Stream of consciousness

by Brian Clarey

The stream that runs through the grounds of Harrah’s Cherokee — is it a stream? Maybe it’s a brook, with a rise of rock on the bed and breakwaters making rushes in the shallows. Or it might be a creek, maybe 15 yards across, meandering through the compound.

It’s always there,’  ever present: when you look out the windows of the hotel restaurants, from your room, as you cross the walkway into the casino, when you stand outside smoking a cigarette and appreciating the gentle susurrus of moving water, running down from the mountaintop, splashing through twists and turns and drops, here for the moment as it flows past, then into Soco Creek, splintering off and then petering out somewhere in Maggie Valley.

The principles of feng shui, the ancient art of perfect placement, say that freely flowing water like this represents the flow of money, fitting at the only real casino in the state of North Carolina, begun in 1997 by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in a nifty piece of legalistic turnabout: A sovereign people can do what they want on their own land.

Since the first gaming space was built, money has indeed been flowing in to the place via the slots and table games — they’ve got live craps, blackjack and roulette now, among other casino standards, and live dealers coming to the poker room soon — but now also through the restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Paula Deen’s Kitchen, Brio Italian cuisine, a Vegas-quality buffet and well appointed food court.

I’ve been eating here all weekend, first at the house buffet, where I started things off with a half-dozen oysters and finished them with chocolate and peanut-butter mousse, with at least one generous slab of roast beef in the middle. While my date ate crabcake eggs Benedict at Paula Deen’s, I took a pass through another buffet, netting some eggs, a couple nice pieces of bacon and some French toast casserole.

I’ve been coming out here for four years now, and each time I see the benefits of a finished project, a new space, more features.

This time we stood in awe underneath a water feature that simulated mountain rains in a high-ceiling chamber buttressed by stylized trees that brought to mind Frank Lloyd Wright, with a digital display screen playing out scenes of nature while artificial thunder gently rumbled and faux lightning flashed.

And we whiled away an entire afternoon at the Mandara Spa, where after massages and facials we soaked in Jacuzzi tubs underneath the casino floor, luxuriated in the heat emanating from ceramic lounges, listened to the silence in the Relaxation Room with a fire burning in the hearth.

A renovation that ran $650 million saw construction of a new hotel tower and the spa, along with the new restaurant space and casino square-footage, and a performance hall that wouldn’t look out of place at the MGM Grand.

They brought in Darius Rucker, the former leader of the Blowfish, for a Saturday night performance this weekend, and comic Jon Reep, a “Last Comic Standing” winner from Hickory who may be best known for posing the question, “That thing got a hemi?” in Dodge truck commercials, performed for a VIP crowd in a ballroom that had been swathed in white drapery and soft lighting. Among the swells — donors, tribal elders, high-rollers and NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis — we media types lapped up the free stick food and tried not to feel underdressed.

The majority of our gaming time we spent in the poker room, which is starting to gain a reputation among serious players.

For now the tables are electronic, meaning that each player sits in front of a touch-pad that keeps track of pot values and each individual player’s chip count; the action plays out on a big screen at the center of the table.

“My dealers deal 50 hands an hour,” the guy running the poker room said over the phone to a concerned gambler. “They don’t make mistakes and they don’t take tips.

“But we’ll have actual human dealers some time later this year,” he added.

I won a couple hundred playing at the no-limit Texas hold ’em table the first night, and lost most of it the second night trying to adjust my game at the potlimit table. I have some regrets about my game, but none about the way I spent my weekend.

I love casinos, have ever since I first stepped foot into Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis back in the early 1990s then made my way through gaming dens around New Orleans, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, NJ and wherever else I can find an honest game.

At the place in Cherokee, I’ve found a casino of a different stripe, with all the amenities I look for in the big-name gambling towns but none of the soulless hucksterism of the Vegas Strip or brokedown vainglory of downtown or the AC boardwalk.

And when the money from my personal gambling stake starts to flow the wrong way, I can always step outside and stand on the banks of the stream — the rivulet? The tributary? — and realign my energy.