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Mohegan Sun may take your breath away, money, too

My wife Christine and I got off to a late start as we headed up to Mohegan Sun a few weeks ago. It was cold, as most of this winter has been, and we had just dropped off our daughter for the weekend.

Together in the car driving up on 95, we thought we were going to be in for a long ride thanks to Friday night traffic up toward New England, but the ride was smooth and within about two hours we were winding our way onto Mohegan Sun Boulevard.

The complex gleamed in the night sky, with all sorts of colors reflected off the flat glass that seems to wrap the odd-shaped buildings like iridescent Saran Wrap.

Fur-wearing valets took our car and directed us to the hotel lobby, where we were pleasantly surprised by the decor. Neither of us had been to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, so our only exposure to casinos has been through movies. It seems that often, casinos are lavish, over-produced spectacles that are just too overdone — too much for the eyes, too much for the ears, way too much middle America.

That is not the case with Mohegan Sun. They have really thought out their design from the smallest wall lamp to the massive tree-like structures that root in the floors, stand boldly out from the walls and blossom just below the ceiling in tight-pulled sheets of colorful canvas creating a canopy of colors just below the well-hidden ceiling.

As a matter of fact, you actually have to look hard to see the ceiling in Mohegan Sun. The feeling you get walking through the complex is like you are in an artificially created outdoor environment. Some parts seem to be lit by the sun, others sit under the stars and the rest is placed in the peaceful shade of a dense forest.

Upon checking into our sizable room we found that the hotel does not skimp on the amenities. Each room comes not only with the requisite mini bar, television, iron and wall safe, but the television has a built-in Nintendo game system for the kids, the shower had the best water pressure I have felt in years (not bad for the 31st floor), the bedding was luxuriously comfortable and the wrapped gift of a nut assortment and cheese sticks was a better touch than the usual chocolates or mints.

We rushed downstairs to get a bite to eat, since neither of us had dinner and it was already after 10 p.m. by this time. Fidelia’s, the only full-service restaurant in the complex open 24 hours, had one of those menus that seems to have too many items to choose from. Rather than getting individual dinners, Christine and I split a handful of appetizers, each of which would have been plenty for two to share before an entree.

The service was good, and the server polite, but the meal was a little slow in coming. I later found out that Fidelia’s handles all the room service for the hotel, so I guess I understand the delay. There were not many diners in the restaurant while we awaited or dinner, but there were probably hungry people in the hotel’s 1,700 rooms, which were all sold out that night.

Well sated, we ventured to the casino, passing by the hotel lobby, down the escalators and past the million-dollar piece of hand blown glass made by famed artist Dale Chihuly. The piece, clear glass mixed with shades of green and blue, is intended to reproduce the splash a drop of water makes as it falls into a standing pool. I have been a fan of Chihuly’s work for years, and was delighted to see his piece as the centerpiece to the entire complex.

After seeking out the $5 blackjack table, we ended up at the Casino of the Earth — myself at the table, Christine at the slot machines. By this time it was about 11:30 p.m., and had no idea how quickly time passes when you are enjoying yourself. We both went on financial roller coaster rides that night — Christine getting a 300-quarter payout at one point and me winning $200 on a single hand (which was split, doubled down and more), but us both going back upstairs at 4:30 a.m. having lost all the money we had allowed ourselves for the night.

It wasn’t disappointing. We still had Saturday to make the money back.

Speaking of Saturday, we had 8:30 a.m. breakfast appointment with Vice President of Hotel Operations Bruce Pine, didn’t get to bed until 5 a.m., and had a 7:40 a.m. wake-up call for the morning.

Though we were moving slow, the group we met up with — other travel writers and producers from along the East Coast — seemed to be at about our pace, so we didn’t feel out of place.

Breakfast was in the 4,500-square-foot high rollers suite on the top floor of the hotel. With its own sauna, Jacuzzi, butler, kitchen and more, this is possibly one of the best hotel rooms a person can find outside of a major metropolitan center.

On the other hand, it is not available — at any price.

“We’ve been offered $10,000 a night for this, but we will not rent it out,” Pine said. The suite is reserved only for the guests who play with the most money at the gaming tables.

The view from the top of the hotel affords a glimpse across the low mountains at the Foxwoods Casino just 20 miles away, the well-dressed butler pointed out.

