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The Grand Tour: Pride and Glory

In the Northeast, Native American resorts stand tall

by Rob Wiser


Nowhere is the phenomenon of tribal gaming more pronounced than in the dense forests of Eastern Connecticut. First-time visitors to its pair of immense resorts, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, are invariably stunned at just how big they are. Each contains an amazing array of amenities designed to dazzle players of all sizes—from day-tripping slot players to international high rollers. And with each passing year, both grow even more impressive. Their staggering profits have enabled them to expand at a rate never before seen in the gaming industry, and Connecticut has gained much of the benefit.

In this edition of The Grand Tour we’ll explore Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, as well as a third property that factors into the Native American Northeast gaming scene: Turning Point Resort and Casino, located in central New York State.

Deep in the heart of rural southeastern Connecticut is Foxwoods, which has grown into the largest gaming resort on the planet. Driving to the resort along winding roads, past small, sleepy towns and miles of heavily wooded forests, it’s difficult to imagine that a resort larger than anything on the Las Vegas Strip lies just beyond.

The roots of Foxwoods date back to 1986, when the Mashantucket Pequot tribe opened a high-stakes bingo hall. Six years later this became the $60-million Foxwoods Casino, featuring 170 table games. In 1993, after strenuous lobbying by the tribe, the state agreed to let them add slot machines. In return, the tribe would pay the state 25 percent of its slot machine win. This has created a financial windfall for all involved: in a single month in 2005, Foxwoods’ slots generated $70 million. (Bear in mind, this is just its slot machine take; factor in its other revenues, such as table games and non-gaming revenues, which it doesn’t disclose, and its profits exceed any resort in Las Vegas.)

After earning the right to add slots, the tribe embarked on a series of expansions that continue to this day. Foxwoods’ first wave of growth saw $240 million spent to increase the resort’s size to 1.3 million square feet. Renamed Foxwoods Resort Casino, the complex grew to include multiple casinos under one giant roof, along with 23 retail shops, five restaurants, and a beauty salon and a health spa, in addition to hundreds of table games and thousands more slot machines.

At the end of 1997, the resort added the 23-story Grand Pequot Tower, bringing 800 high-end hotel rooms (including two floors of stunning Villa Suites) and even more gaming space with the Stargazer Casino, one of the country’s most exclusive settings for high-limit play. Its Paragon Restaurant, located on the top floor of the Grand Pequot Tower, has been a consistent winner of AAA’s 4-Diamond awards. This phase also brought other upscale restaurants, a full service spa, and high-end gaming areas. Having become a true world-class resort, Foxwoods was been able to compete aggressively for the same big players who normally frequent Atlantic City, while focusing much of its marketing dollars on the untapped Boston market, where it enjoys something of a monopoly.

Currently, Foxwoods has 1,400 hotel rooms and suites—ranging from plush standard rooms to giant private villas—and six distinctly designed casinos. Between them, players have access to a seemingly endless variety of games: more than 7,400 slot machines, 380 table games, keno, high-stakes bingo and the largest poker room on the East Coast. By spring of this year, its number of poker tables will have increased from 76 to 114, which will allow the room to increase its number of tournaments and the size of its prize pools. Foxwoods has emerged as a major player on the national professional poker circuit; it hosts a World Poker Finals event each November and the New England Poker Classic—one of the country’s most prestigious tournaments—each spring. As well, its newly expanded poker room will bear the World Poker Tour name. The new WPT-branded poker room will move to a more expansive space located near its current poker area. New poker technology will also add to the player experience, including use of LED table components, automatic card shufflers and a state-of-the-art seating system. The poker room will be smoke-free and will offer a new 100+ seat restaurant, adjacent to the poker area.

A recent round of expansions added the largest Hard Rock Café in New England, the famous soul food restaurant Amy Ruth’s, the eclectic Panera Bread sandwich shop, a completely expanded and redesigned Wampum Club merchandise center, and the world-class Lake of Isles, featuring two gorgeous golf courses carved out of the virgin woodlands by renowned designer Rees Jones, along with extensive clubhouse facilities. The two courses are a sight to behold, winding through 900 acres of forested countryside, centered around a 90-acre lake. The complex also features a year-round Golf Academy which enables golfers to practice indoors or outdoors.

The resort’s nightlife offerings have also been taken to new heights with the addition of “Mezz,” a chic ultralounge perched on the restaurant level of the Grand Pequot Tower. While video art pulsates on plasma screens, exotic finger foods and specialty martinis are served by highly skilled “flair” bartenders. Other restaurants include Al Dente, specializing in Northern and Southern Italian dishes; the popular Cedars Steakhouse, and the sophisticated Chinese cuisine of Han Garden.

