High Hampton Inn, a hidden Western North Carolina mountain gem of a resort, is getting some time in the spotlight following a turn this past spring as a key location for the ABC television remake of the 1980s hit movie Dirty Dancing. Long compared to the Adirondacks retreat featured in the original movie, High Hampton Inn prides itself on its historic roots with ties to a Confederate general, its adherence to tradition and its overall Southern charm.
To visit to the Cashiers hideaway (1,400 wooded acres, with a 35-acre private lake) is to step back in time. There are no televisions at the 117-room property (including cabins and cottages on the property), no air conditioning (the property sits at an elevation of 3,600 feet above sea level), and cellular phone service and wi-fi connectivity can be spotty. Tea and cookies are served every afternoon, and men are asked to don a jacket and tie for dinner. Actress Debra Messing, who plays the character of Marjorie Houseman (the mother of Baby Houseman, played by Abigail Breslin), recently described High Hampton Inn as “a musty old lodge that felt like a dorm,” but that’s exactly the point.
Little has changed here at the inn since it was rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1933, and that’s just fine with the High Hampton’s longtime loyal visitors and its owners.
High Hampton history
The High Hampton Inn has a storied history as a retreat for more than 200 years. Wade Hampton III, the descendant of a wealthy South Carolina family of plantation owners, bought the High Hampton property that was the site of a hunting lodge, in the mid-19th Century. During the Civil War, Hampton led his own cavalry regiment into battle. He would go on to become governor of South Carolina and a U.S. Senator.
Hampton handed the property to his niece, Caroline Hampton, and her husband, Dr. William Stewart Halsted, a renowned chief surgeon at Johns Hopkins. The Halsteads enhanced the property, but it remained a rustic retreat until the couple passed away and left no heirs in the early 1920s.
E.L. McKee, a Sylva businessman and industrialist, bought the property from the Halsteds and built a two-story inn, mountain golf course tennis courts, and restored an old farmhouse. A fire that started in the clogged flue of a fireplace, destroyed the old hunting lodge and the inn in 1932. McKee built a new, bigger inn (three stories, with a massive fireplace) on the former site of the hunting lodge.
Bill McKee, who had worked with his father’s various business interests, was named president of High Hampton Inn Inc. after his father died in 1952. (Bill McKee’s brother Lyndon served as vice president until he died unexpectedly in 1961. In 1984, Lyndon’s children acquired six hundred acres of the High Hampton Estate and built the prestigious Wade Hampton Golf Club, just south of High Hampton.)
Bill McKee married Lily Byrd of Asheville, in 1958. The couple had a son, William Dills McKee, Jr. “Little Will,” as he was called, grew up around the inn and, after graduating from the Cornell School of Hotel Management in 1982, returned to High Hampton to work with his father. Bill McKee died in 2004 and Will took the reins.
High Hampton in the movies
The High Hampton Inn immediately calls to mind the rustic mountain retreats featured in the original 1980s Dirty Dancing movie that starred Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey and became a cult classic. The filming of that movie has its own Western North Carolina ties – many scenes, including the iconic scene of the two practicing a dance lift in a lake, were filmed at Lake Lure.
Clifford Meads, general manager of the High Hampton, says he first began talking with movie location scouts back about 2010 filmmakers considered shooting then. The work was put on hold, but scouts returned and filming took place this past spring.
“It’s been a five-year journey,” says Meads, who added that his experience working to market Savannah in that city’s convention and visitors bureau showed him the importance of big exposure through a movie or television show. Meads put together a profile packet that he sent to the N.C. Film Commission, and that’s what first caught filmmakers’ attention.
When the Dirty Dancing cast and crew arrived, they took over the quaint lodge, Meads says. “I think the best way to describe it is that it was controlled chaos. It was like a city moving.”
The High Hampton staff was already seasoned in working with a movie crew, Meads says. A crew from the film The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter shot a scene in one day in the lodge last December, he says. That movie stars Josh Brolin and Danny McBride and is scheduled for release sometime in 2017.
“We did a lot of advance preparation,” with the Dirty Dancing crew. “It was an excellent partnership.”
Meads says the movie crew “didn’t do a lot to change the rustic look” of the lodge. He adds that the crew did not shoot the iconic lift scene in the High Hampton’s lake.
While he’s anxious to see the finished product, Meads also knows that there’s a lot more to a movie production than just the shooting. Still, he says that “the visual part of what we brought to it was absolutely stunning,” noting that he closely watched the filming.
High Hampton for a stay
If you’re planning a trip up to Cashiers, here are a few things to know:
Get out and about: There are a ton of outdoor activities for young and old. There’s a small sandy beach on one portion of the private, 35-acre lake, which allows for swimming and wading. Boaters can rent out canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. There are amazing hiking trails around the property (you can hike with llamas). There’s a golf course, tennis and a spa for the country club set. And everybody’s welcome to join in on everything from ping-pong and badminton to shuffleboard.
The rooms: You can sleep in the inn, or rent cottages and cabins. On my visit, I stayed at the inn. It features relatively small rooms outfitted like a mountain cabin. There’s no air conditioning or televisions in the rooms. The bathrooms are modern and small. (Some cottages are pet-friendly.)
Food: Meals in the lodge are served buffet-style at set times, and again, note that the dress code is real – men are expected to wear a coat and tie to dinner. (Also, no denim allowed.) There are snacks available inside the inn lobby during the afternoon, and a downstairs bar offers drinks and nibbles. When I stayed, I had an amazing dinner at Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley. The top-notch restaurant is just a short drive away. You’ll be wowed by Chef Adam Hayes’ twist on Southern food. (Folks in Asheville will recall that Hayes’ used to work at the Red Stag Grille at The Bohemian.)