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Staycation: Chumash Casino Resort

Music, Food, and Gaming 35 Minutes from Downtown Santa Barbara

The author’s wife tries her luck at the slots.

Swag pays, sometimes. And sometimes when you least expect it. Golden swag suddenly showed up in a desk drawer corner recently in the form of gift certificates to a deluxe hotel room at Chumash Casino Resort, a swanky dinner in its in-house fine-dining haven that is Willows, and dollops of spa decadence.

History is part of the backstory here. I got the goods when covering the casino’s opening back in 2004, when Fleetwood Mac was hired for two nights to toast the glitzy moment and christen the Samala Showroom. Now, 15 years and another major casino renovation later, it was time to visit the place on an overnight basis. Duly armed with swag-tificates, my wife and I seized on the impulsive notion to pack up the bags (well, one small bag) and head to Chumash land on a Monday night. Call it a nearby getaway, or maybe a micro-staycation.

Our desire for escape and for basking in a decidedly “other” place arrived after a mere 35-minute drive from the house and over a period of just 24 hours in casino country, all in the affordable-luxury/guilty-pleasure category of indulgence.

Chumash Casino Pool

Historically speaking, in the interim between the 2004 Mac event and now, the Samala Showroom has become an important 805 stopping point for entertainment beyond just shallow popcorn culture we might expect from the casino landscape. The list of artists passing through the showroom has included Stevie Wonder (christener of the reopening of the remodel, opened in 2016), James Brown, Al Green, Steely Dan, Vince Gill, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Mathis, Burt Bacharach, Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck, regular stops by Norteño superstars Los Tigres del Norte … and the list goes, and is going, on. 

Chumash Casino

Somehow, though, the act of spending 24 hours at the casino/hotel/experience is an entirely different, mind-altering experience from the in-and-out act of catching a show there or going to drop/gain money in gambler mode. Lest we forget where we were, inside our hotel room’s “deluxe” and relaxation-geared appointments was a customized “Do Not Disturb” sign, reading “I’m dreaming of a jackpot.” We proceeded over to the casino proper and into the mystical portal with escalators to the gambling zone — escalators to the “jackpot dream,” and certainly one of the more hope-filled passageways in the County … at least on the way in.

This bigger, bolder, boozier casino opened in 2016 amid a buzz of controversy and to the tune of $165 million. The operation gained 550,000 square feet and a major expansion of the compound, with a new 12-story hotel tower, a food court, and a central bar in the vaster real estate of slot machines and game rooms. Once inside the sprawling space, it’s easy to imagine that you have left the 805 and landed in some sci-fi facsimile of Vegas. But then, for a nature reality check, head up to the expansive new fifth-floor rooftop swimming pool spread, with a dreamy view of the idyllic green hills and live oaks beyond reminding us again of the scenic splendor just outside the action-irradiated casino walls.

As for gaming action, we wanted to bask in the ambience while making a pact to resist the temptation to lose our shirts on the chance-y floors, limiting our expenditure to $5 each. Lady or Sir Luck was smiling upon us: Peggy struck it relatively rich ($29.60) over at the kitschy new “Heidi’s Biergarten” slot machines, replete with videos of a Bavarian polka band striking up a theme song for the buxom and beer-toting heroine, Heidi. 

Chumash Casino Resort

Following a porterhouse steak dinner at Willows the night before, the morning found us seeking a new cuisine, a new locale. A short walk away from Chumash country brought us to the quasi-cowboy country village of Santa Ynez, heeding the call of the vintage Longhorn Coffee Shop. A corn beef hash special with the John Wayne shrine wall and a sign reading “Eat beef. The west wasn’t won on salad” won us over with an all-American charm rarely found in contemporary Santa Barbara County.

Walking back across the 246 to the Chumash territory, the contrast of Santa Ynez’s small-town scale and the leviathan casino structure in the country setting seemed all the starker. There was time for one more swim in the pool with the view (and Chumash imagery splayed across the pool tile), and a quick admiring tour of the portraits of Chumash elders around the hotel lobby and fireplace area, for cultural roots’ sake. 

Our 24-hour sneak-away was fast coming to its close, leaving an aura of a sweet, stolen-outta-town moment and a distinct parting sensation: We were not in the bingo parlor or even the Fleetwood Mac–era casino anymore. But, mostly, our micro-staycation brought out the winner feeling in us.

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