Barona Valley Ranch reopens, is running strong

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

LAKESIDE, Calif. -- Everything's returning to normal at the Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino, just a few weeks after the San Diego area wildfires had swept through the valley. Golfers are back driving the fairways at the resort. Gamblers are feeding the slot machines. Recently, the hotel reopened as well after being closed for about 10 days and is almost full.

There was no serious damage at the resort itself, but flames did scorch the heavily wooded Indian reservation surrounding the $260 million hotel-casino complex. Homes of 40 members of the Barona Band of Mission Indians were destroyed. "But the tribe is very resilient and they're going to get their lives back together," says Kelly Jacobs, public relations representative for the resort.

"When the fire broke out on Oct. 25, all the hotel guests were moved by the fire department to the casino," Jacobs says. "That seemed to fire officials to be the safest place to be because it's surrounded by parking lots and the golf course. Then when the road reopened, guests could drive out."

On the course as well, damage was slight. Lars Bielefeld, an assistant golf professional at the Barona Creek course, says that swaths of native grasses throughout the course had been singed, but probably would come back with irrigation. "The fence surrounding the course is all burned up," Bielefeld says.

Tee times are beginning to fill up now and even tournaments and golf outings are back again. With good reason, because Barona's course keeps scooping up high ratings. It was named one of the top 10 new courses in America by Golf magazine shortly after opening in 2002. It was also rated the fifth best daily-fee golf course in California by Golfweek Magazine.

The 7,100-yard course was designed around 170 craggy oak trees that were native to the area. Laid out by architect Todd Eckenrode, working for the Gary Roger Baird Design firm, the fairways ramble in and out, up and down over the surrounding canyon. It's clear that the designers took special care to preserve the lay of the land and avoid disturbing the natural contours. In fact, the fairways seem to have been molded into the hillsides.

The golf course actually opened first in 2001; the new hotel plus casino were completed in early 2003. The whole complex is located just a few miles off I-8, a major thoroughfare between Arizona and San Diego. "We draw most of our visitors from San Diego, Orange County and from Phoenix and Tucson," says Jacobs.

The Barona Indians, with a population of 500, regard themselves as pioneers in the Native American gaming industry. They were the first tribe to win a court decision to allow for high stakes bingo on Indian land during the 1980s. They soon built a temporary casino that helped them fund the mega-resort plus course that's on site today.

In some ways, it seems miraculous that this resort didn't burn. To reach the area from I-8, you drive up winding, narrow Wildcat Canyon Road where brush and trees are thick and dense. Then suddenly, you come to the cleared area where the 400-room hotel, built to resemble a ranch barn, is located. And there's not only a hotel and casino, but also a giant conference center with 18,000 square feet of space for everything from wedding receptions to golf tournaments. A white wedding chapel stands in the middle with its spires and gingerbread reflected in the water of a sparkling lagoon.

The course, known as Barona Creek Golf Club, serves as the perfect emerald-green backdrop for the resort's buildings. With its natural, minimalist feel, the fairways are extremely playable. On many holes there are excellent possibilities for running your ball up onto the greens. No over-the-top trick holes here, even though there are 100 multi-fingered bunkers to contend with and small lakes to avoid. As you climb the course, you can often look back to a picture-perfect setting of the resort amid the surrounding foothills.

Among some of the amenities at the resort:

A steakhouse that offers the usual red-meat favorites but some with unusual gourmet touches like Peppered Buffalo Ribeye with Bourbon Sauce; Grilled Veal Chop Stuffed with Herb Goat Cheese and Wild Mushroom Ragout. If you're daring, try the Diamond Back (yes, it's really rattlesnake) Fritters.

For more casual dining, the Branding Iron Café, open 24 hours a day, and a food court. The casino has the mandatory all-you-can-eat buffet, but with a difference. It's set up in stations that represent different parts of the world with -- American, Mexican, Italian, Chinese and Mongolian cuisine -- plus a salad bar and rotisserie.

A series of magnificent suites with golf course views that rent for from $400 to $550 a night that could suit a wedding party or corporate event or just a group of golfing friends come to spend a weekend.

Hard to picture a resort of this type or a casino, for that matter, existing and flourishing without serving beer, wine and hard drinks, but that's the case at Barona.

Mike Brlan, director of front office operations, says that the Barona tribal leadership initially didn't want alcohol at the resort, as has been the case on many Indian owned properties throughout the country.

"We probably don't need to have it; we've been successful in the past without it. But now we've decided that we'd like to please all our clientele, and we're applying for a liquor license," Brlan says.

Meanwhile, guests are allowed to bring alcohol into the hotel from outside areas but can drink in their rooms only.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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