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Mountain Lake Lodge Photo courtesy of Mountain Lake Lodge
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War Spur Overlook in the Mountain Lake Wilderness Area Photo courtesy ofMountain Lake Lodge
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A firepit at the lodge Photo courtesy of Mountain Lake Lodge
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Dinner at the Harvest Restaurant Photo by Lisa Berman
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A zip line at the Treetops Adventure Course Photo courtesy ofMountain Lake Lodge
Some people's dream of a getaway is high luxury and a bit of pampering. My wife and I lean in the other direction. Away from work, we usually crave a mind-clearing experience in the outdoors, expecting to come back more sore (and more invigorated) than when we left — but we still like to have a good restaurant and a comfy room nearby. It was this best-of-both-worlds escape that we had in mind when we headed to Pembroke, about 20 miles west of Blacksburg, in late December for a three-night stay at Mountain Lake Lodge ( mtnlakelodge.com ). After we decided to make the trip, we found a reasonably priced holiday package on the resort's website — two nights' lodging with a third night free for about $250. Similar deals are available in other seasons.
Perched in the Appalachians at about 4,000 feet above sea level, Mountain Lake is one of only two natural lakes in Virginia, and today it's situated at the center of a 2,600-mile nature conservancy. The centerpiece of the property is the main lodge, made of sandstone and built in 1936, but it's surrounded by other cottages, cabins and rental homes that can easily accommodate families.
Despite the wealth of activities and adventure the resort offers, its claim to fame in the modern day has been its role as the backdrop for the 1986 movie Dirty Dancing. It's a distinction that the lodge's new owners have relegated to second billing on the marquee as the resort undergoes a renewal. Today's Mountain Lake Lodge is not so much about the fictional adventures of Johnny and Baby. It's about what guests can see and do in the here and now.
A century after frontiersman and surveyor Christopher Gist stumbled onto the lake in 1751, it became a resort, changing hands several times until its last inheritor, Mary Moody Northen, established a conservancy to preserve the nature around the lodge so that people can commune with it. (For that reason, Northen's endowment to the conservancy includes a proviso that the lodge rooms will never have televisions.)
Central to the resort's current narrative — a story that many of its staff can impressively recite with geological details — is the very literal ebb and flow of the lake itself through the millennia. In 2008, Mountain Lake began draining down from the deep, expansive body of water that it was. The good news is that it's refilling after exhaustive research and some manmade jerry-rigging to plug the leak, as it were. By this summer, it's expected that the water will be two-thirds of the way back to its previous level.
The on-site offices of the nonprofit Mountain Lake Conservancy include a small museum of sorts that showcases the geology, ecology and wildlife of the area. It displays recovered artifacts that were exposed when the lake went dry in 2008; most fascinating is the story of Samuel Ira Felder, whose 1921 disappearance in the lake went unsolved for more than 90 years until his remains were found on the lake bed.
Of course, the resort still pays homage to Dirty Dancing with a small, detached shrine spotlighting the history of its filming there.
Depending on the season of your visit, the list of recreational offerings can be dizzying: hiking, mountain biking, a Treetops Adventure Course, tennis, swimming, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, archery, fishing, horseshoes, badminton and croquet. Coming to the Giles County getaway without gear is not a major oversight, since Mountain Lake Outfitters (540-626-7139) has everything you might need to get going. For sale and rental, the shop offers outdoors apparel, mountain bikes and more. You're not entirely on your own, either — the resort offers guided programs such as naturalist hikes, mountain biking, treasure hunts and yoga sessions ranging from $5 to $25. Staffers also can direct you to the stunning Cascade Falls, just a short drive away, or the fly-fishing spots down the mountain on the New River.
Winter threw some weather at us during our visit, but there was plenty of fun still to be had. The renovated old barn has an upstairs game room with billiards, bumper pool, foosball and arcade games. After letting a slight drizzle move through the area, we threw on our boots and layered up for a winter hike a few miles up to the mountaintop. As we learned, fog is a recurring character on the mountain, lending some moody beauty to our winding walks along the well-marked trails. All in all, the conservancy has a 22-mile network of trails that will lead you to well-earned vistas, such as Bald Knob and Bear Cliffs.
With a full day of activity ahead, the breakfast buffet at the lodge offers standard fuel to get your recreational engine in gear. But it's the lunch and dinner menus that better reflect Mountain Lake's culinary aspirations. Under the direction of chef Michael Rork, the Harvest Restaurant's repertoire focuses on farm-to-table dining, gathering ingredients such as vegetables, chicken and even bison from nearby farms. Across the main lodge's lobby is the Stone Tavern bar, where you will find a spread of cozy settings for table games, sipping a beverage and casual conversation. Coming from Maryland, Rork made sure to add his own celebrated crab cakes to the menu. The table service is folksy and familiar, yet professional.
Rain greeted us on our first morning at Mountain Lake, but that gave us time to snoop around the resort before braving a cold-weather hike. Libbie's Gifts and Gallery next to the lodge was brimming with crafts and artwork from nearby and all over Virginia, sourced largely through etsy.com — ready-to-frame block prints, paintings, sculptures, pottery, jewelry and vintage postcards. Don't forget your Dirty Dancing swag, either. On our last day, we had a post-Christmas impulse and went back to the shop to pick up a few handmade gifts before driving back to Richmond, feeling gratified by the adventure and a little bit ahead of the game.