As astounding as Foxwoods is in its current incarnation, its boldest expansion project is underway. Last November, the tribe broke ground on a $700-million development project which will add more gaming, but will focus on trendy restaurants, nightclubs, entertainment venues and new high-end amenities. Upon completion in 2008, the expansion will add more than two million square feet to the already-immense resort, including bragging rights to more convention and meeting space than any casino on the East Coast.

Mohegan Sun
By itself, Foxwoods would be more than enough to make Atlantic City’s gaming executives sweat the competition. But there’s another player right next door to Foxwoods which is every bit as impressive: Mohegan Sun. Foxwoods lost its monopoly on Connecticut gaming in October 1996, when the nearby Mohegan tribe opened Mohegan Sun as a joint partnership with South African casino conglomerate, Sun International.

Located in Uncasville, CT, on 240 acres along the banks of the scenic Thames River, the resort’s reputation was initially that of a “boutique” property; while huge in its own right, it was viewed as a smaller, more colorful alternative to its colossal neighbor Foxwoods. Yet Mohegan Sun quickly established itself as a stand-alone powerhouse and rather than detracting from Foxwoods’ business, it has expanded the market, particularly by focusing on the densely populated Metropolitan New York region.

Since the day it opened, Mohegan Sun has expanded at a breakneck pace. As part of massive expansion, it recently added a 34-story hotel tower with 1,200 elegantly appointed guest rooms (including 180 suites), while doubling its gaming floor space and adding an incredible array of non-gaming amenities. Both its exterior and interior reflect Mohegan tribal traditions and designs, as well as their reverence for nature; the tower’s gleaming, crystalline facade celebrates the natural materials the Mohegans used to fashion arrowheads and ceremonial objects, such as rock and smoky quartz. Its glass curtain-wall system reflects the sunlight and the surrounding landscape, its appearance shifting with the change of seasons.

Inside, the design is even more aesthetically stunning. Mohegan Sun boasts what is perhaps the most attractive interior design of any casino in the country. The original, 180,000-square-foot Casino of the Earth gaming area has separate entrances and seasonal themes celebrating Moghegan culture, with meticulous lighting that bathes the gaming areas in a warm, soft glow. The 300-seat Wolf Den is the centerpiece of the casino, showcasing live bands (including famous acts) almost every night, free of charge, creating a high-energy soundtrack to the casino action.

In 2001, Mohegan Sun revealed its sweeping Casino of the Sky, adding another 115,000 square feet of gaming space filled with thousands more slots, a high-limit lounge and non-smoking areas. Look up and you’ll see the world’s largest planetarium dome, with constantly changing cosmic displays. On one end of the casino, a soaring, multi-level onyx and alabaster structure, Wombi Rock, contains a cocktail lounge and dance floor. The resort also boasts a full-service race book, offering wagering on live horse and greyhound racing events as well as professional Jai Alai.

When the sun goes down, Mohegan Sun brings superstar headliners and big-city nightlife to rural Connecticut. The 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena hosts mega-concerts and major sporting events. Shania Twain, Cher, Bette Midler, Sting, and Simon & Garfunkel are among the acts that have graced its stage. The 350-seat Cabaret Theatre provides a more intimate venue for smaller concerts and comedy shows.

Mohegan After Dark is a self-contained nightlife complex. The $8 million, 22,000 square-foot facility features a trio of lounges and nightclubs: Lucky’s Lounge, a restaurant and lounge designed to recall Rat Pack-era Las Vegas; The Dubliner, an old-school Irish pub with an authentic Irish menu; and Ultra 88, a posh nightclub with exclusive VIP areas and amenities.

The Shops at Mohegan Sun, a two-story dining and shopping pavilion, connects the Casino of the Sky to the Casino of the Earth. Here, you’ll find Rain, a truly exceptional fine-dining restaurant featuring live piano music; Michael Jordan’s Steak House; and Todd English’s Tuscany, serving authentic, old-world Italian cuisine. For a more casual meal or snack, the pavilion includes Big Bubba’s BBQ; Jasper White’s Summer Shack, an award-winning restaurant featuring New England-style seafood; Michael Jordan’s “23” sport cafe; Fidelia’s, a 24-hour restaurant; and two buffet-style restaurants with over 1,000 seats between them.

Exploring New England’s history
If your interests include antique shopping, fine wines, nature, golfing, or American history, Southeastern Connecticut is filled with attractions beyond its grand casinos.

The famed Mystic Seaport, located at 75 Greenmanville Ave off Route 27 in Mystic, celebrates America’s maritime history with a huge collection of ships, boats, buildings, crafts, trades, artifacts, food and music. The Mystic Marinelife Aquarium, located at 55 Coogan Blvd in Mystic, has 40 exhibits displaying 3,500 forms of marine life. Seal Island and Penguin Pavilion are among its most popular attractions; the aquarium also contains a Marine Theater with daily performances by Beluga Whales and Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphins.

