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Winter Travel

That’s how we rolled

My wife and I spent a weekend at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun without gambling. We were too busy eating, people-watching, shopping, hiking, and soaking in a hot tub.

At Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun, bet on Italian dining at Ballo, swimming, music at Wolf Den, and an eye-catching hotel. At nearby Foxwoods, there’s Shrine nightclub and Asian restaurant Red Lantern.

Bob O’Connor

At Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun, bet on shopping.

ACCORDING TO FOLKLORE, there are two things you’ll never find inside a casino: clocks or windows. Gaming companies allegedly want patrons to become numb to the passage of time and forget about the world outside. The reason is simple: They need you to keep gambling.

It’s difficult to reconcile this conventional wisdom with what actually happens when my wife and I check into the hotel at Foxwoods Resort Casino. I ask the clerk what to do during our visit. Among the first things she hands me is a brochure. “Enjoy the Peace and Beauty of the Connecticut Woods on Our Pequot Trails,” says the cover. Inside is a color-coded map of nearby hiking trails. That’s right: Not only is this casino suggesting we walk outside, it’s also providing detailed instructions. The clerk mentions the comedy shows most nights, discounts at the upscale bowling alley, and the nearby Native American museum. If you didn’t know better, you might think you can have fun at Foxwoods without actually gambling.

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In fact, you can. Like it or not, casinos are coming to Massachusetts. That controversy doesn’t matter much to me, since I don’t like to gamble. However, I do like an occasional kids-free weekend, and after years of seeing the TV ads, I know that Connecticut’s two casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, aren’t simply casinos — they’re resort casinos, complete with celebrity-chef restaurants, trendy nightclubs, pools, spas, and concert venues. As we enter New England’s permafrost months, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have another uncelebrated amenity: They’re designed like self-contained, climate-controlled cities where you can live for days without stepping outdoors or feeling an arctic blast.

Foxwood’ asian restaurant Red Lantern.

Bob O’Connor

Foxwoods’ asian restaurant Red Lantern.

With that in mind, my wife and I spent a weekend visiting Connecticut’s casinos — without wagering a cent. A casino weekend isn’t necessarily the most cost-effective getaway, and if we made this trip again, there’s much we’d do differently. But we came away convinced that with the right planning, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun can be excellent places to escape the cold and to eat, drink, and be merry in style.

***

THE TWO CASINOS are located 10 miles apart, but there are key differences. Start with the accommodations: While Mohegan Sun (888-226-7711, mohegansun.com) features a single hotel, a high-rise, Foxwoods (800-369-9663, foxwoods.com) offers four. Three of them, including the upscale MGM Grand at Foxwoods Hotel, are part of the main facility, and one, the budget-oriented Two Trees Inn, is within walking distance; there’s a shuttle bus. We opted for the mid-priced Great Cedar Hotel. (Information on all hotels, restaurants, and attractions at both of the casinos is available from the main resort websites.) Our room was spacious and offered a spectacular view of rugged evergreen forest.

Downstairs, we headed directly for High Rollers, Foxwoods’ lounge-style bowling alley. High Rollers offers regulation, not candlepin, bowling, and the electronics made it particularly fun: In addition to automatic scorekeeping, monitors show the speed (in miles per hour) of every shot. We’d planned to eat a real dinner at one of Foxwoods’ seven high-end restaurants, but the bowling alley’s menu proved enticing; over lobster BLTs, veggie burgers, and craft beer, we bowled another game. “If this is your first time here, it’s probably good you’re not here on a Saturday night — it can get a little overwhelming,” said our server, who took advantage of the quiet to sit and chat.

At Foxwoods, the Shrine nightclub.

Bob O’Connor

At Foxwoods, the Shrine nightclub.

Later, we doffed our bowling shoes and started to explore the rest of Foxwoods. It’s a sprawling place, like a big shopping mall with a hodgepodge of retail stores, eateries (from Subway and Panera to pricey Craftsteak and David Burke Prime), hotels, and gaming rooms. We’d been warned that Foxwoods was really smoky, but that proved untrue: Smoking is allowed in many but not all of the gaming areas, but the hallways are largely smoke-free, as are nearly all of the restaurants and nightclubs. (The same is true at Mohegan Sun.) By mid-evening, the crowd — which had skewed older back near our hotel — became decidedly younger, particularly as we got toward Shrine, a popular nightclub. Shrine is where the Boston Bruins rang up a $156,679 tab while celebrating their 2011 Stanley Cup, and by 9:30 there’s a line forming. The women teeter on stilt-like heels; most guys wear backward baseball caps.

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum.

Bob O’Connor

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum.

Too old for Shrine, we slip into Alta Strada. We’ve walked past the Wellesley branch of this Michael Schlow restaurant, and we look over the menu before opting for drinks and gelato. Then we walk back to the Atrium Lounge, where we listen to a cover band play Bon Jovi. If you appreciate people-watching, you’ll love Foxwoods: At one point an elderly woman entered the bar using two canes, propped them against a table, and then hit the dance floor solo, swaying to hard rock.

Our evening ends before midnight, so we’re up early to hit the Pequot trails. We hike to a nearby hilltop; a large rock marks the spot where Native American scouts once kept watch for approaching enemies. (The brochure says it’s possible to see five states from the summit; we’re skeptical, but we can spot the ocean.) Although the trails are well marked, the descent turns especially steep, and midway down, I suspect we’ve taken a wrong turn. Sure enough, we’re on the wrong trail, and we emerge at a community dump, where residents in pickup trucks are unloading trash. We ask how to get back to Foxwoods, and a resident directs us toward a road for a 2.5-mile hike back to civilization.

