Exploring the Wineries and Casinos of Temecula, California: Part 1

Temecula is one of those funny sounding places that when you finally visit, it makes you think the locals purposely gave it a goofy name to keep tourists away.

That may have been the case many years ago, but these days, this small town of 94,000 located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, has blossomed into a tourist destination unto itself. The reason why can be summed up with two words; Casinos and wineries.

Although it is only a 1.5 – 2 hour drive from my home in Los Angeles, I had never visited until last month. What I discovered was a wonderful playground that combined Las Vegas with Napa Valley but at a far more reasonable distance from home.

This two part series on the attractions of Temecula will delve first into the local casinos and then tomorrow will cover the wineries.

The first question you might have, especially if you are not American, is how can there be a casino in California? Isn’t Vegas and Atlantic City the only places gambling is legal in the United States?

Well, technically that is true. Indian reservations, however, are the exception. Ever since the white man destroyed America’s indigenous population, a nagging guilt has allowed the true natives to exist on reservations which have limited sovereignty. Congress therefore allows the American Indian population certain liberties which are otherwise illegal just outside the gates of their reservations. In this manner, casinos are therefore legal, and, as I sadly discovered, so is smoking inside of one–something which is normally prohibited in California public building.

The most well-known gambling venue in Temecula is the Pechanga Resort and Casino (anyone who lives in California has seen their commercials ad nauseam). My girlfriend and I, however, opted for the less popular Pala Casino Spa Resort just 20 minutes away in Pala, California.

The only other Indian Casino I’d been to before Pala was a horribly dumpy one I visited while driving home from Mammoth Mountain. It had a handful of slot machines and a roulette wheel and that was about it.

As a result, I had low expectations of Pala, expectations that were greatly exceeded the moment we walked into the casino. Had you blindfolded me, drove me around for a few hours, and pulled off the blindfold on the Pala casino floor, I would have insisted I was in Vegas–it had that same garish carpet, clanging of slot machines, smell of smoke in the air, and that jittery energy of losers, winners, and everything in-between.

And, it was huge. The floor has 2,250 slot machines and 87 gaming tables. When we arrived on a Friday night, the place was packed and rocking. Over the course of the next few hours, the thought that strikes fear into every Vegas casino manager began creeping into my head; “Why would I ever bother to fly to Vegas when I can come here in less than two hours?

There is really no difference. Pala has the ubiquitous all-you-can-eat buffet, a handful of restaurants, cheesy bar acts, and semi-washed up performers playing in the 1000-seat Grand Cabaret (upcoming April shows; Huey Lewis and the News, Engelbert Humperdinck, and ZZ Top). The only difference we came across was being charged for drinks while playing blackjack. Bad!

Pala isn’t just a casino, however. We stayed the night in one of the resort’s 507 rooms. The cheapest rooms go for $149, but when I had called to make reservations the day before, I was told that only smoking rooms were available at that time. So, I upgraded to a $246 luxury suite to avoid the stench. This was the second most expensive room the hotel offered and it was still far cheaper than most anything you’d find in Vegas these days. And, it was swank; 788 square feet, plenty of sofas and chairs, an enormous marble-tiled bathroom, and a great view overlooking the pool and distant mountains (above). Very nice!

Here was my one major disappointment, however. When we checked in, we were told that all the non-smoking luxury suites had already been taken and the only thing left in the whole hotel was a smoking luxury suite. Argh! I had specifically told the reservations lady that I was upgrading to avoid a smoking room and now I was back to square one. In other words, I should have taken that $140 room since we were going to be sleeping in a smoking room nonetheless. The front desk apologized but made no amends or discounted the room in any manner. This was a big disappointment, but was otherwise the only letdown experienced during our stay. Oh, and paying for drinks while gambling. That was bad. Very bad.

Tomorrow: Wine Tasting in Temecula