It’s at about this time of year – after five months or so of steady clouds and rain – when Vancouverites thoughts turn to . . . Vegas. Who couldn’t use a few days in the sun, enjoying the slots and sights of Sin City?
There is, however, the little issue of cost. Flights to Vegas aren’t exactly cheap. Neither are hotels. For frugal Vancouverites looking for a cheaper alternative, however, there is another option: a staycation at River Rock Casino Resort in good old Richmond, B.C.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that River Rock isn’t exactly a “Bellagio of the North” and that Richmond might not boast all the allures of Las Vegas Strip. But – since I needed a break from the rain this weekend – I decided to give it a shot.
I’m glad I did.
The first big upside over Vegas is the convenience of getting there. Instead of a four-hour flight out of Bellingham, I took a 15-minute Canada Line ride from downtown Vancouver on Friday afternoon to the Bridgeport Station. A covered walkway leads you right into River Rock. No airport security. No connecting flights. No turbulence.
Inside, River Rock doesn’t compare to the scale of Vegas resorts, but for B.C. it’s certainly not too shabby. The main lobby is an airy atrium, with windows offering panoramic views of the Fraser River and a very nifty semi-circular escalator leading to the second floor. I popped into the casino, lured by a candy-apple red BMW Z4 convertible – the prize for one lucky slots winner.
For a casino of its size, River Rock packs a lot of punch. There are plenty of slots but also some very active blackjack and poker tables, roulette and craps. On a Friday evening, the place was bustling with a mixed crowd – Chinese tourists looking for a thrill, pensioners and retirees tugging away at one-armed bandits, and a sizeable younger set who clearly came to party. And one huge plus over the Vegas casinos: River Rock is non-smoking. So you can gamble away without choking on second-hand smoke.
True to all the planet’s great casinos, River Rock also boasts an indulgent – if not exactly cheap – buffet. It features all of the usual suspects: an enormous salad bar; a dessert bar with an absurd selection of cakes, tarts, flan, custard and more; and stations dedicated to Chinese classics like lo mein and sweet-and-sour fish, as well as Italian standbys like spaghetti Bolognese.
But on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s a a little something special: all-you-can-eat prime rib and crab legs. Famished after losing more than I’d like to admit at the slots, I skipped the salads and sides altogether and loaded up on the big ticket items, gorging on at least a dozen fresh crab legs and a significant chunk of beef.
River Rock is also no slacker in the entertainment department. The casino’s Show Theatre hosts Vegas-caliber, big-name acts year-round (B.B. King stopped by a few weeks ago for a concert; Mike Tyson was in town on his speaking tour over the weekend; and Penn and Teller are due up on March 22). On Friday night, the main event happened to be Rumble at the Rock IX, a night of boxing.
You might not think that watching grown men (and women) clobber each other for three hours would be fun – but it turns out to be a blast. The venue is intimate, so you see sweat (and occasionally blood) fly off boxers’ bodies with each jab, hook and roundhouse landed. The card featured nine fights – from local amateurs hoping to make a splash to lesser-known pros eager to move up the ranks.
The action is pretty much non-stop. I saw one poor amateur from Metro Vancouver get konked out two seconds flat into his match by a monstrous right, a pair of budding women fighters go toe-to-toe for five rounds and – to cap the night – a wild, upset victory by an unknown American boxer against much hyped Canadian middleweight Adam A-bomb Trupish.
About this time – 11 p.m. or so – you might expect action to be winding down at River Rock in sleepy Richmond. Hardly. Following the stream of well-lubricated fans leaving the fight, I headed to Lulu’s Lounge, a bar inside the casino. The dance floor was packed with a very enthusiastic crowd getting down to quite possibly the best James Brown cover band on the planet.
Lead singer and James Brown lookalike Mike Henry – dressed in a bright red, double-breasted suit – strutted his stuff for some inspired renditions of Sex Machine, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, I Feel Good and dozens of other classics (In fact, he did so many splits on stage I’m amazed he didn’t tear his pants). Another perk for bargain hunters: There’s no cover at Lulu’s – rare for a quality, live music venue in Vancouver.
In the wee hours of morning, after the band had left the stage, I finally retreated to my room at the Hotel at River Rock. Feet tired and head spinning, it was a welcome sight: big king bed stacked with pillows, immaculate bathroom and even a peekaboo view of the Fraser River at night. I watched a few ships glide by, before slipping off to sleep.
The next morning, a bit worse for wear but strangely recharged from my short sojourn, I checked out and hopped on the SkyTrain for a quick ride home. It may not be Vegas, but for convenience, affordability and plain fun in the Lower Mainland a staycation at River Rock isn’t a bad option at all.
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