We did not drive into Lake Charles, Louisiana, so much as descend upon it. After a straight shot east on I-10, the bridge into town curved upward, its long, rollercoaster ascent briefly obscuring our destination. But from the top, we saw it all: the winding Contraband Bayou, scattered refineries and chemical plants, and mirrored casinos glimmering in the Friday-afternoon light.
We were closing in on the towering L’Auberge Casino Resort on the recommendation of a lifetime of billboards and television ads. True gambling, of course, remains illegal in Texas, which explains why crossing the Sabine into Louisiana has become something of a Houstonian rite of passage—one I’d yet to embark upon. To rectify that, I’d decided to round up a friend, hop the border, and go for broke.
The L’Auberge itself is a unique, many-tiered building featuring rustic colors and natural stone, but also hints of Vegas, with every feature twice as big and shiny as one would expect. Inside, the building buzzes with energy made possible only by the prospect of winning big and losing hard. We immediately discovered that here, elevator rides with strangers are not punctuated with weather small talk, but rather Did you win? Are you feeling lucky? How much have you lost?
This excitement propelled us to the gaming floor, which we found to be a wonderful, flashing, blinking, beeping, smoky anachronism. We each submitted to the adrenaline-fueled reverie surrounding us, at least until a few risky roulette spins set us back $50. Such loss could only be remedied by an excellent meal, which was roundly delivered by the resort’s Ember Grille & Wine Bar, complete with broiled oysters and seared scallops. Our waiter further confirmed our rite-of-passage theory: More than 80 percent of Ember’s customers, he estimated, hail from Houston.
The next day, we discovered that there is, in fact, a world beyond the casino. Local favorite Steamboat Bills introduced us to the magical crawfish étouffée potato, a torso-sized gut bomb smothered in cheese and mudbug. Our long weekend also happened to coincide with the annual Chuck Fest, an all-day event that takes over the walkable downtown with an array of “Mr. Brightside” cover bands and purveyors of artisanal juice. Later, on the other side of town, we climbed aboard the USS Orleck, a WWII-era battleship that offers a unique and exhaustive tour, furnishing one of the few opportunities in life to cradle an artillery shell like a baby.
Sunday, before crossing the bridge back toward Texas, we headed south to the Pintail Wildlife Trail for a brief swamp safari. Strolling the boardwalk, which cuts through cattail-filled marshes, we witnessed roseate spoonbill launching into flight as our footsteps echoed on the planks. We explored the rest of the trail by car, winding through waters where alligators shyly peaked from below the surface.
Turning back onto the highway, we decided that Louisiana’s swamps are like Houston’s prairies—magnificent in an understated, textured way wholly different from the showboating vistas of the Hill Country.
Stay the night
L’Auberge Casino Resort is an upscale one-stop-shop that features plenty of restaurants, shopping, and live entertainment, as well as a golf course and resort-style pool with lazy river. Oh, and plenty of gambling. Rooms from $119.
Other spots to bet on
No, you won’t find the impressive game floors of L’Auberge, but if you’re willing to kick the can another hour down I-10, the swampy wonders and gator sightings of Lafayette are just an airboat rental away. Hit up Vermilionville Historic Village, a wonderful living history museum devoted to the Acadian, Native American, and Creole people. Stay the night at the Mouton Plantation in the Sterling Grove Historic District.
Whisper after us: Coushatta. If gambling is truly the only item on your agenda, then you might as well head to the largest casino resort in Louisiana, featuring 100,000 square feet of slots, tables and the ever-elusive non-smoking section. There isn’t much else in Kinder, a small town of roughly 2,400 souls, but visitors staying at the Coushatta’s newly renovated Grand Hotel don’t seem to care.
You technically don’t have to cross the Sabine to gamble in Texas. To try your luck in more familiar territory, the Jacks or Better casino boat departs daily from Galveston to ferry folks into federal waters, where they can shoot craps to their heart’s content. Between voyages, the boutique Tremont House provides a welcome respite.