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Time to relax at northern N.M. casinos

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s not. But I’ve got to tell you, every time I run up to Buffalo Thunder to make my rounds, I come away relaxed. As in cool. As in the after-hum of a marvelous massage.

Longtime gamers from the Northern Triangle – Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Taos – tell me each of the casinos has its own pace; “pulse” is what one of the silverbacks said.

Check out Pojoaque Pueblo’s two spots: Thunder has a smooth, effortless beat. That casino floor remains rather majestic even during elbow-to-elbow Friday and Saturday evenings.

Then trot to the north end of Pojoaque village, a little over a mile, to Cities of Gold, the Thunder’s sister operation. It’s fast-paced, it’s all slots. And folks inside Cities are having “slots” of fun and not hiding it. Pojoaque’s offerings are many and varied: Both casinos have hotels, plus an all-suite hotel convenient to both casinos.


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Bingo and bowling are found at Cities; a sports bar/race book is inside Thunder, as well as a well-appointed live poker room. And Thunder’s championship golf course, Towah, is a challenge for any duffer.

CAMEL ROCK CASINO: Closer to Santa Fe, and the senior member of the state’s northern casinos, is Tesuque Pueblo’s Camel Rock. Fewer than 10 minutes north of downtown Santa Fe on the Taos Highway, U.S. 84/285, Camel Rock’s ambience lends itself to relaxed play.

The one constant here is the very good food coming out of Camel Rock’s Pueblo Artist Cafe.

OHKAY HOTEL-CASINO: For a while, maybe three, four years ago, Ohkay Hotel-Casino was going gangbusters, then, as it happened to all casinos across the country, the recession hit and casino action slumped.

So, Ohkay pueblo leaders went looking for an aggressive, time-tested casino leader. They found one: Steve Penhall, whose résumé shows several notches, reminders of his ability to build winning casino operations. Penhall has assembled a team of casino pros bent on returning Ohkay to a place among the top hotel-casino attractions in the Southwest.

Look for this friendly pit stop on the road to Taos, at the north end of Española, right at the city limits.

SANTA CLARAN HOTEL & CASINO: Back inside Espa ñ ola’s city limits is Santa Clara Pueblo’s Santa Claran Hotel & Casino. You ask anyone who’s walked on New Mexico pueblo properties which one is blessed by nature with pure beauty, and odds are they’ll tell you “the lands of the Santa Clara.” There are hills and valleys exploding in green and cliff-side dwellings, some running a mile in length.

But this is pueblo land in downtown Española where Santa Clara has the hotel, a snappy bowling center, coffee shop, a tapas bar and a steak stop, The Black Mesa. It’s a classy casino home to more than 60 slots and the holy trinity of table games, blackjack, roulette and craps. This is a must-see proposition.


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TAOS MOUNTAIN CASINO: “It’s like having a casino in my living room.”

“This is so unreal, yet so completely familiar. It’s like I dreamed of a casino like this as part of my den. I love it.”

These are but a couple of comments I’ve picked up covering our state’s casinos over the past decade. Of course, they were talking about Taos Mountain Casino.

How can one not like this casino? It serves as no threat to any neighboring casino within 1,000 leagues. Taos offers players the state’s only fully nonsmoking casino. It also has the state’s smallest contingent of slots, about 200.

But make no mistake, it has the latest in slots. There are just two table games, but two of the most popular — blackjack and ultimate Texas hold-’em.

And you can’t go hungry, no matter how thin the bankroll. On Fridays from 4-11 p.m., a complete sirloin steak dinner is $10.99. On Saturdays, from 4-11 p.m., a complete prime rib dinner is $10.99.

When you pull into Taos, ask anyone how to get to the casino. They’ll tell you you’re already on the right road, just keep going, you’ll run into it.

Next week, we’ll cover, among others, the three Navajo Casinos and how one of them doesn’t have to pay the state any taxes at all.