A Dirty Dancing themed weekend in southwestern Virginia throws up surprises like the city of Roanoke, a cultural gold mine on the Blue Ridge Mountain trail. By Aindrila Mitra
‘Where is this place?’ my well-travelled friend asks me when I tell him I’m off to Roanoke. “It’s in Virginia, USA,” I explain. “A part of the Blue Mountain Ridge Trail.” His reaction is common despite this gem of a city being only a 30-minute flight from Washington’s Dulles International Airport and a scenic four-hour drive from DC. It’s a bright day when I land at the airport to be welcomed by Christi Braginton from Virginia Tourism. I am here for the 35th anniversary celebrations of Dirty Dancing, the iconic ’̦80s movie starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey that pops up every time I am surfing channels. I’ve watched it about half a dozen times through the years!
Exploring Mountain Lake Lodge
We drive up to Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke, about an hour’s drive from Roanoke, to celebrate the weekend with Dirty Dancing fans. It is one of locations where the movie was shot in 1986. Mountain Lake Lodge served as The Kellerman Resort. I am checked into the main restored lodge, and my room overlooks the resort’s now extensive pool and chilling zones. I meet Heidi Stone, the general manager of Mountain Lake Lodge for what turns out to be a rather quick tour of the property set in the middle of a 2,600-acre nature preserve and surrounded by Appalachian Mountains.
“The property was owned by Mary Moody. She spent her summers here,” explains Stone, adding, “When she died in 1986, she left the property to The Mary Moody Northen Endowment, which currently owns and runs the resort.” Over the last decade, Stone and her team have been rebuilding the “culture, dining, activities, and focussing on the assets.” Today, Mountain Lake Lodge has a total of 100 rooming units, half of which are hotel rooms, and the other half are two-, three-, and four-bedroom cottages, with a capacity of 350 people. There are approximately six special Dirty Dancing weekend celebrations through the year (the first was held in 1988). When I check in on an August weekend, the property is at 100 per cent capacity.
From special Dirty Dancing-themed fancy dress to trivia and games, the weekend passes in fun and humour. It’s a gathering of multi-generation travellers united by a single thread—love for the film. Stone reveals that a sequel with Jennifer Grey is scheduled to be shot here next spring and slotted to release on February 9, 2024.
The meals prepared by executive chef Michael Porterfield (also called Mike) are typically American and consist of stews, mashed potatoes, pies, salads, and breads. But the hero dish is the pot roast vegetables—something Mike also served during the filming. “Patrick was a really nice guy, he’d come and have beer with us,” he reminisces.
A Weekend of Dirty Dancing
With my brand-new Dirty Dancing merchandise, I set out for Roanoke—a hidden gem on the Blue Ridge Mountain trail. “Roanoke was once a popular refugee resettlement area,” reveals Kathryn Lucas, the public relations manager for Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge. I get a sense of it in Downtown Roanoke—the crowd is a mix of multiple races. I walk into a boutique called She’s International and meet Diane Speaks, the owner and a former flight attendant with US Airways, who settled in Roanoke 46 years ago. My eyes fall on an earring made by an Indian designer, trinkets from Turkey, and fashion from Croatia and Greece for full-bodied women. So, what keeps her in Roanoke, having travelled the world for 33 years as a flight attendant, I ask. “Roanoke is lovely,” she tells me, “It’s affordable, beautiful, people are great, the mountains are gorgeous, and the weather doesn’t get terrible. There’s a lot to do here if you really want to.”
I stop by Taubman Museum of Art , a seven-minute walk from where I stay—The Liberty Trust. The Liberty Trust building was originally the First National Bank in Roanoke, which facilitated the commercial transactions of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, and first opened in 1910. In 1926, the bank merged with the National Exchange Bank, and the building was sold to the Liberty Trust. In the years that followed, the Liberty Trust property got recognised as one of the best-appointed Edwardian era bank buildings in Virginia.
The Taubman Museum is fascinating— architect Randall Stout honours naturalistic elements of Roanoke with the 23-metre glass peak in the atrium recalling the Roanoke Star, and the undulating roofline reflecting the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I visit, there’s a beautiful installation of deconstructed Broadway outfits. I am taken with the Cynthia and Heywood Fralin collection until I stumble upon the customised exhibit of Judith Leiber: Earthly Delights. The Taubman Museum of Art is one of the largest repositories of Leiber bags in America. The day ends on a high note after some games at Roanoke Pinball Museum followed by dinner at Bloom. Opened by chef Nate Sloan in July 2019, the restaurant serves the most unique corn dishes, including a corn parfait—a delight for vegetarians.
Mornings in Roanoke are quiet and pleasant. I walk through the Farmer’s Market in Downtown (primarily a weekend market) and take a stroll through Elmwood Park to build an appetite. Then, I head to one of the most popular eateries in Roanoke, Scratch Biscuit Co., where I dig into a freshly made country ham biscuit with green gold iced coffee. It’s not too heavy, scores high on freshness, and the meat is all too delicious. With breakfast done, I head to the home of the TV series Salvage Dawgs. Black Dog Salvage—a treasure trove of American history and all things vintage was started in 1999 by ex-navy men, Mike and Robert. Today the salvage store spans 4,088 square metres and houses vintage doors, doorknobs, sinks, beds, furniture paint, and more. The adjacent Stone House of Black Dog Salvage, a restored stone house from circa 1911, now available to book on Airbnb, is also a good option for a family stay in this part of Roanoke.
For dinner, Kathryn Lucas takes me to the joint once frequented by Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, and Kevin Costner among others. Texas Tavern was founded by Issac (Nick) Bullington in February 1930. The ‘World Famous Chile’ recipe that the establishment has been serving since then originally came from a hotel in Texas. Matt Bullington, the fourth-generation owner says, “The shop is exactly what it was like in the 1930s. Its [become] part of the fabric of Roanoke, and we take that seriously.”
On our way to the Roanoke Star sitting atop Mill Mountain Park, an iconic tourist attraction of the region, Lucas tells me, “Roanoke is a metro mountain destination, which makes it unique. Now, people from larger cities like Washington are moving here. Those who once left Roanoke are now coming back because they are surprised by the development [here]. There are urban things to do, and there are easy hikes.” As I look up to the largest free-standing man-made star, I know I have found a hidden star in the heart of Virginia.
Getting To Roanoke
The easiest way to get to Roanoke is to fly into Dulles International Airport in Washington, and then take a connecting flight to Roanoke. Alternatively, you can also drive down to Roanoke, which approximately takes four hours. Multiple airlines including the Emirates and United Airlines fly from major Indian cities to Washington.
The Dirty Dancing Weekend takes place at the Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke, and there are only six of these special weekend celebrations in a year. Advance booking is recommended. The schedule for 2023 is available and one can pre book. The dates are: April 28- 30, June 23-25, July 28-30, August 25-27, September. 15-17, October. 27-29, 2023.
The Liberty Trust Hotel is conveniently located in the heart of Downtown Roanoke. The boutique property has 54 luxurious guest rooms with modern amenities.
The other option is The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, Curio Collection by Hilton—a conserved Tudor-style hotel originally built in 1882.