During breakfast, Pine spoke at length about the history of the casino, the fact that even though the operation was created in tandem with the Sun Corporation — the owners of other resorts such as South Africa’s Sun City — the Mohegans are now the sole owners of the entire property.

And the future of Mohegan Sun was also a topic. Right now, visitors have three ways of getting to the casino — car, bus or train (which actually only goes as far as New London, 20 minutes away). The Mohegans are researching the possibility of adding a hydrofoil to take passengers from Long Island, across the sound, and up the Thames River right to the casino, Pine said. The whole trip, which could take as long as four or five hours from the middle of Long Island, could take less than 40 minutes.

After our breakfast meeting, Pine took us on a tour of the hotel, including the Elemis Spa and the pool, which is complete with a sun deck and full service bar.

From there we were whisked away by Mohegan Sun National Sales Manager Gina Rodigou, who gave us a tour of the conference center, noting that some large corporations have already come to Mohegan Sun to hold national conferences.

The center can handle a range of meetings and activities from weddings to 2,500-seat dinners in the 40,068-square-foot Uncas Ballroom. At Mohegan Sun’s New Year’s Eve bash, the ballroom was decked out with hanging lights along every wall and guests seated for a full, sit-down dinner at 250 tables — still leaving room for a stage for the band and a big dance floor, Rodigou said.

From the ballroom, we went back up to the heart of Mohegan Sun — the casino floor. Public Relations Manager Saverio Mancini took us on a tour of not just the twin casinos, but the shops, the entertainment venues and the area.

Oh my goodness — the arena.

Picture if you will, a busy, moderately noisy mall with shops throughout, waterfalls inside and a big party happening at either end. You step through a door to take a break, and you find yourself in the corridor of a full arena. The door closes behind you, and all the sounds from the borderline mayhem behind you are gone. You have been transported to the Nassau Coliseum or the Continental Airlines Arena.

Mancini explained that Mohegan Sun has hosted major concerts, with performers like Aerosmith and Cher, and has also played host to a few NCAA basketball games at the arena.

Since my weekend there, I have found out that the Mohegan Suns, a professional women’s basketball team, is likely to be awarded a WNBA franchise this year. Congratulations. It’s a great arena and it should be used as often as possible.

With the tour done, and us set loose on our own, Christine and I wandered over to Big Bubba’s BBQ for lunch where we enjoyed pulled pork barbecue sandwiches and hush puppies.

As we sat there, I noticed that Bubba’s had about six flat screen plasma televisions around the bar. As we wandered off back to the casino I started to try to count the number of similar screens throughout the complex, and realized after about 40 that there was no way I could count them all. This just goes to show what goes into making a world-class destination. Pine had said earlier that the complex cost $1 billion, and that is no surprise. The TVs alone cost about $20,000 each at retail prices.

Christine went off for a spa treatment as I returned to the blackjack table in hopes of recouping some of my losses from the night before.

Perhaps the only drawback to the weekend was that there are only two $5 blackjack tables in the entire casino, so you could image what the line was like waiting to get a seat. I stood for 90 minutes before giving up and hitting a video poker machine for a while.

Christine, in the meantime, had an excellent spa treatment. She got the Well-Being Massage, which incorporates Eastern massage techniques with a rub of aromatherapy massage oils. She went back to the room and laid down for a while, completely relaxed after the 50-minute session.

I joined her a little while later to get ready for dinner, which was to be at the Pompeii and Caesar restaurant. We were joined by Mohegan Sun Director of Public Relations Jennifer Harris, and dinner was an absolute delight. From the intriguing mix of greens for the salad all the way to the lemon custard dessert, the food and service were excellent.

We were joined briefly by Mohegan Sun’s executive vice president of marketing, whose family knows quite a bit about running a world-class resort. Mitchell Grossinger Etess, who grew up in the family business of Grossinger’s in the Catskills, spoke with Christine and me for a while about how thrilled he was with Mohegan Sun. And he has every right to be. Top to bottom, it was one of the most delightful experiences I have ever had. The food, the entertainment (we got to see Patti LuPone and Clarence Clemons), the shopping and the casino were fantastic.

Of course we went back to the casino after dinner, and never made up our losses from the night before — we just added to them.

But driving home Sunday afternoon I didn’t come away thinking of the money I had lost. I thought only of the great time I had, and about saving up my money to come back.

I will get the better of that blackjack table one day.

I hope.

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