Friday, June 12, 2009
When I found my way to the locker room of Pala Spa, I opened my assigned locker, and I was greeted by a welcome card that had my name on it; a bottle of drinking water, and an artfully folded beige-colored bathrobe. I struggled out of my clothes down to my underwear, put the bathrobe on and waited for the next surprise in this wonderful one-day visit to Pala Casino & Resort. The invitation-only trip would include a tour of the hotel's different amenity-level rooms and suites, the business center, events center, several restaurants, and the casino floor, culminating in a "progressive" dining schedule that would feature some of the offerings in the resort's 10 restaurants and bars.
I almost missed this tour because of a persistent cough that began a week earlier, but to forego this once-in-a-blue-moon treat would be a shame. I do not get to be invited to a luxury spa treatment very often. In fact, the last free facial I had was some five years ago, at Gandi's clinic in Glendale, California, my hometown. Those in the know -- mostly women -- including my technician, a beautiful lady by the name of Monica, suggested I have a facial every week. And I thought, was that a commentary on my bad skin? I almost laughed out loud. "On a journalist's salary? You've got to be kidding," I whispered to myself.
Because this treatment is free, I willed myself to relax and enjoy the whole procedure, all 45 minutes of it. I thought that I could get away by slipping into the bathroom on top of a T-shirt and skivies, but I was wrong. Monica asked me to take the T-shirt off, while she stayed out of the room. I found out later that the treatment included a massage of my upper chest and back areas, and my arms and hands. I looked around the room, out to the open, adjacent space outside, all the way to the swaying eucalyptus trees beyond, and I settled on the warm massage table, something akin to being sedated before a surgery in the operating room, minus the sedative. I let Monica do the talking and the stroking.
The operative words here are "peel" and "lift." These are what my face needs, anyhow. Monica takes control, applying a thin coat of exfoliating gel with fruit acids over my face, neck and chest, just barely avoiding my eyes and lips. Sometimes the gels feel cold, sometimes they sting mildly.
She sprays the room, and the space around my head with jasmine scent. It permeated the small room and stayed on my face even after I stepped out of the spa room. It was a good scent. She then covers my eyes with a gauze that's been soaked in rosewater, then she begins stroking my face and forehead with circular movements of her fingers. She tells me the strokes are said to relax and relieve stress.
She follows this up with an application of cryo-elastic mask, which contains Vitamin C, to lift, lighten and erase age spots (how apt). The mask stayed on my face for about ten minutes. Monica then peeled the mask off. I did not see what the mask had stuck on it, after it was lifted from my face. I guess years of accumulated dead skin and grime. Although there was New Age music playing over the PA system, and the gently swaying eucalyptus trees beyond the spa room were supposed to lull me into a sleep, I remained awake.
After she was done, I thanked Monica profusely, and promised that I would come back to give her a tip. I stroked my face with my hand to feel the smoothness and firmness that I expected would be the result of the treatment, and I was convinced of the facial's efficacy. My self-esteem must have attained a quantum leap. Monica suggested that I buy some of the gels that she used in my facial so that I could continue the treatment at home. But after I found out how much they cost, my heart sank. I politely declined. Maybe later, I could buy my own home kit and radically bring the cost of facials down, as suggested by my friend, Grace Walker. But until then, I would remain without regular facial treatments.
After I emerged from the spa, I headed to the casino floor to try the 1-cent machines in the smoke-free area in front of Mama's Italian Restaurant. I did not win, but my $2 investment lasted me more than one hour of entertainment. Pala has one of the largest selections of slot machines in every denomination.
It was now 5 p.m. and time to meet our hosts again in front of the registration desk. They would take us around the hotel, including three different-size rooms and suites with different amenity levels, and the Pala Event Center, where concerts and such are held. Then we would proceed to "Mama's." Here pastas are made from scratch in one corner of the restaurant in full view of the diners.
At 7 p.m., we all repaired for the first of the "progressive" dining lined up by our hosts. Waiting for us at "Oak Room" -- a steaks and seafood restaurant -- was a gaggle of chefs, and Pala Casino CEO Bill Bembenek, who welcomed us profusely. Mr. Bembenek is especially proud of "Choices," the buffet restaurant, which was recently renovated under a $100 milliion expansion. "Choices" is now the largest buffet restaurant in Southern California. It has been expanded to 20,000 square feet, with eight live-action cooking stations -- American, Italian, Asian, Mexican, Seafood, Soups/Salads, Desserts, and Specialty. On any day, "Choices" features 200 different hot and cold food items.
At "Oak Room," we were treated to sushi and sashimi freshly made at "Sushi Sake," a full-service sushi bar, just around the corner from "Oak Room." Next came one large quesadilla lovingly made by Chef Jaime de Alba of "Amigo's." There were bottles of warm and cold sake and white wine to go with the tuna tartare and the salmon and tuna sashimi.
I am almost full after the "Oak Room" samplers. "Choices" buffet, and its 200 different food items, would be our next and final stop. I have dined here twice before, and the food arrays were always overwhelming. With its recent expansion, "Choices" beckons much, much more. Lots and lots of shrimp cocktail, Alaskan crab legs, tender and succulent roast beef, ham, fried chicken, Italian pasta, Pacific Rim cuisine, cakes and pastries, ice cream, etc. I had five shrimp cocktail, one small slice of roast beef, a few pieces of sauteed mushrooms, and a tall glass of iced tea. If we had not been plied with Japanese sushi and sashimi at "Oak Room" an hour earlier, I would have had enough intestinal fortitude to tackle a fraction of the 200 food items at "Choices."
For non-Californians, Pala Casino & Resort is located in Northern San Diego County. It is about a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles through two freeway routes. It is some fifteen miles from another resort town, Escondido, and twelve miles from Temecula, a wine country destination in Southern California that is also famous for its annual hot-air balloon festival.
The community of Pala is about six miles off the South15 Freeway, a north-south artery that begins in California's San Bernardino County and wends its way down to the city of San Diego. The casino and resort is situated within the shadow of the Palomar Mountains, and in the fall, the trees that surround the establishment assume the bright yellow and orange colors of autumn. Close by is a horse and cattle ranch that also raises a token herd of American bison. It is such a sight to behold in this part of the United States that is far removed from the prairies of Montana and Wyoming. It is a rustic place that would delight avid photographers.