Deep in the Soul of Tucson
This is where great entertainment lives, the sun never sets, and magic lives
By Lela Scott MacNeil
I set off from Central Tucson, traveling westward in search of adventure. I had heard of a place where the only thing that limits how epic your night will be is how late you can stay up. Already anxious in my car, I couldn’t wait to try my luck and let it ride at the tables, jam out to live music, eat incredible food, and do pretty much anything else I felt like doing.
From the moment the copper tower of Casino Del Sol came into view, rising from the desert sands like a glittering beacon, I could feel the energy resonating from Arizona’s only Forbes Four-Star and AAA Four-Diamond resort and casino. Managed by the Pascua Yaqui tribe, Casino Del Sol has 215 guestrooms and infinite entertainment options. It was my goal to check off as many as I could in a one-night stay.
As I was checking in, I noticed a dusty film crew lugging equipment through the lobby. When I asked about it at the front desk, they told me that Casino Del Sol is Tucson’s top film spot for indie films and music videos. With views of the Sonoran Desert’s striking deep blues and sage greens, and the sweeping arched ceilings of the resort’s Mediterranean-style architecture, I could see why. A recent cameo was made in the country music-infused comedy You’re Gonna Miss Me (spring 2017), starring Eric Roberts and Morgan Fairchild. I’ll have to see if I can recognize the locations and hopefully say, “I was right there!”
Once in my room, I was delighted to discover that my windows opened up to a dazzling mountain view, a striking mosaic of purple and black with jaunty green saguaros gathered on every peak. You have arrived, the mountains seemed to be telling me, welcoming me to have a Tucson good time. Let’s do this.
Around the world in 20 minutes
First: a late lunch.
As I traveled from one end of the resort to the other, I encountered the Forbes Four-star PY Steakhouse (more on that later), the inventive Asian fusion and sushi bar Ume, 120 types of tequila at the Tequila Factory, live-action cooking stations at the Festa Buffet, Moby’s beach-themed diner, and Streetscape, a New York City-style deli. It was clear: Casino Del Sol is a place that lets you travel the world without ever leaving.
Ume’s décor beckoned me through its bamboo archway with handcrafted paper lanterns, rows of smiling golden Buddhas, and the sweet, savory aromas of cardamom, chili, and lemongrass. I sat down at the sushi bar and ordered a cold beer, because, hey, I’m on vacation and everything about this place makes it clear that the only item on my to do list is: simply enjoy. The server pointed me in the direction of the Playboy Roll and the Derby Roll, which delighted my taste buds with flavors of charred scallop, sweet mango, and crunchy tempura.
With the sun still burning bright in the desert sky, I couldn’t resist spending some quality time by the pool before my afternoon spa appointment. The pool area unfolds into layers of turquoise water and is surrounded by purple mountains. I grabbed a margarita with a salted rim at the Oasis poolside bar and stretched out on a lounger to plot my evening fun. Should I start off in the poker room then head to the high-roller slots? Maybe I’ll take in an exciting concert by someone like Van Halen or James Taylor in the beautiful open-air AVA Amphitheater? Or, shall I revel in nostalgia with the cover band 80’s and Gentlemen in the swank, blue-and-silver-lit Paradiso lounge? Decisions, decisions.
Before I knew it, it was time for my spa appointment, so I headed across the lobby to the Hiapsi Spa and Fitness Center to pamper myself for the night ahead. Hiapsi is the Pascua Yaqui word for “heart and soul,” and I was about to learn exactly what that means. I’d signed up for the Desert Flower Ritual, but I was unprepared for the transformative experience that awaited me.
Dana, my technician, exuded a gentle warmth and kindness. We started off with a magnesium and Epsom salt foot bath to draw out toxins and prepare me for the relaxation ahead. Dana then performed a traditional Yaqui cleansing ritual using Copal smoke, a tree sap that burns similar to sage. By the time she finished rubbing hand-selected essential oils into my back, my muscles were pudding and I felt like I was floating.
Let the night begin
While the sun started setting, my day was still just getting started. I invited a friend to join me for dinner and a night of whims. We decided to kick off the fun with one of master mixologist Aaron DeFeo’s renowned cocktails at PY Steakhouse’s bar. DeFeo, or Doc as he’s often called, has made a name for himself in Tucson’s craft cocktail revolution. The bar has the vibe of a top-shelf Las Vegas cocktail lounge—all ebony, mirrors, and sleek white leather, and the cocktails are delightful. I went for the Macao Mule, which involved yuzu lemongrass cordial and Thai basil, and was excellent, but still didn’t stop me from being jealous of my friend’s Night Moves, which mixed Buffalo Trace bourbon, Jamaican rum, honey, lime, and nutmeg, and arrived in an adorable vintage Tiki cup.
From there we moved into the gorgeous dining room, stylishly decorated with white chandeliers, vintage paisley, and gleaming pale wood panels. Rising star Chef Ryan Clark—three-time Iron Chef Tucson winner—came out and gave us some direction as we looked over the menu, which featured grass-fed beef, artisanal cheese, and produce from local purveyors like Doublecheck Ranch, Sleeping Frog Farms, and Black Mesa Ranch. Chef Clark told us how important it was for him to integrate local ingredients into the menu, so that the inventiveness of the food springs from the soul of the local community. A belief we could taste in every bite of our meals.
We ordered a bottle from the wine list (a Wine Spectator award winner) and indulged in an evening of culinary glory. The local Top Knot Farms duck liver paté toast struck just the right balance between rich and tart with its fresh green apple accents. The PY “wedge” salad reimagined the steakhouse favorite with a blue cheese dressing made from local Dragoon Brewery IPA. The cowboy ribeye, dry-aged for 28 days, arrived perfectly cooked and tasted the way steaks only taste in your dreams. By this point, we were pinching ourselves. We decided to finish up with a tasty desert dessert: churros and spicy Mexican hot chocolate laced with local Whiskey Del Bac.
If this had been a typical resort, I probably would have headed up to the room and called it a night. But this was no typical resort, and this was no ordinary night. When I checked in, a staff member told me to sign up for Club Sol, which earns us up to $500 in free game play and the chance to win everything from a bottle of wine to a car to a year’s worth of pay. Yes, please!
We immediately tried our luck at one of the 1,300 slot machines, perched under a glorious painted Mediterranean sky, and won $300 on our first try! Maybe it was the thrill of winning, or maybe it was the liveliness all around us, but we felt the sun always shines here and adventure waits around every corner. Riding our high, we played it all—poker, blackjack, Fortune Pai Gow—chatting with the friendly dealers and praying to Lady Luck to pay us another visit.
Next, we gravitated toward the Paradiso lounge and danced away to 80’s and Gentlemen classics, like “Heart of Glass” and “Ladies Night.” Sweaty and breathless, we ended the night back in the Jacuzzi with a glass of champagne, staring up at a dazzling sky of stars. Casino Del Sol truly captures the best of everything in one place, as I experienced for myself earlier. Tomorrow, after a delicious breakfast in bed, I’d have to return to the everyday, but for tonight, it feels like the magic of Casino Del Sol will last forever.