[ON LOCATION] SUE PELLETIER
As we topped the last rise on our quick 1-hour ride from the Asheville, N.C., airport, I was almost disappointed to have reached our destination. Our driver from Harrah’s Cherokee Transportation Services had given us the option of backroad or highway, and the backroad that winds, twists and climbs along the way was spectacular. Then I saw the resort rising off the valley floor, backdropped by the cloud-studded hillsides of the Smoky Mountains National Park, and I realized that the drive was nothing compared to the destination.
The 56-acre Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, just 50 miles west of Asheville, is an eclectic mix of four high-rise hotel towers with a total of more than 1,800 rooms, a 150,000-sf-plus casino, a 3,035-seat Event Center, as well as a gorgeous 18,000-sf Mandara Spa, indoor and outdoor heated pools, and a plethora of dining options to meet every possible taste.
Our small press FAM group stayed in the 19-story Cherokee Tower, which opened with 725 rooms and 70 suites in October 2021, along with the convention center and a 6-level convention center parking garage. The new 83,000-sf convention center is designed for total flexibility, with a 32,000-sf ballroom and 11,000 sf of pre-function space, 26 meeting spaces, a 33,000-sf exhibition hall with 6,000 sf of pre-function space, and a 900-sf board room.
The 2-story, open-air Cherokee Tower lobby, which features a 50-seat lobby bar and lounge, is welcoming and elegant. I was particularly taken with the backlit custom walnut-slatted wood design behind the 30-ft registration desk, a stunning abstract representation of the Great Smoky Mountains created by a local artist. We learned that the grand lobby was designed to illustrate the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), which owns the property. In fact, the resort houses one of the world’s largest permanent exhibitions of contemporary EBCI art, with pieces around every corner.
I stayed in one of the tower’s Premium King rooms, which come complete with an incredibly comfortable bed with eucalyptus-blend sheets, a spacious sitting area, a huge TV and a spacious shower with both rain and wall shower heads. We were welcomed on our first evening with designer cocktails in the tower’s South Super Suite, whose glass walls offer amazing mountain views.
We followed that stunning experience with a delicious dinner at the GR Truffle Pub—the crab cakes were my favorite. The pub is one of the many cuisine concepts that make up the Gordon Ramsay Food Market, where attendees can get everything from street burgers and pizza to fresh sushi and New York-style deli sandwiches. Other dining options we had the chance to partake in included breakfast on the outdoor patio at the Selu Lobby Patio, and lunch and a grab-and-go breakfast at Guy Fieri’s Cherokee Kitchen + Bar.
While the weather kept us indoors for our Creekscape Lo Country Boil dinner, served in one of the convention center’s meeting spaces, I may have squealed just a bit when the staff brought out giant metal bowls of perfectly spiced boiled crab, crawdads, shrimp, corn on the cob and potatoes—and then proceeded to pour the pile of delectableness right on the center of the table. Suffice it to say, we were not shy about diving in. Also of note is the Wicked Weed Brewing pub, where we ended up after hours sipping signature local brews.
Our final evening dinner was an elegant affair on the floor of the event center. Our group took up only a tiny amount of the available space—the center has banquet space for up to 800 and includes two 65-seat VIP suites and two smaller, 6-seat suites—but we felt like giants as we feasted on chef-prepared delicacies. We also were treated to an EBCI dance troupe who performed Warrior Culture dances and allowed us to join in a friendship dance, as well as a private concert by the Crocodile Smile Band, which got me up and dancing to ‘80s rock and roll.
But one of my favorite things about the property is the Soco creek that runs right through the center of the complex. The burbling waters are a constant reminder that, while it may feel like you’re in one of the ultra-luxe resorts Caesars Entertainment—which operates Harrah’s Cherokee—is famous for, you’re also on tribal lands at the gateway to the great Smoky Mountains.
Where else but Harrah’s Cherokee can you go fly fishing right outside a resort’s front doors? That’s what our small press group had the good fortune to do our first morning at the resort, courtesy of River’s Edge Outfitters, who supplied the hip waders, fishing gear, flies and much-needed instruction to have us hauling in several (catch-and-release) trout, both stocked and native. Another fun on-property entertainment option we experienced is the Ultrastar Multi-Tainment Center, a 50,000-sf arcade that features 24 bowling lanes, private party rooms, a boutique bowling bar and an ESports Zone.
One off-property experience that would be great for group outings is the Ocunaluftee Indian Village. Just 15 minutes or so down the road from Harrah’s Cherokee, groups can tour the Village to see how the EBCI make traditional arts, crafts and necessities, from weaving to weapons—topped with a performance of traditional dances. Another fun option we experienced was the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which leaves from nearby Bryson City and takes guests on a tour through the North Carolina Mountains along the Nantahala and Tuckasegee Rivers. The first-class version of the trip included lunch and an incredibly charming, funny and informative guide, plus a 1-hour stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where you can hike a smidgen of the Appalachian Trail, fly down ziplines, and go rafting or kayaking down the river.
If gaming is more your group’s style, Harrah’s Cherokee has that in spades with more than 160 traditional table games and 3,000-plus slot machines, playing in the World Series of Poker - Poker Room, or betting in the Caesars Sportsbook sports-betting venue.
From luxurious spa treatments to world-class entertainment to dining and the arcade/bowling lanes, there’s something for every group that wants to meet at this resort. But I would highly recommend offering some of the many off-site outing options to soak in the beauty of the Smokies and the incredible cultural heritage of the ECBI.
caesars.com/harrahs-cherokee; visitcherokeenc.com/play/attractions/oconaluftee-indian-village; caesars.com/meetings; gsmr.com