Like so many girls growing up in the ’80s, the movie Dirty Dancing captured my imagination and made me see a future for myself I’d previously never imagined was possible. Unlike my Tiger Beat-obsessed friends, though, that hoped-for future didn’t involve losing my virginity to a hunk in tight jeans who’d stick around just long enough for a celebratory swan lift in front of applauding friends and family members. My fantasies all centered around the rustic lake resort where the Dirty Dancing action took place.
I ached for the simple pleasures of tanning on sands hauled up from Florida and dumped on the shores of a man-made lake. Dressing up each night to dine in some pine-beamed, mildew-kissed dining room of a hundred-year-old inn. Canoeing to a small, uninhabited island with a book, picnic lunch and can of bug repellent stowed in my canvas knapsack. I begged my dad to take us to a lake resort like the one I’d seen in the movie, solemnly promising not to spend his money on anyone’s back-alley abortion while we were there. Despite my pledge (which, FYI, I fully intended to live up to), the man was unmoved. There would be no lake resort vacation in my future — at least not for the next few decades.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when my editor asked if I could make a last-minute trip to Lake Lure, NC, the real-life resort town featured in Dirty Dancing. Seriously? Vacation in the same exact spot where Baby Houseman once did the Mashed Potato? Yes, please!
“I begged my dad to take us to a lake resort like the one I’d seen in the movie, solemnly promising not to spend his money on anyone’s back-alley abortion while we were there.”
So, 29 years after the release of Dirty Dancing in theaters, I finally got the chance to visit the truly spectacular Lake Lure. Now, I’m back to tell you exactly what to do there in order to have the time of your life. Yes, I swear; it’s the truth. And you’ll owe it all to me. Follow my instructions and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll have the best 48 hours in Lake Lure, ever.
2 Days in Lake Lure, NC
Located just 26 miles from Asheville in the Hickory Nut Gorge, Lake Lure is the perfect spot for a relaxing weekend getaway or two-day leg of a longer trip. Prepare to leave your work and your Netflix behind – the area’s mountains, foothills and hollows make for notoriously spotty wi-fi and cellular coverage. You’ll be able to access wi-fi/cell phone service in most area coffee shops and restaurants but it might not be so great in your cabin or hotel room.
Where to Stay
Plenty of lake-side homes are available for rent, and some of them are really lovely. But if you’re looking for a truly old-fashioned resort experience, try the historic Lake Lure Inn and Spa. Built in 1927, this hotel still has many original Art Deco details dating back to its construction. Choose from a room inside the inn itself, or rent a Dirty Dancing-themed cabin — “Baby’s Bungalow” and “Johnny’s Cabin” are moderately priced.
Although the rooms are clean and the inn is quaint, the best feature of this hotel is its location. The Lake Lure Beach is right across the street and the inn is within easy walking distance of several restaurants (including La Strada), shops, Lake Lure Coffee and Carolina Moon Coffee Roasters, the Lake Lure pontoon boat ride, Morse Park and the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge. Lake Lure’s roads are narrow and have many twists and turns so, if you don’t feel comfortable driving under these conditions any more than you have to, the Lake Lure Inn & Spa is definitely the place for you.
Another similar option we loved is the The Esmeralda Inn & Restaurant, located in nearby Chimney Rock. In the early 1900s, this inn was a favorite vacation spot for silent movie stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Later, artists and actors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gloria Swanson and Clark Gable all flocked to the inn for creative inspiration. Author Lew Wallace is said to have written the script for Ben-Hur in The Esmeralda’s Room 9!
Although the original inn burned to the ground in 1997, the owners carefully rebuilt The Esmeralda to remain true to its roots, and today, it is the epitome of rustic luxury. Choose from a room inside the inn itself or opt for one of the cozy cabins dotting the beautifully landscaped hollows and hillsides surrounding the main building.
You’re headed to Chimney Rock but first make a stop along the way for coffee and a light breakfast at Lake Lure Coffee (109 Arcade St.). This popular coffee shop is packed with people in the mornings — and when you taste one of their lattes, you’ll understand why.
Chimney Rock State Park is less than 10 minutes away from Lake Lure and it will be a true high point of your vacation — in more ways than one. I recommend visiting the park on the first full day of your visit, simply because you’ll spot Chimney Rock in the distance often during your stay and it’s much more inspiring to see it after you’ve been to the top. In order to see the two main features of this park, plan to devote your entire day to it.
