|By Susan Gilmor, Winston-Salem Journal,
N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 25, 2013--CHEROKEE -- They're calling it the "Masterpiece in the Mountains."
Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort recently completed a $650 million expansion that doubled the amount of hotel rooms and gaming space. The casino also brought in live table games; built a spa; added 10 restaurants, including a Ruth's Chris Steak House, Paula Deen's Kitchen and a 600-seat buffet; and spruced up the decor, giving it a sleek, contemporary feel.
"We could pick this property up and set it on the Las Vegas strip, and it would fit right in," said Brooks Robinson, the senior vice president and general manager of Harrah's Cherokee.
"We're so very proud of this masterpiece that we've built here," said Robinson, one of several Harrah's officials who used the word "masterpiece" during a celebration last weekend.
The resort was filled with officials and visitors eager to see all the changes that have taken place in stages over the course of the past five years, while the casino remained open.
Kristina Lannon of Knoxville, Tenn., was quite impressed.
"It looks more modern than some of the casinos in Las Vegas," said Lannon, who had made the trip to celebrate the birthday of her mother, Linda Stephens.
The rich, contemporary decor -- featuring lots of warm wood, accented with steel and stone -- and the large, unusual light fixtures throughout the resort particularly caught her eye.
"I love it," Lannon said. "I think it's really fabulous."
One particularly striking feature is the rotunda at the main entrance to the casino. Guests coming in are greeted by the sight of twin 75-foot waterfalls. Eight equally tall acrylic trees, lit from within, surround the area. And there's a 140-foot long LED screen that showcases original Cherokee legends. The trees and screen light up in an array of colors, combining with pulsing music to create a light show.
The casino itself now has more than 150,000 square feet of gaming space, with more than 4,100 slots and video games, and more than 100 tables where people can play craps, roulette, poker, blackjack and baccarat.
The addition of traditional, live table games was a big deal for the casino. Until last summer, the casino had only electronic games.
Now casino employees spin roulette wheels, deal cards and rake in dice.
After the casino added live poker games and a poker room, it landed the chance to host a World Series of Poker qualifying tournament from April 4-14. "It's the first one in the state, so we're very proud of that," Robinson said.
There are hundreds of TVs throughout the casino, allowing players to keep up with March Madness.
Some of the screens were being used to display information about how those with gambling problems can get help, as gambling can become a devastating addiction for some people.
The addition of the third hotel tower brought the number of rooms in the hotel to 1,108, including 107 suites. The top floor houses two suites, one 1,900 square feet, the other 1,600 square feet, with outdoor decks overlooking the mountains.
"We have the largest hotel operation in either North or South Carolina," Robinson said. And the hotel still stays full much of the time, he said.
The casino has arrangements with other hotels in the area to house guests. "We expect to have to book 50,000 off-site rooms this year," he said.
There are no definite plans for further expansion, he said, but "we're always evaluating" the need for more rooms.
The events center, which opened 2 1/2 years ago, seats more than 3,500 people. "There is actually not a bad seat in the house here," said Ahinawake Littledave, the casino's marketing services manager.
The risers can be pulled back to make room for trade shows and poker tournaments or left up for concerts. Coming concerts include Alicia Keys on Wednesday, Dwight Yoakam on June 14 and Billy Idol on June 21.
The resort also has 10 shops, including stores selling clothing and accessories, golf equipment, truffles and fudge, and other items.
People can buy fishing gear and get a fishing license at the Orvis store, then head out and fish in the creek that separates the casino from the hotel. People walking across the bridge that links the two buildings could see a man in hip waders fishing in the creek on Thursday afternoon.
There's also banquet space, a ballroom, a golf course, indoor pool, fitness room, bars, and lounges for high rollers. Alcohol started being served at the casino about three years ago.
The Balinese-inspired Mandara Spa was the last part of the expansion to be completed. It offers an array of upscale beauty treatments and massages, as well as a sauna and whirlpool baths lined with flower petals. The decor is elegant and exotic, combining both Balinese and Native American elements.
"It's relaxing just to be here," said Lana Buchanan, who works in the spa.
She said it's already proving popular. "We have a lot of people already coming back," she said.
Some things at the casino haven't changed, though. Smoking is still allowed in most areas on the main floor of the casino, so the smell of cigarettes can be overwhelming for those with sensitive noses.
And people still say the same thing to each other as they part ways: "Good luck to you out there."
(c)2013 Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, N.C.)
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