Two tribes play to win

The world's two biggest casinos are owned by Native Americans. And gambling revenue has saved them
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The Independent Travel

Let's say it up front: gambling is not my idea of fun. I know that I am going to lose money. That's why they build casinos, to fleece anyone foolish enough to step inside. And while there are people out there who know the difference between Baccarat and a one-armed bandit, I am not one of them.

Let's say it up front: gambling is not my idea of fun. I know that I am going to lose money. That's why they build casinos, to fleece anyone foolish enough to step inside. And while there are people out there who know the difference between Baccarat and a one-armed bandit, I am not one of them.

Live in America, however, and eventually curiosity will defeat you. I made my first trip to Las Vegas three years ago and had a blast, barely going near the tables. The Strip is hard to resist, even if you go to laugh at it. But I had never felt the urge to sample two casinos that have sprung up recently in the woods of eastern Connecticut. Connecticut? No desert, no glamour. Both these gambling havens lie within Indian reservations and are Native American-owned and managed.

Yet, there I was on Good Friday, hurtling down Interstate 95 from New York towards Exit 92, just about the last one in Connecticut before it gives way to Rhode Island. Our first destination was the better known of the two casinos, Foxwoods. Thrown up by the 850-odd members of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, Foxwoods turned 10 in February. After driving through farms and small villages for a few minutes, we round a bend and... Lord alive!

I should mention that Foxwoods is the largest casino property in the world, which in itself comes as a surprise, and includes three hotels, the largest of which, the Grand Pequot Tower, rises 25 floors. The sight of it made my jaw drop. There, in the middle of the countryside, is this huge and thoroughly ugly apparition topped with garish green roofs. The aesthetics of Foxwoods barely improve as you step inside. Our guide extols the design that keeps most of the gaming areas – giant halls crammed with gaming tables and rows and rows of slots machines sounding an infernal gong-gong-gong chorus that jars the brain – on the inside of the complex. The shopping and eating arcades are arranged around the outside with windows to let the light in. Yet I feel instantly trapped and more than once get hopelessly lost.

Foxwoods, of course, is a paradise for those intent only on betting their wages away on a blur of fast-dealt playing cards or on the whim of a little white ball zooming around a roulette wheel. Apparently we have come on a quiet weekend, as it's Easter. Yet, to us, it seems packed. There are no fewer than 350 gaming tables in the place, almost all of them busy. Walk through the five different casinos inside the place and you could count 6,500 different slot machines.

It has a growing conference business and has become an important entertainment venue, drawing audiences from across New England. The large Fox Theater, inside the complex, recently boasted Barry Manilow – well, all right, I wouldn't travel too far for Barry either, but some would – and has Bill Cosby and Robin Williams among stars due to appear this month. Tickets for the Williams evening are selling for $100 each. Also in the grounds, if you are in a mood for education, awaits the impressive Mashantucket Pequot Museum, with loads of artefacts and interactive videos, as well as a recreation, complete with waxwork figures, of a Pequot village of yore.

Not playing at Foxwoods means you protect your cash and you have time to look around at the decor. And weep. I don't know about you, but mirrored ceilings and a colour scheme that mixes green and mauve has an unfortunate effect on my mood. Suddenly, I feel I have boarded a low-end cruise liner and will never be allowed to leave. But we do. Feeling unexpectedly depressed, we reclaim our car from valet parking and set out on the 15-minute drive to – yes, it's true – the second largest casino in the world, Mohegan Sun.

You would think that having been taken by surprise once that day our first sighting of Mohegan Sun would be less dramatic. Wrong. If anything, what we see this time, rising from the banks of the Thames River (pronounced like games with a soft "th"), startles us even more. As part of a building project that is costing $1.1bn (£760m), the people at Mohegan have just unveiled a second casino to add to the one that first opened in 1996 and expect later this month to open the doors of their on-site luxury hotel. The architecture this time is so surprising that I don't wince, I grin. Rising 34 floors and made up of two towers leaning at weirdly slanting angles, the hotel is completely sheathed in reflecting glass. It should be in downtown Dallas, not here in Connecticut.

Mohegan Sun – jointly operated by the Mohegan Tribe on its tiny reservation and by Sun International, a world-wide casino concern that owns the wildly over-the-top Atlantis casino in Nassau in the Bahamas – is far more interesting to the eye than its more established neighbour. The two casinos – Earth and Sky – are decorated and lighted rather differently. Sky, which opened last September, has at is centre this strange mini-mountain made of glass and real onyx with a martini bar inside high above the gaming floor. Although we venture into it later that evening, slow service means we never get a drink, which is a shame. We have just emerged from the Cabaret club and an hour of an entertainer I had never heard of. A one-time sitcom star in America called Nell Carter, she was awful enough to make anyone reach for alcohol.

Yet I enjoy myself thoroughly at Mohegan. Probably it helps that our hosts set us up at the casino's most expensive restaurant. Called "Rain", it is one of only a few eateries in New England with four stars and served up one the best meals I can remember. My only regret is that the hotel, with jazzily furnished rooms and a huge spa retreat complete with large swimming pool and outdoor sunning terrace, is still a few weeks from opening. The lobby, with a reflecting pool and a huge domed roof lined with a criss-cross of silver birch bark is stunning.

Much of what you see in Mohegan Sun was conceived by the design gurus at the Rockwell Group, known for creating interiors for the Disney Cruise ships and the innovate W Hotel chain in the US. We, however, are doomed to spend the night at a grizzly Best Western chain hotel a couple of miles away.

Both casinos tell a remarkable story of tribal revival. Some might despair that it has taken gambling to bring wealth to two tribes that otherwise had virtually vanished from the map. Once mortal enemies – the Mohegans sided with the British in crushing the Pequots in 1637 – the two tribes only attained federal recognition as sovereign nations in the mid 1980s and have thus created these two huge, and immensely profitable, businesses in an amazingly short time.

Which one should you visit? Foxwoods has the edge in the sheer scale of its gaming operations. Its luxury hotel, the Grand Pequot Tower, where we gratefully spent our second night, is luxurious. At roughly $290 (£200) a night it is hardly a bargain, but it has as good a gym, spa and pool facility as I have seen in any hotel.

Mohegan, however, is newer and has a more sophisticated feel. Beneath the soon-to-open hotel, moreover, there is a very well equipped and welcoming kids' clubs for parents who arrive with all the family. You could, in fact, use either of the casinos as a base for a family weekend away that does not involve gambling at all. Mystic Seaport, with its museum of floating tall ships, is, for instance, only 20 minutes from either of them.

And, finally, a confession. While the gaming tables scare me to death – many have minimum bets of $100 (£70) – I am finally persuaded at Mohegan to risk a few dollars in what I would quaintly call the fruit machines, known here as the slots. Well, blow me if I don't a hit a mini jackpot twice, sending quarters rattling into the tray below.

Last year, somebody won $6.3m (£4.4m) from one of the machines at Mohegan Sun. I watch as my quarters accumulate to $65 (£45). Enough to make me happy – and maybe come back another time.

Traveller's details

How get to there: From New York City, the drive, on a good day, might be done in 2½ hours, but count on three. Taking the I-95 to New England, you leave the highway at Exit 83 for Mohegan Sun – a little nearer to the city – and Exit 92 for Foxwoods. There are plenty of signs for each casino at the exit. You can also take a high-speed Amtrak train from New York's Penn Station to New London station. The train takes a little over an hour and both casinos meet it with a bus. From New London to either casino is about a 20-minute ride.