THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Chance encounters await when you let it ride on a Mohegan Sun bus

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2005

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- The games begin before we reach the casino. The bus is rolling along the Massachusetts Turnpike near the Westborough Plaza when the tour guide gets on the PA system.

It's raffle time. She calls out seat numbers in English and Chinese, and wouldn't you know it, my friend John wins a $15 gift certificate.

We're not even at Mohegan Sun and he's ahead of the game.

In these days of high gas prices, the $10 round-trip bus ride between Boston's Chinatown and the Connecticut casino is a budget traveler's delight. Not to mention the fact that someone else drives, and there's no parking to worry about. Plus, it's comfortable and punctual.

Passengers leave Chinatown for I-93 and in less than two hours, they see the glass towers as the bus pulls into the casino's underground garage.

On a recent midday Monday, three of us took the Sunshine Travel bus to Mohegan Sun. Opened in 1996, the complex has more than 300,000 square feet for gaming. There's also the 1,200-room Mohegan Sun Hotel and the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena. Restaurants, clubs, and retail shops make the site seem like a casually elegant mall.

In other words, there are plenty of ways to spend money.

But the bus ticket gets you $35 in bonuses. Passengers receive coupons good for $20 in bets at the dice game sic bo or spins on the Wheel of Fortune. There's also a coupon for a free lunch buffet. And visitors can sign up for a Player's Club card, which tallies your spending and gets you points toward food, beverages, entertainment, and other benefits.

First, though, it was time to eat, and the buffet awaited. And it was free. We opted for the Sunburst Buffet's Mongolian grill, pasta bar, and rotisserie. A midday Monday meant no lines.

Gluttony deserves a walk, right past more restaurants. Have a hankering for Krispy Kremes? We counted three. Starbucks was there, plus the retro hamburger joint Johnny Rockets. Michael Jordan's steakhouse had $32 Delmonicos while the menu at Rain listed $52 ribeyes. Celebrity chef Todd English's Tuscany was by the towering 85-feet-high indoor Taughannick Falls, where a slight breeze was felt while downing brews at the bar.

The stores are also tempting. Win big at the tables? There are upscale shops such as Boccelli for elegant accessories and Swarovski crystal, but there's nothing like watching sharks swim in a tank at Odysea, the marine-themed specialty shop.

After spending a couple of hours wolfing down food at the buffet and window shopping, it was gaming time.

In the two casinos, Casino of the Earth and Casino of the Sky, patrons pump quarters into the 6,200 waiting slot machines. The pai gow poker tables are packed. It's two deep at the sic bo table, and it takes just two spins of the Wheel of Fortune to say goodbye to those $10 bet coupons. The smoke-free Hall of Lost Tribes easily becomes the Hall of Lost Change. Across the corridor, TVs are everywhere in the Race Book room as bettors wage on races.

The slots at the domed Casino of the Sky beckon. Quickly quarters are eaten. In 37 minutes, one of us is down $10. Another's bounty comes and goes. The machines take, give, and take more.

This writer, who is not much of a gambler, plops two quarters into a slot. A triple diamond, bar, and cherry turn up. The wonderful sound of coins falling from machine to trough plays. Two quarters in, 90 come out, or $22.50.

Easy come, easy go. There's always something to get. At the least, there are the souvenir T-shirts and shot glasses. There's the wait-for-the-bus beer. Pop into another shop. Then it's back on the bus.

With drinks by the falls at Tuscany, the bus ride, tips, MBTA tokens, and parking, the gambling winnings helped keep the dent in my pocket to about $20 for the day.

Judging by the quiet conversation around us on the ride back to Boston, the house wants those buses to keep rolling in.

Marty Basch lives in New Hampshire and can be reached at marty@martybasch.com.

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