Two things you need to know before you go: Although there’s an elevator to the top of Chimney Rock, it hasn’t worked in over a year and, judging from the dozen or so varied explanations I heard from locals during our stay, I don’t believe it will be fixed any time soon. Second, admission to this state park is unexpectedly high at $13 per person ($15 when the elevator is working). Trust me when I tell you that both the cost and the climb on foot to the top of this 315-foot granite monolith are totally worth it.
You’ll climb 499 steps to reach Chimney Rock’s flagpole but the railings make the climb safe for even the smallest children and several points of interest along the way up give you ample time to catch your breath. Once you arrive at the top, you’ll be rewarded with truly spectacular views of Lake Lure and the Hickory Nut Gorge. After taking in the scenery, keep climbing up the trail and you’ll eventually be rewarded with an even more spectacular view at Exclamation Point, the park’s highest peak.
SB Tip: Traveling with a group? Ask everyone in your party to stay on top of Chimney Rock while you head up the staircase toward Exclamation Point. On the stairs, you’ll have several incredible overlooks of Chimney Rock, offering a fabulous opportunity to get more photos of your crew from a truly memorable angle.
Once you’ve made your way back down to the base of Chimney Rock, consider taking a leisurely lunch break in Chimney Rock Village, located just outside the park entrance. (Be sure and hold on to your park admission receipt so you can get back into the park once you’re done eating.) We had lunch at The Esmeralda Inn Chimney Rock Restaurant, located just a few minutes from the park’s entrance — and it easily was the best meal of our trip. I loved the “Three Little Pigs” sandwich — grilled Hickory Nut Gap sausage with pulled beer barbecue pork and crispy bacon on a hoagie roll — and my husband’s Hot Turkey — a pressed sourdough sandwich with slow-roasted turkey, bacon, spinach, muenster cheese and roasted garlic aioli — was equally delicious. The kids’ bison sliders were fantastic and you can’t go wrong with either the home fries or house-made potato chips as a side. If you’re not staying at the inn, be sure and have your camera handy when you visit for a meal; the grounds outside provide a gorgeous backdrop for pictures.
SB Tip: Want to eat in between hikes without leaving the park? Look for vendors selling locally made Hickory Nut Gap bratwursts, nestled in crusty rolls, inside a tent at the base of Chimney Rock. My family split one at the end of our Chimney Rock climb and it was fabulous.
A relaxing lunch will give you the energy you need to hike Chimney Rock State Park’s Hickory Nut Falls Trail. This easy .75-mile trail will take you to a 404-foot waterfall. It’s the second highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River — and you might recognize it from the film The Last of the Mohicans. On the day we visited, the falls weren’t much more than a trickle but this allowed us to scramble over the rocks and stand right in front of the waterfall without getting completely soaked. A 404-foot waterfall is incredible under any conditions — and you’ll be glad you made the effort to see it.
After the hike, you’ll probably want to head back to your lodging for a rest before having dinner. Go ahead on with your bad self. You’ve hiked 58 floors (according to my Fitbit) and an additional 1.5 miles on the waterfall trail, so you totally deserve it. Just be sure and make dinner reservations at La Strada at Lake Lure (2693 Memorial Hwy.) before you take that nap.
This popular Italian restaurant overlooking Lake Lure is always busy — have lunch or dinner at La Strada and you’ll understand why. Here, you’ll find hearty portions of Italian staples like pizza, lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, as well as traditional American fare like burgers, steaks and grilled fish. The garlic rolls are a La Strada staple and we were crazy about the four cheese crab and spinach dip. Our lasagna was a solid choice, as were the burger and fries, which our kids shared. The restaurant’s warm ambiance and friendly, attentive service from the waitstaff, manager and owner helped make a meal at La Strada a true night to remember. It’s a great option whether you’re visiting the area with friends, a romantic partner or your entire family. We had a delightful evening and definitely plan to return the next time we visit.
Grab a latte and a tasty slice of warm coffee cake at Carolina Moon (2992 Memorial Hwy.), a cozy cafe with great coffee, delicious desserts (come back later for the carrot cake, if you get a chance) and a lovely view of the lake. Carolina Moon is right next to the Lake Lure Marina — this is where you’ll be starting your day with a one-hour guided pontoon boat ride on the lake.
There’s no better way to get to know Lake Lure than on a guided boat ride with Lake Lure Tours (2930 Memorial Hwy.). You’ll be treated to spectacular lake views of Chimney Rock and Rumbling Bald Mountain, see where some of Dirty Dancing’s most memorable scenes were filmed (including Baby and Johnny’s swan lift practice in the lake and learn about Lake Lure’s history, luxury homes and local gossip. Tours are $15 per person and leave every hour on the hour. I’d advise you to arrive at least 30 minutes before your cruise; this is a very popular attraction — even in the off-season — and boats fill up fast.
