdoor showers.
Adventuresome guests might get a kick out of the unique Sci-Fi Channel casita. This lime-green-and-purple accented casita has wild, space-age furnishings like a cobalt tube sink in the bathroom and comes with a DVD library of select Sci-Fi Channel shows. All of the Morongo's 310 rooms offer complimentary cable television, high-speed Internet access and a 27-inch flat-screen plasma TV. But what made my stay really memorable were the cozy down-filled pillows, duvets and plush mattresses that are in every room. I slept like a log.
For clients looking for a break in the action, local attractions include the Desert Hills Premium Outlets. This sprawling mega-mall houses 130 name-brand fashion outlets. And of course, downtown Palm Springs is a mere 20 minutes away.
Morongo Resort Spa and Casino,www.morongo.com
Written and Photographed by Devin Galaudet
This story was originally presented in TravelAge West 07/25/2005