the Tuscan . . . er . . . Mohegan Sun
start with dinner. First came focaccia, warm and rich with
the aroma of herbs, along with a green-olive-and-white-bean-purée
tapinade for dipping, a drizzle of extra- virgin olive oil
enhancing its hearty flavor. I studied the menu and took in
the large, high-ceilinged dining room, handsome wooden tables
arranged in a semicircle with an open kitchen visible from
many vantage points. My view was of an imposing, several-stories-high
rock formation; I had not chosen the “waterfall seating” in
front of the restaurant where, on the other side of this stony
edifice, I could have watched water trickling down the rocks
into decorative pools behind the outside bar. I instead chose
to eat inside at the wine bar, where I was assisted by a very
able and gracious server who nodded approvingly when I ordered
the Boston bibb salad—tasty lettuce accompanied by red onions,
Maytag blue cheese and a walnut vinaigrette—and who steered
me toward one of the specials, a sesame-encrusted, soy-infused
tuna served over ginger risotto with sautéed greens, onions
and peppers, all of which was, in a word, succulent.
And my wife? She had the . . . um . . . room service.
When I first mentioned to her that one of the restaurants
in the vast hotel/shopping mall/gambling complex known as
Mohegan Sun was Todd English’s Tuscany, she agreed that it
might be worth getting a babysitter and enjoying a rare dinner
out alone together. Roughly a decade ago, before we had any
children, we became fans of Olives, English’s signature restaurant
in Boston, but have not tried one of his establishments since
(Olives having made him a national celebrity, he now has a
number of fine-dining joints around the country). But our
date never happened, and I dined alone, only slightly guilty
that I got to experience Tuscany while she and the kids ate
in our room. Sans company, I enjoyed the excellent food and
reflected on the subtle ways in which the purportedly “family-friendly”
Mohegan Sun had conspired against some of my ideas of how
my family and I would spend the weekend.
In case you haven’t seen the flashy ads on TV, Mohegan Sun
is a shiny new (well, new in 1996) gaming complex and hotel
situated on a Native American reservation in the woods of
Southeastern Connecticut overlooking the Thames River. We
were there not to gamble (we generally don’t) but because
it was the site of my wife’s professional association’s spring
meeting. For me, attending these things is like a mini-vacation
with the kids; previous trips to Toronto and even Rochester
have yielded delightful days visiting museums, zoos and parks
with my young sons. Mohegan Sun is within a half-hour’s drive
of several nice beaches on the Connecticut and Rhode Island
coast, and even closer to Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium.
Other nearby attractions abound: a naval museum, a children’s
museum, a steam train, a nature preserve. Finding stuff to
do outside the complex would be no problem.
But we arrived rather late in the afternoon on Thursday, and
I decided after unpacking our bags, we’d stay on the property
and see what we could find to amuse ourselves. It was a beautiful
day, and I was envisioning a pleasant hour or two playing
ball on a patch of green outside the hotel, or strolling on
walking paths, perhaps finishing up at the outdoor pool. Had
I been paying closer attention, the drive onto the property
would have betrayed how mistaken was my perception of what
this “resort” would be. You enter on Mohegan Sun Boulevard,
at first a big swath of divided highway until it becomes a
coldly efficient ring road with only a few exit choices (two
hotel entrances and a parking garage, and if you miss ‘em
the first time through, you’re back on the boulevard heading
out). The view coming in was an odd mix of sights: some woods,
the lovely-looking Thames (God knows what sorts of nuclear
waste lies within), the sparking glass-and-concrete high-rise
hotel jutting out of the more shapeless complex below, the
acres of roadways and parking garages and creepy-looking drumlike
structures I couldn’t identify.
I realized, finally, that there are no green spaces or walking
paths or outdoor pools (the fourth-floor pool does open to
an outside concrete deck with chaise lounges, but that’s it).
And as I slowly began to grasp the ethos of Mohegan Sun, another
realization crept up on me: Once inside, you are not supposed
If you’ve never been to one of these newfangled gambling malls,
the experience can be surreal: One minute you’re strolling
past the Ben & Jerry’s, then suddenly you’re facing a
sea of blinking slot machines lined up like aisles of video
games in a vast arcade. You can duck into Kids Quest—half
day-care center, half Jeepers—and then reemerge into the vaguely
stale mall/casino air, always reeking with the faint odor
of cigarette smoke. Again, the place claims to be family-friendly,
but you can smoke almost anywhere, and you can never really
escape it, unless you head outside to the . . . valet parking
pickup/drop-off area. That Thursday, without any place to
go outside the hotel, we strolled around the mall that connects
the hotel to the casinos, convention center and entertainment
venues. It’s lined with shops, restaurants, bars . . . and
security guards who stride over to give you a stern lecture
if your children so much as wander 10 yards away from you.
(Yes, this happened to us twice within our first half-hour.)
At the concierge desk, I inquired about babysitting. Since
we’ve had children, most hotels I’ve stayed at either offer
it directly or connect you with an outside service, but not
here. Ah, but Mohegan Sun has something better: Kids Quest.
Just make a reservation four hours in advance, and you can
drop them off for as long as you like. You have to remain
within the complex, of course, where you are, presumably,
eating, drinking and/or gambling. While my older two boys
liked Kids Quest (I let them spend two hours there one day,
to the tune of $28), in the same way they like Jeepers, we
also have a young toddler who would have been much better
off in a now-familiar hotel room with his brothers and one
sitter than in a strange room with a horde of total strangers.
Oh, and here’s family-friendly: On weekends, you can leave
your children at Kids Quest until 2 AM. You can’t let
them wander too close to the slot machines, but you can let
them play video games till the bars close while you fritter
away the mortgage money on blackjack.
I had already soured on leaving them here during our dinner
at Tuscany, and then I found out, fully two days before our
planned date, that we wouldn’t be able to get a table until
10 PM that Saturday. My wee one at Kids Quest past midnight?
I didn’t think so.
Trips to the beach and Mystic Seaport went very well, and
we had a good time. On Saturday, I learned that Tuscany does
take some walk-up business, and still later I learned that
there were usually available seats at the wine bar. My wife
and I took turns urging the other to go, but I knew full well
she’d (I’d) win; anyway, she was already nestled with the
boys for an in-room movie. So I headed down the elevator and
toward the waterfall, soon to be nibbling on the focaccia.
Oh, and did I mention the lovely Tuscan “super-red,” a velvety
sangiovese blend . . .