There are four hotel- casinos within easy driving distance of downtown Sacramento Red Hawk in Placerville, Thunder Valley in Lincoln, Cache Creek in Brooks and Jackson Rancheria in Jackson and when planning a visit to any of them it is often good, even wise, to remember things to do away from the casino floor.
A casino these days is much more than a casino. Herewith, 10 good bets to enjoying the best of local casinos:
The days of the $1.99 all-you-can-eat buffet in casinos are sadly long gone, but bargains can still be found. Usually, they require having one of the club's players cards, and of course the more you play the bigger the bargain. But it costs nothing to sign up and allows you to eat for $10 for lunch at the Jackson Rancheria Buffet, $10.50 for weekday lunch or weeknight dinner at Red Hawk, and $9.99 for lunch and dinner at Cache Creek.
California is the only state that produces almonds commercially and the trees are beginning to blossom about now. One of the most fertile areas for the industry is the Capay Valley, and the annual Almond Festival there will take place two weeks earlier this year than last. That means Feb. 24, a great day to drive the "Blossom Trail" along Highway 16, a 21-mile route through the five host cities Esparto, Capay, Brooks, Guinda and Rumsey. Watch how almonds are harvested, check out a car show, take some rides, eat Granny Wyatt's Legendary Almond Roca, stop at Cache Creek casino in Brooks, and even try some almond blossom ice cream. (Check out blossomtrail.org for a map and capayvalleyalmond festival.com for a schedule.)
Some of the greatest bands and performers are either no longer with us or simply can't be in too many places. Plus, if they are performing, the price can be out of sight. That's why tribute bands and entertainers draw so well.
The sound is often perfect, the looks close enough, and the price definitely right. Hot for Teacher, the Van Halen tribute band, for instance, has its debut at Red Hawk on March 22 (free). The "Legends of Soul" concert at Thunder Valley on April 5 will feature folks singing Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls and Marvin Gaye ($27.50, $38.50). And Jackson Rancheria hosts the Beatles vs. Stones concert March 9 ($40, $20 with club card).
Remember a favorite TV show or two
Be entertained by one of the personalities from the classic age of television, Vicki Lawrence, who was a regular on "The Carol Burnett Show" and "Mama's Family." Lawrence provides one of the most-enjoyable one-woman shows around, spending the first half reminiscing about Burnett and other cast members, and the second half as the irrepressible Mama. She's at Thunder Valley on April 13 ($39.50, $49.50).
It is always wise to keep up on the websites of the hotel-casinos to know when an act has been booked for the summer festivals. Many of them are known to sell out quickly. So far, Thunder Valley has tickets on sale for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, June 1; Jeff Dunham, June 21; Chicago, Aug. 3; and Bill Engvall, Aug. 10. But more is on the way at Thunder Valley and other properties.
Catch up on ancient culture
The Imperial Acrobats of China have taken up a semi-residence at Cache Creek, playing three times daily on March 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31. The 3 p.m. show is "Descendants of the Dragon" and features the "Shaolin Monks Fist Dance" and their "Laying on Spears." The 5 p.m. show is "Eastern Wind" and has entirely different acts, like the "Shaolin Monks Knives Dance"; and at 7 p.m. it's "Eastern Wind" with a lion dance, among others. It's free with a club card and $20 at the door without.
Get out of the clubs
While visiting a casino, plan a little extra time and check out the surroundings: Shop the antiques stores in Jackson; in the summer go on a tour of the Kennedy Gold Mine, which has a 5,900-foot-hole; soak in the rich history of Placerville; and look for some of the trademark pottery of Lincoln (not named for Abe but for Charles Lincoln Wilson of the California Central Railroad) and Rocklin.
Catch a Broadway star
Lea Salonga was the lead in "Miss Saigon," but she also was the first Asian Eponine in "Les Miserables," following up as Fantine in a later revival. Her voice is golden, her manner elegant, and she is rarely on a casino stage. But she's at Cache Creek on April 6 and 7 ($59, $69, $79, $89, $99).
Play a little golf
According to many golf writers, coming in closely behind the most-prestigious courses in California is the Yocha Dehe Golf Club at Cache Creek. It's in a secluded valley setting and was designed by Brad Bell. There is also the Catta Verdera Golf Course not far from Lincoln.
Get some religion
When in Jackson, check out St. Sava's Serbian Orthodox Church, the mother church of the country's Serbian Orthodox believers and a historic structure in its own right. Well worth a visit.