Susan Griffin heads to Mountain Lake Lodge, Virginia, where Dirty Dancing was shot, and discovers there’s more to this magical place than simply movie memorabilia.
I’m standing, arms crossed, while my other half uploads pictures of himself in front of our hotel to Instagram. Determined to share his location with the online world, he remains oblivious to the fact I’m impatient to take my turn posing.
For this isn’t any old hotel, it’s one of the movie world’s most famous landmarks, known to millions of Dirty Dancing fans as Kellerman’s Resort, the very place where Baby (Jennifer Grey) carried a watermelon and fell in love with hot dance instructor Johnny (played by the late Patrick Swayze).
The truth is, before we arrived, Baby’s cabin meant nothing to my boyfriend, but a day into our stay and he’s already acting like the film’s number one fan. But then it’s hard not to be captivated by nostalgia in the hotel’s secluded and timeless location.
The film was set in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, but was predominantly shot at Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia, a four-hour drive from Washington DC, and set in the middle of a 2,600-acre nature preserve, surrounded by the southern Appalachian Mountains.
At 4,000 feet above sea level, we pull into the hotel’s drive, just like the Housemans do in the movie, and it’s a rather surreal feeling. The hotel’s stone facade, which dates back to the 1930s, is familiar, as is the sight of Baby’s cabin across the manicured front lawn, where Kellerman’s guests bunny hop at the beginning of the film.
In the distance, there’s the gazebo where Baby’s father finds solace after finding out his daughter has spent the night with Johnny, but there’s no lake and it’s eerily quiet in an out-of-season early April.
We make our way inside the main lodge where we’re greeted by super-chatty barman Michael, who offers us a local beer, a strawberry cobbler and the chance to watch the film on the small TV in the corner.
We accept all three as we take our seats in the rustic Stony Creek Tavern, with its huge stone fireplace. Michael began his career at Mountain Lake Lodge shortly after the film was made, but he’s the oracle on all things Dirty Dancing and the man who takes charge of the tours during the movie-themed weekends, which happen throughout the warmer months.
In between reeling off quotes from the movie, he tells us how Swayze would ask to be called “Buddy” and muck in with crew at the end of a day’s filming, while Grey would keep herself to herself.
Michael also fills us in on the uber-fans he’s encountered over the years, the cheeky guests who’ve tried to make off with memorabilia and what he describes as the films “anomalies”, including Marjorie Houseman’s hair at the beginning of the film (it’s a different colour) and the fact Johnny is technically driving through the archway in the wrong direction.
Talk then turns to the unnerving number of ghosts that supposedly haunt the lodge. Not least the little girl ghoul, who’s said to run into room 232, which Swayze called home during production.
We aren’t staying in the lodge itself, but in one of the wooden cabins in the grounds, which is just a stone’s throw from Virginia Cottage, aka Baby’s cabin, which you can also stay in.
We wake the next morning to a milky sun and sip warming cups of coffee on our porch’s rocking chairs, while listening to the sound of rustling trees and birdsong. Breakfast is served in Hunter Restaurant, which has barely changed since Baby first spied Johnny and poured water over an unrepentant Robbie.
After breakfast we meet Grace, a guide at Mountain Lake Lodge, who takes us on a lake bed trail. The lake is a natural phenomenon as it drains and refills itself in a cyclical process, thanks to a network of caverns that lie beneath. It’s been dry for nine years and no one knows for sure when the water will return. Guests might not be able to go boating, but the rare and threatened species that flourish here make it one of the most bio-diverse areas in the United States, and a fascinating place to explore.
Grace tells us about Civil War soldiers who walked the terrain, and points out the spot where the famous lake lift in Dirty Dancing happened. There’s still evidence of the underwater platform they erected for the scene.
In the afternoon, we make our way back down the mountain and head to the Sapphire Ballroom, in the small town of Christiansburg. We meet Debbie, who’s been tasked with teaching myself – and a rather resigned-looking boyfriend – some simple steps (private lessons cost from £44).
We begin with the foxtrot. It’s a disaster – and our merengue is even worse, despite the other half’s concentration as Debbie puts him through his paces. After an hour, exhausted and with muscles aching, we drive to the nearby student town of Blacksburg, and tuck into a feast of Cajun shrimp dip and a calzone at the popular Cellar restaurant (meals approx. £6-£10). If you like things cheesy and fried, you’ll be in your element here in south-west Virginia.
On our last day, we set out with Grace to explore the surrounding villages scattered across the verdant valley, stopping off at the Walker Valley Market, a store run by the local Amish community, and the ironically-named Dismal Falls, a picture-perfect spot that calls out for a dip on sun-drenched days.
Mountain Lake Lodge might be a Dirty Dancing fan’s dream, but the hotel and surrounding area is rich in history and nature. When we end the trip as we began, back in Stony Creek Tavern, we’re lamenting the fact we can’t stay longer.
Weekend Packages at Mountain Lake Lodge cost £267 per person (two sharing), including all meals, two dance parties, Dirty Dancing film tour, group dance lessons and two nights accommodation. Visit mtnlakelodge.com.
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Washington DC from £624 in Economy including tax. Visit virginatlantic.com