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AT TURNING STONE, A NEW HOTEL -- AND MORE FUN TO COME

It looks like a huge cruise ship at anchor. Its white stone facade is curved more sharply than a ship, but the long, narrow shape is similar, and at four stories, the height is just about right.

Like a cruise ship, it offers lots of activities, including shopping and gaming, a variety of dining possibilities, fitness facilities, decor enhanced with neon and comfortable accommodations.

But the nearest ocean is hundreds of miles away. The Oneida Nation's Turning Stone Casino Resort is situated firmly on solid ground in central New York. It aims to be a four-seasons playground, and it is well on its way to succeeding.

Turning Stone started in 1993 with a skylighted casino on 32 acres just off the Thruway at the Verona exit, about 30 miles east of Syracuse. An RV park opened in 1994, and a hotel, long promised, finally opened on Sept. 15.

Late next year, a 40,000-square-foot convention and entertainment center is scheduled to open, while an 18-hole championship golf course and a nine-hole par-3 course will open in June 1999, along with a golf academy. The Oneida Nation owns 4,000 acres and employs 2,800 people in the area (85 percent of them non-Indian), including 2,200 at Turning Stone.

Turning Stone was the dream of Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and chief executive officer. It is a means to an end for the Oneidas, who are using the profits to "rebuild their community and preserve their culture," Halbritter wrote in a message to hotel guests.

Designed by renowned native architect Douglas Cardinal, a member of the Blackfoot tribe in Alberta, the curving resort incorporates the new hotel, a spa and fitness center and the existing casino, which was expanded at the same time.

Patrick Bassney, vice president of hotel operations, points out the sweeping flow of white marble tiles in the hotel's soaring atrium lobby, the curving walls, balconies, hallways. When Cardinal decided to become an architect, Bassney says, he met with the tribal elders for advice.

"Look to nature," they told him. He did, and he saw curves. No straight lines in nature and none in his designs, which include the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and the Edmonton, Alberta, Science Center.

At Turning Stone, three glass elevators look out first on the gaming floor, then on the hotel roof as they whisk guests to their rooms. Curving balconies on the three hotel floors look down on the lobby, where a pianist is easily heard as you exit the elevator on the fourth floor.

As you walk down the hotel hallway, the curves prevent you from seeing how long it is, which probably is just as well. And none of the 285 hotel rooms is totally rectangular.

The curves are obvious in the suites, which range from a junior suite that goes for $130 a night on weekends and $110 weeknights up to a luxury suite for $250. But even a regular room ($85, or $76.50 with a AAA discount) is slightly pie-shaped, something most easily seen in the bathroom tiles.

The rooms are nicely appointed, with natural colors and light wood furniture, also designed by Cardinal with curving designs and decorations and off-center handles.

But Turning Stone hasn't forgotten that it's a casino. On the fourth floor of the hotel is a VIP lounge where high rollers can relax and take a break from the gaming action, complete with comfortable leather chairs and a bartender.

The 2.5 million annual casino visitors now have an additional 22,000 square feet of gaming space, bringing the total to just under 90,000 square feet.

The skylights still admit daylight to the old section of the casino and the Ruby Buffet. The new gaming area has a more glitzy, Vegas-style feel, with crystal chandeliers and a purple and gold neon ceiling dotted with silver stars.

Why purple? "Purple is Mr. Halbritter's favorite color," said Mark Emery, media relations manager.

The casino has 1,170 Multi-Game machines, Turning Stone's answer to slot machines, which are illegal in New York State. You purchase a card similar to a prepaid telephone or gas card, insert it into the machine and play until the value is used up. As I understand it, because you are buying the card, not pumping money directly into the machines, it satisfies the law. The Multi-Game machines offer six to 12 lottery and poker type games that cost from 5 cents to $5 per play.

Blackjack is by far the most popular of the 150 table games, occupying 87 of the tables. A new, upscale Baccarat Lounge has a $5,000 limit at two of the tables. Other games include roulette, Super Bucks, pai gow poker, Acey Deucey and -- eat your heart out, Casino Niagara -- craps. Dice games are legal in New York State, unlike Ontario.

When Casino Niagara opened last winter, "we noticed a small dip initially" at Turning Stone as people checked out the newest game in town, said Frank Riolo, executive vice president of gaming.

But attendance has rebounded now, he said, noting that Casino Niagara draws a lot of patrons from Toronto, while at Turning Stone, more come from Rochester than anywhere else, with Syracuse and Rome-Utica next. About 10 percent come from Erie and Niagara counties, he said, and many come to play craps.

On a recent Friday night, the casino was humming with activity, and most of the gaming tables were in action. At one of the craps tables, we watched an enthusiastic player in his 60s throw the dice clear off the table three or four times, until he figured out the right amount of force to use.

Several people at the roulette tables were keeping track of the numbers in little notebooks, carefully consulting past records before risking their chips on the wheel. A woman in her early 30s seemed to have a sixth sense about which number the spinning ball was going to land on. At least she was raking in more chips than anyone else.

