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GREAT BLUE HERON, MODEST GAMING IN A RURAL SETTING

Two assumptions about the Great Blue Heron Charitable Casino and Bingo almost suggest themselves -- that it has some aboriginal connection, and that it sure isn't Las Vegas -- or Ontario's Casinos Niagara, Windsor or Rama, for that matter.

As it happens, the Great Blue Heron (named after a bird that flies over Lake Scugog) is on a First Nations reservation near Port Perry, Ont., about 60 miles northeast of Toronto, and it opened in January.

Visitors who venture to the casino, whether on a quick day trip or a more lengthy tour, will discover that the Durham Region immediately east of Toronto has much to offer.

And if it's modest gaming action with a difference that you're after, the Great Blue Heron is likely worth the effort, even if you make the round trip without any pauses. If there is time or the interest for other experiences along the way, then the trip takes on another dimension.

It's a relatively modest excursion as well. Betting limits at the casino, for example, are $2 to $1O Canadian, though there's nothing cheap about the style and decor of the "charitable" casino, with its 650-seat bingo hall, 40 blackjack, roulette, mini baccarat, pai gow poker and hold-'em poker tables and high stakes pull-tabs.

If slot machines are the only reason you'd drive there, then forget it, because there aren't any slots in this or any other charitable casino in Ontario, at least not yet.

The 46,000-square-foot structure also houses a 100-seat restaurant and snack bar, 40-seat bar, video walls projecting sports and entertainment events, a stage for live entertainment a native crafts shop and parking for 600 cars and 15 buses.

The exterior looks like a great blue, red and gray circus tent, and there's something of a circus tent feeling inside the casino, as well, with the highest point of the ceiling about 45 feet from the carpeted floor. A masonry wall about 15 feet high supports the unusual looking upper portion and the mechanical systems housed outdoors; treelike poles inside carry the lighting and surveillance camera systems.

The irony of the Great Blue Heron is that Casinos Austria International Limited, the world's largest casino management company, is the operator of this little gaming establishment in rural Ontario. Casinos Austria has sunk $15.5 million Canadian (with partner Fantasy Gaming Entertainment Inc. of North York, Ont.) into the casino to secure a beachhead into the booming North American gaming market from this backwoods peninsula jutting into Lake Scugog near Port Perry.

Casinos Austria operates 80 casinos, as an investor and/or manager, throughout Europe (including Casino Baden, that continent's largest), in Africa, South America and Australia, where the parent company is headquartered. Its maritime subsidiary has organized casinos on cruise ships of 33 lines, some of which tie up at North American ports, although that didn't get Casinos Austria ashore on the continent.

The casino certainly makes an urban entertainment statement in the sparsely settled township (population 18,700). It sits on a 32-acre site owned by the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, who will benefit from the income generated from some 1,500 patrons passing through every day between noon and 4 a.m. For information, call (905) 985-4888.

Ontario's government has authorized the native band (60 of its 140 members live on the reservation) to license a non-profit charitable casino/bingo organization that would handle the revenue and expenses.

That carries with it an obligation to observe the same Ontario Gaming Control Commission regulations governing the operation of casinos in the province. Thomas Kellner, the casino's general manager, explains:

"We have the same standard of security, screening employees, camera surveillance of gaming, service and professional attitude as the casinos in Windsor, Orillia and Niagara Falls. The biggest single difference is that ours was planned as a friendly entertainment center where some people will find a more affordable gaming experience."

Affordable is the operative word for spending some time discovering the Durham Region. In the immediate vicinity of the casino, Port Perry and neighboring hamlets and small villages have preserved much of their historic architecture, as observed on the streets, but also in the Scugog Shores Museum Village.

Ocala Orchards Farm Winery, housed in a turn-of-the-century dairy barn, offers tours and samplings of fruit and grape wines. Boating, swimming and fishing on Lake Scugog and a wildlife preserve, a buffalo and "exotic animal" ranch are other area attractions. Call (905) 985-4971 for information.

Also close to Toronto and worth experiencing:

The Town of Pickering, with two conservation areas, horseback riding, golfing, a pioneer village, the Ontario Hydro Pickering Generating Station (a nuclear power plant) and Canada's largest indoor flea market; call (905) 686-2661.

The Town of Whitby, with a full service marina with docking facilities for more than 400 boats, salmon and trout fishing charters, wetlands, a waterfront trail, 25-acre Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village (140 historical buildings), an emu farm, amusement park with the world's longest go-kart track and a 1903 train station. Call (905) 668-0552.

The City of Oshawa, where visitors will find the 55-room mansion and grounds of the Parkwood Estate, home of the late founder of General Motors of Canada, and nearby Canadian Automotive Museum, with more than 60 vehicles. There's also the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, marshes and wildlife reserves. Call (905) 725-4523.

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