Once you’ve finished the tour, take a walk through the serene and beautiful Morse Park (2948 Memorial Hwy.). The entrance to the park’s gardens is right next to the marina.
Just down the road from the Lake Lure Tours, you’ll find the town’s famous Lake Lure Flowering Bridge (3068 Memorial Hwy.), another must-see attraction. When a new bridge was built connecting Lake Lure and nearby Chimney Rock in 2011, Lake Lure residents came up with an innovative plan for the original 1925 one — they turned it into a free public garden!
Today, the historic bridge overflows with flowers, herbs, succulents and exotic and native plants. The project has been so successful that the National Wildlife Foundation has recognized the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. If you want to know more about what you’re seeing, use your cell phone to take a self-guided tour through the gardens (instructions are posted on-site) or email ahead of time ([email protected]) and a docent will schedule a time to guide your group along the path.
Just across the street from the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge is The Right Track Toy Train Museum (2414 Memorial Hwy.). I realize that if you’re reading this article, you’re probably not a toy train enthusiast or a child — it doesn’t matter. The story behind this two-room museum makes it worth visiting.
Peggy Keyes lost her husband, Larry, to pancreatic cancer in 2007. Wanting to honor his memory, raise money for pancreatic cancer research and put his large collection of toy train memorabilia on display, she opened the museum in 2011 with the help of the Asheville Train Club. Peggy has been donating 100% of the proceeds from the museum to pancreatic cancer research ever since.
Our children loved operating the trains with the help of a volunteer and we loved hearing Peggy’s story from her friends, who were operating the museum while she was away on a train vacation with her daughter. (“It was on her bucket list,” they told us.) Her story is truly an inspiration — No matter your age or interest, you’ll enjoy stopping in to meet Peggy and helping in the effort to find a cure for pancreatic cancer. The suggested admission price is $5 per person.
Ready to eat? If it’s the weekend, head to Lake Lure’s Point of View Restaurant (454 Memorial Hwy.) for a delightful brunch. Inside this tiny roadside restaurant, you’ll find a fantastic view of the lake, as well as what has to be the best Croque Madame sandwich we’ve ever eaten. The French toast, also delicious, was a big hit with our kids.
Dinner guests rave about Point of View’s mountain trout, house-made dressings, fried green tomatoes and prime rib. Opt for the nights that feature the Prime Rib Special to get more bang for your buck.
After your meal, head back down Memorial Highway for shopping and an unexpected surprise in Chimney Rock!
Souvenir shops and restaurants line both sides of the street in Chimney Rock Village — and most of them are filled with cheap toys and kitschy knick knacks, making it a children’s paradise. We all liked Bubba O’Leary’s General Store, which had great t-shirts, ball caps and hiking gear. The real treat here, though, is the Rocky Broad Riverwalk, which you’ll find directly behind the storefronts. Just look for the Riverwalk signs in between the shops and you can’t miss it. This 1/8-mile pathway offers a fantastic opportunity to get up close and personal with the stunning Rocky Broad River. Stay dry on the bridges, boulders and dirt paths or take off your shoes and wade in the cool, clear river — the waters are generally very shallow here and safe for even the smallest children to enjoy with adult supervision.
Ready for dinner? You can’t go wrong with the Riverwatch Waterfront Bar & Grill. The deck of this unassuming Chimney Rock restaurant has the best view of any restaurant in the area. The Rocky Broad River tumbles along the boulders directly beneath you while, 315 feet overhead, Chimney Rock is so close that you actually can see park visitors standing on top. While the view is what makes this restaurant most appealing, the burgers were scrumptious and the onion rings were truly divine. It’s a fantastic finale to your Lake Lure vacation.
In just two short days, you’ve climbed to the top of a granite monolith, taken a boat ride on the lake, stood at the base of a 400-foot waterfall, dipped your feet in the Rocky Broad River, walked along beautiful garden paths, slept in an historic inn and experienced several memorable meals. I think it’s safe to say the entire Houseman family would approve. But if you’re hungry for more Dirty Dancing, visit Lake Lure during the town’s annual Dirty Dancing Festival where you can learn to shag dance and participate in a swan lift competition in the lake!
If you’re looking for even more fun things in and around Lake Lure for families in particular, be sure and check out my blog, Suburban Turmoil — I’ll tell you about more of our Lake Lure adventures, including a fascinating driving tour through several nearby small towns that makes for a great day trip!
Want to check out more of travel articles? Click here to see where we’ve been!