It was the middle of the night at Little Lake Charles RV Park, and I was dead asleep in the back of our 2013 Windsport, a 35-foot vehicular behemoth that my husband and I had borrowed from Ron Hoover RV & Marine, off I-10 near Katy, for the weekend. We were surrounded by darkness; the wind on the lake was all we heard. Then: another sound. Footsteps. I was awoken by what sounded like someone scampering up the RV’s ladder. I sat up in bed, my heart beating fast, and tried to get a hold of myself.
Why would someone climb the ladder? I asked the logical side of me. Because there’s probably a hatch that he could use to lower himself into the living area, replied my crazy side. The uncertainty continued. This is a nice place full of families. He wants my purse. There’s nobody out there. We are going to die.
I heard it again—footsteps, definitely footsteps. I shook my husband like a ragdoll. “There’s somebody on the roof,” I hissed. He sat up. His eyes were still half-open but you could see the skepticism a mile away. Slowly, he got up and made his way to the Windsport’s cockpit.
“It’s raining,” he groaned. “Can’t you hear it? The wind is shaking the awning.” He pressed a button, the awning reeled itself in, and the noise stopped. I fell back onto my pillow, feeling relieved but also a little exposed. Something about me had just revealed itself, something embarrassing and long-concealed: I was biased against the whole RV thing.
Which surprised me, as the two-hours-and-change drive to Louisiana’s lake area had been my idea—and a blast. If you’ve never played a game of Hearts with friends around a faux-wood table while drinking Prosecco from plastic cups, eating a cheese ball, and singing along to Elton John and Billy Joel as you inch through traffic on I-10—well, all I can say is, I heartily recommend it. Indeed, I found myself feeling instant nostalgia for the experience—even as it happened, I knew I’d always remember it.
But then the landscape changed, dusk set in, we rumbled off the highway and down a gravel road, and someone made a joke about Deliverance. I found myself silently cursing Rick Steves. It was Steves’s recent impassioned plea for travelers to take vacations out of their comfort zones that had led to this moment. Okay, I had thought at the time, what if we took an RV to The Golden Nugget?—casinos being something about which I had a similar wariness.
My friends, being, well, my friends, loved the idea of riding to Lake Charles with us but refused point-blank to sleep in an RV park, opting instead for the creature comforts of hometown celebrity-billionaire Tilman Fertitta’s new casino hotel, where the night terrors were presumably milder. We struck a deal: they could ride in our RV if they would sneak us into the Golden Nugget’s marvelously over-the-top pool area, complete with multiple hot tubs, Caligula-esque double beds floating on the water and a lazy river.
Deal. They went their way and we went ours. When we met up the next morning, pride prevented me from recounting my terrifying ordeal, which was fine, as they had one of their own. My friends had waited in line for 30 minutes at the front desk, only to hear that the Nugget was out of rooms. “There were dozens of us,” said one. “They told us they’d comp us if we stayed at a Marriott not far away, but people got furious anyway. There was this one drunk old man with two missing front teeth who kept yelling, ‘THEY’RE GONNA PUT US IN SOME FLEABAG!’ And then this roar went up from the crowd. Every time somebody new showed up, he’d run over to them. ‘Got reservations?’ he’d say. They’d nod. ‘NO YA DON’T!’ he’d scream and then everybody would bust out laughing. It was like Mutiny on the Bounty meets Honeymoon in Vegas.”
At the height of the drama, he said, someone threatened to throw a shoe at one of the front desk clerks, but by this time he and his family had accepted the room at the Marriott as well as a $100 credit for the slot machines. They fled the scene and raced away from the Nugget, only to find themselves lost and driving down a half-finished road. They noticed the asphalt’s abrupt end just in time to slam on the brakes and avoid doing a Thelma and Louise into the mud. Needless to say, we concluded, the Golden Nugget is still a work in progress.
Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the place, which, together with the adjacent L’Auberge hotel and casino, rises mirage-like out of sleepy Lake Charles and its downhome crawfish and boudin shacks and daiquiris-to-go kiosks. Arriving at the casino felt like nothing so much as entering a bustling alternative universe.
