It was during our annual Bill Murray film festival that a movie buff in the group made a startling announcement: The 1991 comedy, “What About Bob?” starring Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, was filmed at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia, not Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Say what? Research revealed that this was indeed the truth — the movie’s lake house, asylum (actually the old Elks National Home), bus station, and that huge, gorgeous lake — are located 14 hours south of the Granite State. Happily, we also learned (spoiler alert!) that they didn’t blow up the adorable lake house, but detonated a three-quarter-size model of the home on a nearby lot. If you haven’t seen this movie, put it in your queue: Dreyfuss and Murray are a hoot as a psychotherapist and the patient who follows him on a family vacation. (Plus: Julie Hagerty!) Both of the male leads have said they didn’t get along during the project, adding to its allure.
To most people, this would be a passing bit of trivia. To us, it meant one thing: Road trip! We wanted to see the Lake Winnipesaukee of the South, and conjure Bill Murray (a.k.a. Bob Wiley) in his “Don’t Hassle Me, I’m Local” T-shirt.
One can get from Boston to Roanoke, the nearest major city to the lake, via Amtrak, but since vacation time was short, we flew. Alas, we couldn’t rent the actual house where “What About Bob?” was filmed, but we came close, renting a lakefront place nearby, in the town of Moneta. Another option would’ve been to stay at Bernard’s Landing, where the cast and crew stayed during filming. The trip was conceived as a sisters’ getaway, but one of the sisters couldn’t make it. Her daughter came instead, and our group evolved into a mini family reunion, tilted toward the female gender.
“This is the coolest house!” said 8-year-old Jaelynn, the youngest gal in our crew, running down to the water to see what beach toys were available. To appropriately tour the lake, we borrowed a couple of kayaks and some floatie devices. There was an ancient pedal boat in the yard (we’d capsize it later in the week), and a boathouse with a small powerboat. Just beyond the house, personal watercraft zipped past, and the occasional angler trolled along. Record-breaking fish have been caught in Smith Mountain Lake, we’re told.
Our first thought: Yeah, we could’ve driven a couple of hours north to New Hampshire for this! No wonder the producers decided to shoot here — there’s definitely a resemblance. By the time filming started, the leaves had begun to change in New Hampshire, they story goes, and so they changed the location to southwest Virginia.
Both of the lakes have distant mountain peaks (the Belknap, Ossipee, and White mountains in New Hampshire; the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia), and no shortage of pretty visuals. And both have a variety of lakeside abodes, ranging from rustic to multimillion-dollar fabulous. But we knew we weren’t in New England anymore when we saw the tab: Our three-bedroom lakefront rental house in Virginia cost $160 per night. Something similar on Winni would go for at least $400, according to a quick scan of our vacation rental website.
And there’s this: When you’re in the southwest corner of Virginia, you’re definitely in the South. Washington, D.C., might as well be on Mars. Waitresses really do call you “hun,” and there’s catfish, not sushi, on local menus. (Don’t ask us about political differences; we avoided that subject entirely.) If you like the Winni vibe, this could be your new favorite playground.
While rain was soaking vacationers on Lake Winnipesaukee, we enjoyed hot, steamy temps in its Virginia counterpart. Like Lake Winnipesaukee, Smith Mountain Lake is the largest lake in its state, and both are dotted with islands. But while Winni is a natural body of water, Smith Mountain Lake (SML, in these parts) was created in 1960, as a power generation project of Appalachian Power, the result of a 235-foot dam in a gap of Smith Mountain on the Roanoke River.
Other differences: Lake Winnipesaukee has 182 miles of shoreline, while SML has 500 miles, because of the many large tributaries that flow into the lake. Our famous resident: Mitt Romney, plus celebrity tourists Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon (Fallon named one of his daughters Winnie.) Theirs: Author David Baldacci. But then, Bill Murray slept here. And we’re told he’s been back several times since filming ”What About Bob?” since he truly likes the area. Score one for SML!
So what does one do on a girl’s getaway (plus a couple of guys) on the lake in Moneta, Va.? Exactly what you’d expect: Play in the water, lounge on the dock, experiment with magnetic eyelashes (a fail), and try our luck landing a record-setting bass. To that end, we procured Virginia fishing licenses and bought mealworms and earthworms to use as live bait.
“The rule is, if you’re gonna fish, you bait your own hook!” daughter-in-law Sharon declared. We were gathered on the dock at dusk, when the fish allegedly bite. Technically, only some of us were fishing — others set off in kayaks to paddle the glassy water, watching the Crayola-bright blues of daytime mellow to silver. “I don’t want to touch the worms,” 10-year-old Jack declared, eager to fish but not so eager to put wiggly things on his hook. “I’ll do it!” his 8-year-old sister Jaelynn said, grabbing a handful of squirming mealworms. Her gesture was rewarded when, moments later, a hefty fish took her bait. With her kid-size fishing pole nearly bent in two with the weight of her catch, Jae squealed. “I got one! I got one!”
A quick flash in the air revealed that she did, indeed, have a big brown flopping thing on the line, but in another flash, it was gone — as was her night crawler. It was quite a spectacle as everyone ran up and down the dock squealing, arms waving, offering advice on how to land a monster fish. Who said fishing was boring?
Even if you’re not into fishing or boating, there’s plenty to do at Smith Mountain Lake. Like Lake Winnipesaukee (home to Ellacoya), the area is home to a lovely state park. Smith Mountain Lake State Park (www.virginiastateparks.gov) boasts a campground with campsites and cabins, a swimming area with a snack bar, and a network of easy and moderate wooded hiking trails.
At some point, though, civilization beckons. When we’re at Lake Winnipesaukee, we pop over to Wolfeboro to grab a bite, wander into the shops, and hit the Penny Candy Shop. At Smith Mountain Lake, civilization is a bit farther afield — about a half-hour away, in Roanoke. There are closer towns, but we love this former railroad city. Yes, it’s much bigger than Wolfeboro, with a population of nearly 100,000, but it feels smaller, since the downtown is concentrated in one area. There are several good, casual restaurants, including Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint and the River and Rail, a Pinball Museum (pay one fee, and play ’til your fingers fall off) and, hooray, a killer candy store, The Candy Store Roanoke. There, we found more fish — of the Swedish variety. Sadly, nobody was selling “Don’t Hassle Me, I’m Local” T-shirts.
After a couple of days in Virginia, we forgot all about Bill Murray, and never got around to checking out the movie locations. But there’s always next time — our favorite comedy legend has made dozens of films. “You know, Caddyshack was filmed in Boca Raton,” sister Jackie said. “I hear it’s quite nice there in the fall.” Given Murray’s propensity for popping up at random events (he’s a habitual crasher of dinner parties, weddings, and karaoke), perhaps he’ll make a cameo appearance.
For information, visit www.visitvbr.com.