PALA, CALIF. — Is this the time to be spending big money on big renovations? The Pala Casino Spa Resort thinks it is.
After a weekend visit here, I agree. What's been done so far as part of its $100-million renovation works well; what needs to be done is obvious.
Still, there was much to like here, although I started out with something I didn't.
As I checked in, my credit card was charged a refundable $200 fee "in case something is missing from the room," the desk clerk told me. Do I look like someone who would stuff a TV in my overnight bag? I think not.
So it was not an auspicious beginning, but my ninth-floor king-bed room -- which I had booked for $119 on the resort's website -- was big and comfortable with an iron and board, safe, two telephones, desk with high-speed Internet, lounge chair and coffee maker. (I made good use of the last, picking up a croissant at the casino bakery at night for my in-room breakfast with the complimentary newspaper.)
Although my "mountain view" room would be more accurately described as "rooftop and parking facility view" with mountains as backdrop, there was too much to see and do to spend time looking out the window.
It has been eight years since the casino opened, and six years since the debut of the hotel, hence the redo. The former Terrace Buffet, now called Choices, has been expanded, and two new restaurants have opened. Changes to the lobby, including new furniture, flooring and art, were to be completed by July 4. Guest rooms, which are showing some wear and tear (my carpet had a big stain and the furniture was scuffed) are scheduled to be updated in September and will include flat-screen TVs.
Despite the tired look of my room, the 507-room resort was a real bargain. The grand suites are more than 1,000 square feet, with showers the size of small rooms, as well as powder rooms, wet bars and large living rooms. (Rates start at $290.)
The large pool, which has 12 cabanas with TVs and stocked refrigerators, wasn't crowded. On weekends, cabana rentals cost $85 for half a day or $150 for a full day. Full-day rentals include poolside lunches; with a $230 full-day package, two neck and shoulder massages are added. There's a pleasant poolside cafe and bar (a nice escape from the hubbub of the casino) as well as a spa and 24-hour fitness center. The dizzying choice of dining options at fair prices includes 24-hour room service.
In all, this was a good budget-friendly weekend getaway. The downsides: The town of Pala, 15 miles north of Escondido, isn't exactly a visitor magnet, and state Highway 76, which leads inland from the coast, can really jam up, but it's being widened and realigned.
When I asked the guest rep what there was to do nearby, he said, "Well, there's a place where you can go and dig for rocks." Those rocks are tourmaline, at a nearby gem mine.
One place that is worth a look is little Mission San Antonio de Pala, with its restored 1816 bell tower and cool, dark chapel with Native American wall paintings.
But the resort itself is the destination, with 10 restaurants and multiple entertainment venues. The outdoor Palomar Starlight Theater books name talent (Diana Krall on Aug. 9, the Gipsy Kings on Sept. 13). The casino's Center Bar has an elevated stage with live music, and a scotch and soda set me back only $4. The Grand Cabaret offers free weekend entertainment as well as some pay concerts.
And, of course, that other entertainment, gambling, is ubiquitous. There are 87 table games and 2,100 slots, starting at a penny and going up to $200 a play in the new feng shui-correct high-limit gaming area, where the maximum bet at the tables is $5,000. There's also a new poker room with private cage windows and tableside dining.
I tried both the new restaurants, Amigo's and Sushi Sake. Amigo's had all the charm of a fast-food chain and big portions of just OK Mexican food.
I approached Sushi Sake, a 12-seat sushi bar, with some misgivings, because raw fish is not my thing. Luckily, a sushi aficionado in the next chair suggested I order the Tropical Passion specialty roll with shrimp, avocado, cucumber and salmon, topped with mango sauce ($14). He even asked the sushi chef to make an exception and cook the salmon. It was delicious.
The Oak Room and Mama's Cucina Italiana, both high-end restaurants, were almost empty both nights of my stay, but there was a long line at Noodles for Asian specialties and practically a stampede outside Choices, the newly expanded buffet. And why not? Eight cooking stations, a choice of 200 items including Italian, Asian and Mexican, as well as prime rib, steak, oysters on the half shell, crab legs, shrimp and, for those who can still manage dessert, no fewer than 40 choices, including creme brulee and banana splits. At 625 seats, it's big but inviting, with booths and dividers.