At the Carousel Museum of New England, a large collection of antique carousel horses—plus horse-themed carvings, posters, photographs and prints—are on display. This museum is located at 193 Greenmanville Ave and Route 22, in Mystic. The Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut, located at 409 Main St in Niantic, is a family-oriented facility filled with interactive, educational exhibits. It also features gardens and a picnic area.

The Connecticut College Arboretum is situated at Connecticut College on Williams St, in New London. Visitors can enjoy its numerous gardens, hiking trails and 700 acres of native plant collections. The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center features seven miles of hiking trails within a 125-acre sanctuary at 109 Pequotsepos Rd in Mystic. Birdwatchers can enjoy four different habitats, with a number of “birds of prey” kept in special flight enclosures.

The Old Lighthouse Museum showcases the first government lighthouse in Connecticut, built in 1823 and located at 7 Water St in Stonington. Visitors can climb to the top of the tower to enjoy sweeping views of Long Island Sound, and see exhibits tracing the history of the surrounding community (first settled in 1649).

Southeastern Connecticut also features a wealth of shopping opportunities and is notable for its many antique shops. At the Olde Mistick Village, located at Coogan Boulevard at Route 27, in Mystic, you’ll find more than 60 shops, restaurants and a movie theater, yet the ambience is straight out of the 18th century. Bargain hunters will want to check out the College Mart Flea Market at Wedgewood Drive in Jewett City, as well as the Antique Flea Market in Old Mystic at Route 27.

Turning Stone Resort and Casino
Located off New York State Thruway Exit 33 in Verona, about 30 miles east of Syracuse, Turning Stone’s location provides easy access to the wealth of tourist attractions found throughout Central New York, which include historic Revolutionary War battlegrounds, amusement parks, shopping, and frequent festivals. As the only gaming property in the Central New York area, it draws over four million visitors annually—many of whom come from across the country and Canada now that Turning Stone has blossomed into a full destination resort.

The Oneida Indian Nation opened Turning Stone in July 1993 and made a series of additions in the years that followed. Last year, the resort completed a $340-million expansion that added two golf courses (raising its total to three) and an indoor golf training facility. The casino spans more than 120,000 square feet, with 103 tables offering all of the favorites, including double-deck blackjack, craps and Pai Gow Poker. Slot players have over 2,400 machines to choose from. The resort also features a full-service spa, salon and fitness center.

Turning Stone offers four different hotels for overnight guests. The Lodge at Turning Stone, a luxurious 98-room boutique hotel, features a magnificent Great Room and gourmet dining. The Tower at Turning Stone contains 287 rooms, including oversized corner suites with views of the countryside. The Hotel at Turning Stone has 279 rooms with Jacuzzi suites and indoor balconies overlooking the hotel’s atrium lobby. A more affordably-priced option is The Inn at Turning Stone, with 62 motel rooms.

Golf is clearly one of Turning Stone’s major attractions. Visitors have their choice of three excellent courses—The Atunyote Golf Club, designed by acclaimed golf course designer Tom Fazio, has a practice range, short game area and putting green; the Kaluhyat Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., is another superb course that is maintained to tour standards; and the Shenandoah Golf Club offers more top-notch playing conditions.

Entertainment is another area in which Turning Stone shines. The property contains an 800-seat showroom and a 5,000-seat event center that hosts around 150 major acts per year, with recent performers including country star Tim McGraw and crooner Michael Buble.

Cooperstown: Not just for baseball lovers
Venturing off the casino grounds, you’ll find a number of area attractions worth exploring. A scenic hour-long drive from the casino is Cooperstown, NY, baseball’s most historic locale with its National Baseball Hall of Fame. To this day, the Leatherstocking Base Ball Club features teams that recreate the game as it was played in the 1800s.

But Cooperstown is much more than a nod to baseball’s past. It’s also a terrific destination for golf, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, biking, hiking, and antiquing. For those who appreciate the arts, the Glimmerglass Opera stages musical theater productions on a charming lakefront setting. The Fenimore Art Museum displays fine and folk art relevant to New York history and American culture. And the Farmers’ Museum has a working farm (stocked with a charming assortment of animals) sitting amidst a collection of mid-19th-century buildings and historical exhibits that recreate life in the 1840s. This self-contained village is filled with staffers in authentic period garb.

Cooperstown contains a number of quaint bed & breakfast inns as well as camp sites, making it a fun and affordable getaway. More elaborate accommodations can be found at The Otesaga, a historic hotel overlooking the area’s lake; right beside it is an 18-hole championship golf course.

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