Casino Getaway: Barona Valley Resort & Casino

Amid a tranquil setting, Barona makes for a relaxing and first-class stay.

Barona Hotel
••• The Barona Valley Ranch Hotel. I. Figuracion

Sometimes you just need a weekend away to help rejuvenate the spirit and recharge the batteries. And there's a perfect destination right in...Lakeside. Lakeside? you say? What's in Lakeside besides rock quarries and horses? Well, actually, just north of Lakeside, in a scenic valley, sits Barona Valley Ranch Casino

Barona Valley Ranch: The Hotel

After navigating the hills and sharp curves of Wildcat Canyon Road, you gently ease into the tranquil setting of Barona Valley. As you enter the resort's grounds, you immediately sense the ranch-feel of the property. The hotel is situated to the immediate east of the casino, the architecture impressive yet tasteful, as is the hotel's lobby. A quick and friendly check-in brought us to our sixth floor golf course room view. I have to say, Barona's room was one of the best appointed rooms I've stayed in: standard-yet-tasteful high-end furnishings with photos of the valley gracing the walls.

Our roomy room had a small sofa, and the bathroom - featuring separate bath and shower - was the best hotel room bath I've every encountered. All Barona rooms have accessible balconies, a nice plus, and the view of the Barona Creek Golf Course and surrounding valley was beautiful. I would never know that I was only minutes from my front door - I felt like I was a plane trip away. The pool area seemed nice enough, though it is located at the front of the property, but it was too cold to use on my stay.

To reach the casino, you walk down the second floor corridor, so choose another floor if you prefer less outside noise.

Barona Valley Ranch: The Casino

Of course, the casino is the main attraction at Barona Valley Ranch, and it certainly doesn't disappoint. Featuring a rustic, ranch exterior (replete with a creek, water wheel feature, a and a grain silo), the casino's interior is a lively contrast to the relaxing hotel: ringing slot machines, bustling tables and lots of action. Unlike the segmented floors at Viejas and Sycuan, Barona's 310,000 square-foot casino floor is wide open and more Vegas-like. Now, I'm the first to admit I'm not much of a gambler, but I had much fun trying my hand at the wide range of slots.

I also found an electronic roulette (my favorite) machine to bide my time (like the other Indian casinos, due to state law, Barona offers a table variation of Vegas roulette). When we tired of the sensory overload, we slowed things down in the bingo hall, which is actually pretty fun. Barona offers 2,000 slots of every kind, and 70 tables featuring 10 games, of which I discovered the simple but fast-paced Casino War. A variation of the childhood card game War, Casino War doesn't require much thought or calculating - just the luck of the draw.

But it's fast and fun, and the two tables always attracted a large crowd of players and spectators.

The Food

Of course, whether you're at an Indian casino or in Las Vegas, a staple of any venue is the buffet. Never a big buffet person - the food always seems a bit hit-and-miss - I have to say Barona's Ranch House Buffet is one of the best buffets I've experienced, casino or sans casino. Ranch House Buffet offers six distinct food stations: Italian, Mexican, Chinese, American, Rotisserie Station, and Mongolian Grill, along with a soup and salad station. The Mongolian Grill is top-notch, as are the Italian and Chinese stations.

The Rotisserie offers a nice array of beef and chicken, and the salad station is plentiful. By far, Ranch House has the best dessert buffet anywhere. Unlike most buffets whose desserts appear better than they taste, Ranch House's desserts are as delicious as they look. Make sure you try the made-to-order bananas Foster. Ranch House Buffet price for dinner is $15.99 to $19.95, depending on day. We also ate a meal at the Branding Iron Cafe, which was mildly disappointing. A better bet is Feisty Kate's Burgers in the food court: their burgers are absolutely delicious, meaty and fresh.

Other choices are the high-end Barona Oaks Steakhouse and the Asian flavored HoWan Noodle Shop.

Barona Valley Ranch: The Skinny

My stay at the Barona Valley Ranch and Casino was one of the most pleasant stay I've had at any hotel anywhere. The hotel staff is most accommodating, and the rooms and amenities are all first-class. The property, inside and out, is meticulously groomed and the atmosphere of rustic elegance is achieved successfully. The casino is spacious and less claustrophobic than other Indian casinos and offers a wide range of gambling for all levels of comfort. The close proximity to San Diego makes Barona Valley Ranch a perfect weekend getaway spot - in fact, it's so close I was tempted to drive back home to retrieve some items I forgot to pack.

But I resisted, because that would've spoiled the feeling of "getting away." Note that Barona only offers alcohol with the hotel's room service (none is served in the casino). But you'll be so relaxed by the atmosphere of the idyllic setting that you won't have need for that cold beverage to unwind. Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino is a first-class place to go for a casino getaway.