Tulalip Resort Casino in Tulalip, Wash., underscored its "wow" factor by earning the AAA Four Diamond award last year

If there was any doubt that Tulalip Resort Casino is not only the biggest place between Seattle and Vancouver to stay and play, but the best, the Four Diamond award AAA bestowed on the property last year made it official.

Talk to President and COO Ken Kettler about it, and his pride is evident, and understandable. “Once people get here they’re just wowed,” he asserts. “It’s way beyond their expectations.”

The wow part arrived in August 2008 with the opening of a $130 million, 370-room hotel.

And it came just in time to buffer Tulalip from the worst of the downturn.

“Nobody had that niche - to be the destination resort in Washington state,” Kettler says. “That full year of operation of the hotel positioned the property well when the economy took a dive.”

Mind you, this is a hotel on a par with the best Las Vegas has to offer and with a bit more besides, like proximity to the Cascade Mountains and Puget Sound. So there is no shortage of things to do and see while you’re unwinding at Tulalip and sampling the action on its expansive gaming floor (192,000 square feet with another 7,000 at the hotel) or savoring one of Chef Dean Shinagawa’s unique creations at Tulalip Bay or relaxing beneath the Chihuly chandelier in the Wine Room or dancing the night away at mPulse Lounge, enjoying a swim indoors at the Oasis Pool or indulging yourself with a massage and a rainwater shower at the elegant 14,000-square-foot T Spa.

Yet, in the midst of all this, you’re never very far from the rich, time-honored traditions of the resort’s owners, the Tulalip Tribes, a federally recognized amalgam of several Native American groups indigenous to the region. Original works of aboriginal art greet you everywhere, a cultural treasure valued at more than $1 million.

“The history of the tribe is part of the décor, which is kind of neat,” Kettler says. “It has a personality and a character. When you walk in you feel connected to something which you don’t usually get at a resort. We say there’s a story in every corner.”

Warm hospitality

Tulalip culture works its way into other aspects of the operation as well, most noticeably in the warm treatment accorded to guests, which is grounded in the tribe’s renowned hospitality. A quarter of the property’s 2,000 employees are tribal members or their relatives or members of other native groups.

“It’s not a program,” Kettler says of the emphasis on service. “It’s a way of doing business.”

This exerts its influence on the marketing as well. Tulalip Resort Casino wants to be both a place where you come to celebrate and a haven for getting away from it all. This was the essence of the pitch to visitors to last month’s Winter Olympics across the border in Vancouver.

“We started before the holidays marketing ourselves as a more relaxed stay,” says Kettler, “an escape from the congestion.”

Canadians certainly have heard about Tulalip Resort Casino and are making their way there in respectable numbers, accounting for about 10 percent of the property’s clientele. Washington’s Snohomish and King counties make up most of the rest. Asians are another focus. The property also is reaching out to the cruise ship market. The location is convenient enough from either side of the border, just 30 minutes north of Seattle off Interstate 5 in Quil Ceda Village on the Tulalip reservation.

The rooms alone are worth the drive. All feature floor-to-ceiling windows and granite counters. Each is trimmed in dark African wenge-wood, which nicely sets off the Tulalip artisan pieces found throughout and the decorative resin door panels at the entrance to the bathrooms. Forty-two-inch flat-panel televisions are standard, as are the iPod docks, free wireless Internet and the three-head body spray showers.

For the VIP players there are five custom-themed “specialty suites” - these include the 3,000-square-foot Tulalip Suite, designed for corporate entertaining, the 2,000-square-foot Player’s Suite, decorated with sports memorabilia and equipped with a competition-size pool table, a dart board and arcade games, the Technology Suite, whose name says it all, and there are two richly appointed Asian-themed suites, feng shui-correct, of course.

“We want to say ahead of the curve,” Kettler says. “We’ve positioned ourselves to make it smartly through the recession. And we can grow comfortably when the time is right.”

Tulalip Resort Casino Facts

n Located in Quil Ceda Village, Tulalip Indian Reservation, 30 minutes north of Seattle off Interstate 5 in Tulalip, Wash.

n 2,000-plus slot and video poker machines, 59 table games, non-smoking poker room, keno, bingo

n 370 guest rooms and suites with free wireless Internet and iPod docks standard

n 30,000 square feet of meeting and events space, including the 15,000-square-foot Orca Ballroom

n mPulse nightclub located in the hotel

n Tulalip Amphitheatre seats 3,000 for shows and concerts

n Dining outlets include Tulalip Bay, BlackFish Wild Salmon Bar & Grill, Cedars Café, Eagles Buffet and Canoes Carvery.

n Amenities include the full-service T Spa, 24-hour Fitness Center, indoor Oasis Pool, gift shop and floral shop

n 2,000 employees

n Owned by the Tulalip Indian Tribes