Turning Stone's patrons are primarily in the 30 to 54 age group, Riolo said, and the entertainment in the Onyx Lounge is geared to them.

The lounge is tucked into a dark corner of the casino, and the entertainment is easy to hear from the gaming floor. There are two shows nightly, at 7:30 and 11:30. The night we visited, the East Coast Connection provided a nice mix of rock, blues, country, even a Frank Sinatra ballad.

In another section of the complex, modeled after the French Quarter in New Orleans and called Bourbon Street, numbers were being called in a cavernous, 1,000-seat bingo hall, which opened in 1995.

All that gaming action can work up quite an appetite, and there are some new options to alleviate hunger pangs now.

Crystals Ice Cream Diner has the driver's side of a 1955 Chevrolet BelAire on the wall and a 1956 vintage jukebox playing real 45s in a corner. It's based on a 1950s malt shop and serves homemade ice cream, burgers and hot dogs.

The Emerald restaurant serves casual meals and is open 24 hours a day. Opals Confectionery has pastries, cookies, fudge, ice cream cakes, candy -- all kinds of luscious sweet treats, most made on site, according to Rodney Denn, food and beverage manager.

Two new fine-dining restaurants, Pino Bianco Trattoria (Italian food) and the Forest Grill (steaks and seafood), situated side by side near the Ruby Buffet, and the Copper Lounge between them, were still being set up when we visited but now are open.

The former fine-dining restaurant, the Sapphire Room, has been closed, but the Ruby Buffet is staying open and will be remodeled and expanded.

Shopping options also have expanded with the opening of the Hotel at Turning Stone. Cavelike Inside the Stone sells stone heads (similar to Green Bay's cheese heads), T-shirts and novelties. The Stone Dust Ranch has a Southwestern motif, with a great antler chandelier and a round glass display table with an antler base. It offers cowboy hats and boots and silver and turquoise jewelry. Smokin' is designed like an English library and sells cartons of cigarettes.

Land of the Oneidas is light and airy like a gallery and features pottery, stained glass and other goods made in New York State, including Western New York maple syrup. The International Trade Zone offers jewelry, china, crystal and sportswear. Besides cigars and humidors, Essentials sells items like magazines and toothpaste that hotel guests might need, as well as souvenirs like mugs and T-shirts.

In addition, the Diamond Mine displays merchandise that casino patrons who register for a Diamond Card can get by accumulating points called "karats." You get karats for each bet you place, like collecting S & H Green Stamps.

There's a new state-of-the-art video arcade in the hotel wing that will appeal to younger guests, but Turning Stone does not offer baby sitting, and there were very few children around when we visited.

Children are welcome in the swimming pool, which, like everything else in the new hotel, also has a curving shape. And around the edge, Cardinal, the architect, designed a border of blue and aqua tiles to look like water splashing out. The pool is free to hotel guests.

However, children under 16 are not allowed in the upscale fitness facility, which costs guests $10 to use. One room has treadmills, stationary bicycles and stair climbers; the other has weight equipment. Both have a large expanse of windows looking out on the front of the hotel, so guests can watch the comings and goings while they exercise.

Both men's and women's dressing rooms have a steam room, sauna and whirlpool. Spa services such as massages also are available; a 25-minute Swedish massage is $25, an 85-minute total relaxation treatment including a massage and a lavender herbal wrap is $70. Salon services such as a shampoo and style, pedicure or manicure also are available.

There you have it, the grand tour. A nice place, not too far away (less than three hours), and not too expensive, as long as you can budget your gambling. Things to do, even if you don't gamble. A good place to consider for a weekend getaway.

Of course, there were a few opening glitches. The line at the front desk was slow. The video checkout in the hotel room didn't work. Hair dryers hadn't been installed in the rooms, though Bassney assured me they were on their way. (They were in the suites.)

Those were minor annoyances. The only major annoyance was breakfast in the Emerald restaurant. A line at 8:45 a.m. Guests peeking over the barrier and seeing empty tables. Lots of them.

After 15 minutes of waiting, we were offered a seat at the counter. What about the tables? we asked. Oh, we don't have enough waitresses to handle them, the hostess said. A restaurant run for the help, not the customers, it seemed.

We took the counter seats and were glad we did. Our waitress, Mindy, was friendly and efficient, and the meal was a good value, plentiful and well-prepared, though a bit slow in coming. When we left 45 minutes later, the line was even longer, and the people in it were not happy. But it was the first week, when things often are a bit rough.

Travel information

The grand opening of the new hotel is being held this weekend, with tours from noon to 6 p.m. today and entertainment throughout the hotel and casino. For hotel reservations or information, call (800) 771-7711.

If you want to see one of the projects Turning Stone is funding, ask for directions to the copper-roofed Children and Elders Center, also designed by Cardinal, being built a few miles away just outside Oneida.