The casino, just beyond the glowing golden bars of the Nugget’s imposing entrance, is surrounded by shops, bars and restaurants. Lobby signs announce the month’s entertainment options—April’s included a Styx concert and something called Free Asian Show, which elicited puzzled stares from our group. Our friends’ room—which the Nugget had ready by noon the next day—was on the 18th floor and gorgeous, with a commanding view of H2O, the Nugget’s pool complex. Beyond it was an unfinished golf course, and beyond that, Louisiana’s fifth-largest city.
We wandered the casino, peeking in the shops, then strode the boardwalk to L’Auberge, which, with its big lobby fireplaces and lush pool, had a decidedly different feel. If L’Auberge is a stretch black Cadillac, my husband declared, the Nugget is a yellow Hummer. The crowds, we decided, were about the same—well-dressed folks without a lot of money to burn.
Neither did I. I gave up on slots at the Nugget after losing $32 in approximately three minutes. After that, my husband and I loitered around the craps table a while, trying to remember the rules. We gave up, donned our swimsuits and snuck into one of the adults-only hot tubs. (These really were adults-only, we discovered, after trying to also sneak in our friend’s 14-year-old son. Otherwise, as casinos go, the Nugget seemed among the family-friendliest. There’s a waterslide, a cool arcade, etc.)
Meanwhile, soaking in the tub, we tuned in to endless chatter about the Nugget’s slots—whether they were “loose” or “tight” at that particular moment. (Spoiler alert: no consensus on the matter was ever reached.) At that point, one soaker was moved to tell the whole tub about his mother in Lafayette, who had just lost her home-health business to a gambling habit. For a while my husband and I stared at the water in silence, listening to the water gurgle and bubble.
The casino’s food options are a parade of Fertitta’s greatest hits—Landry’s, Grotto, Cadillac Bar, Vic & Anthony’s and more. We chose V&A and were not disappointed. The fare at the steakhouse was impeccable from first to last. Emboldened by our last bites of crème brûlée, we looked up the rules to craps on our phones and headed back into the casino.
There, an inebriated fellow named Ray took us under his wing. “You’re okay,” the alternately friendly and menacing gentleman repeatedly told me, seemingly trying to convince himself that I, as a person, passed muster. Meanwhile, the man shepherding the dice at the table—called a stickman, according to Wikipedia—was also eager to show us how to play the game. Thanks to all the mentorship, it was easy to learn craps. Even easier: losing at craps. After a rollercoaster ride in which we courted both jackpots and destitution, we were exhausted and $25 poorer. My husband and I shook Ray’s hand and walked away.
Needless to say, we didn’t exactly clean up at the craps table, but I felt like a winner anyway. Why? Rick Steves is right. Vacationing out of your comfort zone is exhilarating. And comfort zone or no, in my heart I’d always wanted to lumber down the road in a seven-miles-to-the-gallon leviathan with a master bedroom, shower, full-size fridge and oven—and boy howdy, I’d done it. I never thought I’d ever dine, fraternize or soak with casino people, toothless and otherwise—but boy howdy, I’d done it. That night, the road back to the RV park was as pitch black as ever, but I wasn’t scared. I was glad. I felt invincible. I loved the darkness and the quiet and the wind on the lake. I craved it.
Rounding the last turn into the Little Lake Charles, I saw not darkness but…strobe lights. There was a party going on under the pavilion. There were…RV park people dancing. Suddenly I felt a fresh wave of fear wash over me. No, I thought. I won’t give in to the terror.
I walked to the pavilion as confidently as I could and took a seat. When the DJs spun a mix of Zydeco, the Wiggles and that song that’s all about the bass, I simply smiled. I didn’t flinch when they introduced themselves as DJ Crazy and Party D either. Ditto when kids and parents alike started getting down on the dance floor. And by the time DJ Crazy brought down the house, changing into a red jumper with zebra trim and channeling Elvis for “Burning Love,” no one was cheering louder than me. Not long afterward, my husband and I dragged ourselves back to the motorhome, but we left the windows open, playing cards and listening as the party went on into the night.