Get away for a casino weekend – without the casino

At Thunder Valley Casino Resort, as is the case at other casinos, dining is among guests’ myriad options.
At Thunder Valley Casino Resort, as is the case at other casinos, dining is among guests’ myriad options. Thunder Valley Casino Resort

For the uninitiated, the billboards along Interstate 80 might offer the first hint that there’s more than blackjack on offer at the casinos sprouting up around Sacramento.

The drive between the Bay Area and the capital is usually dotted with ads for legendary musicians – Smokey Robinson, Art Garfunkel, Kool & the Gang – playing shows at Cache Creek, Thunder Valley or other casinos. Then come concerts by stars from Mexico, Taiwan or the Philippines announced with as much pizazz as a Cyndi Lauper spectacular.

It’s just one sign that many Northern California casinos have bulked up their attractions with enough international food, leisure and entertainment that even those allergic to cigarette smoke and slot machines can indulge themselves for a weekend there.

To start with, the casino entertainment circuit has evolved far beyond the days of Gallagher and Charo. Now, top acts such as Morrissey, frontman of the ’80s British group the Smiths, will swing through the region and only play at a casino – in this case, on Nov. 11 at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno (2500 E. Second St., Reno, 800-501-2651). Ditto for big-name international acts such as veteran Taiwanese crooner Qing Shan, who comes to Cache Creek (14455 Highway 16, Brooks, 530-796-3118) on Nov. 20.

As the concert schedule suggests, the area’s resorts draw a diverse clientele, especially with Asian gamblers eager to play baccarat and blackjack. The resorts have responded by offering plenty of Chinese and other Asian cuisine just steps from the casino floor such as Chang Shou at Cache Creek. We’re talking rice congee, pork adobo and lots of dim sum – several degrees more sophisticated than your normal Chinese restaurant chicken and black bean sauce. Of course, there’s still plenty of white-tablecloth steakhouses, by now a high-roller fixture of any respectable casino. Henry’s at Red Hawk is a Sacramento-area favorite.

In the summer, resort mavens fill the sprawling, cabana-ringed decks at Thunder Valley’s Coconut Pool + Bar or play golf at Thunder Valley or Cache Creek. The fall’s also a good time to jump off from Cache Creek to wineries in nearby Napa County or explore the Gold Country foothills around Jackson Rancheria (12222 New York Ranch Road, Jackson, 800-822-9466).

A flashing, dinging casino floor has an allure all its own, and some may want to stay and try their luck. But as in Las Vegas, gambling has become just one of many attractions at Northern California casinos, and there’s plenty to do without doubling down.

Swan Festival


What: The California Swan Festival offers guided tours and other presentations about the Yuba-Sutter region – a premier waterfowl viewing location, especially during the fall as swans and other winged creatures make their winter home there.

When: Tour times range between 1 and 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Nov. 13. The exhibit hall is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 13.

Where: Swan Central Festival Venue, 703 B St. Tours start in different locations in Yuba, Sutter, Butte and Sacramento counties.

Cost: Tours and field trips cost between $10 and $40; kids 5 and under get in for free; presentations and workshops at Swan Central are free.


Wild & Scenic


What: Rural Tehama County will host the Wild & Scenic Film Festival as it makes its way across the country, showcasing award-winning short films about nature and adventure from around the globe. Learn about a professional surfer who grew up in rural Chile, the agricultural benefits of raising cattle and the lasting effects of forest fires.

When: 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday; a pre-screening event starts at 5 p.m.

Where: State Theatre, 333 Oak St.

Cost: $10 admission with student ID; $12 general admission


Visit a national park for free


What: In honor of Veterans Day, the National Park Service is offering free admission nationwide, including recreation areas.

When: Operating hours vary on Friday

Where: Sequoia-Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and other locations

Cost: Free entrance for all visitors


Jessica Hice