CHEROKEE, N.C. - Far removed from the whirring, pinging and dinging of slot machines and the cheers and moans at the card tables, the quiet, serene Mandara Spa pampers individuals who hit the jackpot or need to soothe themselves after rolling the dice and losing at Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort.
The 18,000-square-foot spa, which opened in December, was the final component of the $650 million expansion over five years that adds a luxurious vibe to the resort tucked in the Great Smoky Mountains.
For 15 years, Harrah's Cherokee has served as a convenient gambling destination for Southeasterners. Now the glammed-up resort offers more amenities for gamblers as well as guests who don't want to test their luck.
The western North Carolina location also makes Harrah's Cherokee a place to stay when visiting other area attractions, like the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. With 1,101 hotel rooms and 107 suites, Harrah's Cherokee, which spans 56 acres and is owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, has the most hotel rooms in the Carolinas.
The marble-floor entrance to Harrah's Cherokee leads to cozy seating areas with plush upholstery surrounding flickering fireplaces that make you want to curl up and read a book - if the casino wasn't there. The check-in process on an afternoon was efficient, with resort employees not wanting to keep folks from the action.
The casino, which is open 24-7 for guests 21 or older, has upped the ante on gaming space, doubling in size.
The expansion created a total of 150,000 square feet, including 4,000 slots and 100 table games, such as craps, blackjack and roulette.
Frequent casino guests were excited when Harrah's Cherokee added dealers for its casino games in 2012, and its poker room will host a qualifying event for the World Series of Poker in April 2013.
The gambling floor is massive, and it's easy to become disoriented in the maze of machines and tables. Guests without a strong sense of direction will need to follow the signs or use a landmark to help them find their way around. If want to try your luck while your favorite team is playing, there are plenty of TVs throughout the space so you can keep your eyes on the action at your table and the field.
The 21-story Creek Tower - its third tower - freshens up the décor with Italian marble vanities, dark woods, and jewel-toned artwork and linens, creating a more contemporary look. During our December visit, the signs of use in our Creek Tower room were already showing.
The blinds were broken, there was a small area where the wallpaper had been ripped away, and part of the bathroom vanity needed to be repaired.
A few guests arrive with dogs on leashes and in kennels, since the casino has a hotel program called PetStay. Up to two dogs can stay in a room and fido-friendly amenities include dog treats, food and water dishes.
-Dining and shopping
Dining at Harrah's has changed. High-end eateries include Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, which serves up its steaks on a plate that keeps the meat hot until the last bite. BRIO Tuscan Grill, which serves pasta, pizza, fish, pork chops and steaks, also is indoors, but its patio-like setting contrasts with the neon lights of the casino.
Following in the path of other Harrah's casinos, the Cherokee also has Paula Deen's Kitchen, which includes an adjacent shop with cookware, dinnerware, cookbooks and gifts with the Savannah restaurateur's sayings.
The Chefs Stage Buffet, which had people lined up before opening for dinner, has expanded to 600 seats, plus more food stations.
The resort's 10 restaurants also include more affordable food options such as Dunkin' Donuts and Johnny Rockets in the food court, and dining on dim sum and more at the Noodle Bar in the Asian gaming room.
The Lobby Café has sandwiches and salads, breakfast items and coffee at Starbucks prices.
-What else to see and do
The 3,000-seat Cherokee Events Center will host Little Big Town on March 2 and Celtic Woman on April 26.
On a smaller scale, casino guests belt out karaoke or listen to live bands in the Essence Lounge.
Retail shops have grown more upscale over the years, with a Callaway Golf Shop in the Creek Tower and stores selling everything from high-end purses to linens.
The casino has family-friendly options, with an indoor pool and arcade room (open on the weekends for kids).
If you want to get outdoors, there's trout fishing in the stream running alongside the resort (there's an Orvis River's Edge Outfitters shop, too) and the 18-hole, par 72 Sequoyah National Golf Club (about 10 minutes from the resort).
Less than 30 minutes away from Harrah's Cherokee Resort, a don't-miss attraction for families is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City, N.C., which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
The sightseeing train offers daily excursions to spots such as the Nantahala Gorge and Nantahala Outdoor Center, and historic Dillsboro, N.C.
You'll travel alongside rivers on the trains, which are climate controlled and have comfortable padded seats. Prices vary depending on the cabin.
Workers often perform songs and stories, and group excursions are available, too. You embark and disembark from downtown Bryson City, which also provides dining options. We ate at Pasqualino's Italian Restaurant.
For the kids, it's best to time your visit to a themed journey. During our "The Polar Express" trip in December, workers acted out parts of the book, passed out cookies and hot chocolate, sang Christmas carols and danced with kids.
Once we hit the North Pole, kids squealed (and some parents got a little teary) when the "conductors" pointed out the colorfully lit homes of Rudolph and other holiday characters, before Santa entered the train cars to talk with the kids and hand them sleigh bells.
Upcoming trips include the Peanuts Easter Beagle Express in March or a ride tied to the PBS show "Dinosaur Train" during the summer.
IF YOU GO:
Harrah's Cherokee Resort 777 Casino Drive, Cherokee, N.C. 28719, 1-828-497-7777, http://www.harrahscherokee.com. Room rates start at $79.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad 226 Everett St. Bryson City, N.C. 28713, 1-800-872-4681, http://www.gsmr.com. Prices typically start at $51 adult, $29 child, for coach class seating, but vary depending on event/trip