An eye-catching hotel at Mohegan Sun.

Bob O’Connor

An eye-catching hotel at Mohegan Sun.

Next stop: the Mashantucket Pequot Museum (800-411-9671, pequotmuseum.org), tucked behind the casinos. In 40 minutes we get a sense of the history of the Native Americans who originally populated this region. The museum’s highlight is a large Native American village, with a comprehensive audio tour that gives visitors a rich sense of the Pequots’ lifestyle.

***

BY EARLY AFTERNOON, we’ve checked out of Foxwoods and made the 20-minute drive west to Mohegan Sun. Walking through the lobby, the differences between the properties become more apparent. Mohegan Sun is pricier, but also newer. (It opened in 1996, while parts of Foxwoods date to 1986.)  While it seemed to me that the Foxwoods crowd skews young and old, Mohegan Sun has guests of all ages — and a much less visible nightclub crowd.

Pizzeria Frank Pepe at Mohegan Sun.

Bob O’Connor

Pizzeria Frank Pepe at Mohegan Sun.

We have lunch at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, which serves the coal-fired, crispy pizza made famous at the chain’s original New Haven location. We stop in Lush, the fancy English soap store, and Dylan’s Candy Bar, buying sweets to take home for the kids. Then I visit Mohegan Sun’s gym and indoor pool. The pool is large and light-filled, with a bar and an adjoining hot tub, from which I catch the end of the afternoon’s college football games. On a snowy Saturday, this could be a spectacular hangout.

For dinner, we’d made reservations at Todd English’s Tuscany, but after looking over the menu, we opt instead for pasta and wine at Ballo, an Italian restaurant that is one of Mohegan Sun’s three other fine dining establishments. After dinner, we grab seats at the Wolf Den, a 300-seat no-cover-charge nightclub. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun both have large arenas that draw A-list shows. (This winter, Foxwoods will host Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Thicke, while Mohegan Sun will feature Keith Urban and Jay Z.) But Mohegan also features non-headline groups in this free venue. Tonight’s act: Vertical Horizon, a group that sold 2 million copies of its 1999 album Everything You Want. Inside the Wolf Den, we’re surrounded by devoted fans, many in T-shirts from prior tours. The show lasts just over an hour, and it’s surprisingly good — we recognize more songs than we’d expected, and the setting is small enough to feel intimate. Afterward, the band takes seats in the crowd to sign autographs.

Italian dining at Mohegan Sun’s Ballo.

Bob O’Connor

Italian dining at Mohegan Sun’s Ballo.

On Sunday morning, we awake and try the $10 breakfast at Seasons, Mohegan’s 800-seat buffet restaurant. It’s as unremarkable as we’d expected.

Driving home, we take stock of the weekend. Neither destination is a bargain: One night of lodging (including tax and resort fees, but with AAA discounts) ran $273 at Foxwoods and $437 at Mohegan Sun. For similar prices we could have stayed at an upscale hotel in Boston or Providence, or at an oceanfront inn.

We also recognized that while we had fun on our inaugural visit, we’d do things differently if we returned.

At Foxwoods, next time we’d try to travel with other couples. The general vibe feels slightly better suited to groups than to pairs. With the right reinforcements we might have tried one of Foxwoods’ nightclubs, which (from the outside, at least) seemed a notch above Mohegan Sun’s. Foxwoods also beats Mohegan Sun in the number of fine dining options, seven to four.

At Mohegan Sun, next time we’ll try to schedule our trip around a concert we want to see, since Mohegan’s music schedules seem a cut above Foxwoods’. (Though Foxwoods has better comedy acts.) Mohegan Sun may also be more appealing to budget-oriented diners, since its low-priced dining options (which include Virgil’s BBQ, Bobby’s Burger Palace, and the SoupMan, of Seinfeld fame) are more interesting.

Next time we’ll also look harder for discount options: After our visit, we spied a LivingSocial coupon offering a night’s lodging at Mohegan Sun in November for just $199. And if we’d had more time, we might have tried to venture outside Mohegan’s biosphere to explore nearby wineries or the seaside town of Mystic, just 16 miles away.

There may seem a certain lunacy to planning a weekend getaway at a casino without gambling — like going to Disney but avoiding the theme parks, or renting a slope-side condo but not skiing. But just wait until a bitter week in February, when the thought of a completely indoor, car-free, coat-free weekend may sound like a winner.

Swimming at Mohegan Sun.

Bob O’Connor

Swimming at Mohegan Sun.

A CASINO VACATION IN MASSACHUSETTS

Competition is coming for Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. A Massachusetts law signed in 2011 allows the construction of three resort casinos with slots and table games like poker and blackjack — one in Western Massachusetts, one in “Central Metro” Massachusetts (a region stretching from Boston to the western edge of Worcester County), and one in the Southeast — as well as one slots-only facility with up to 1,250 machines.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is set to decide the location of the slots-only facility by late December or early January. The three contenders are Plainville, Leominster, and Raynham, after voters in each community approved referendums on the issue.

The resort casinos are further off into the future. The cast of potential developers is still changing. Targeted communities have both accepted and rejected casino proposals; Milford voters will decide next week.

The new law requires the companies building resort casinos to spend at least $500 million, and some have promised to spend far more. That means the new facilities could someday rival Connecticut’s gaming palaces. For Bay Staters who like all-you-can-eat buffets and concerts by groups whose last hit was in the 1990s, these are lucky days indeed.

Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

 

 

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