catawba queen boat
photograph by Brian Gomsak

There’s the sense, as my shipmates and I board the boat, that we’re stepping into another world. Not Captain Hook’s — though we do walk the (gang)plank — but someplace more carefree, one with food and live music and easy conversation.

I’ve paddled and sailed and skied and sped across many North Carolina lakes, but never across Lake Norman, and never in this mode: a riverboat whose upper deck is open to the breeze, sheltered beneath a scalloped canvas “roof,” and strewn with comfortable wicker chairs and white-clothed tables. This is the Catawba Queen, named for the river that, in the late ’50s, was dammed to create Lake Norman.

The sun is still high as we depart at 6:30 in the evening, the chop of the waves lending a gentle sway to the engine’s thrum. From the upper deck, I have a 360-degree view of the shoreline — though not all 500-plus miles of it — where modest cottages cluster, and grand mansions soar. The captain ticks off famous residents — Julius Peppers, Burt Reynolds — plus lake statistics and anecdotes. This evening, the Catawba Queen ferries birthday and anniversary celebrants, as well as a dozen women who won’t reveal what they’re celebrating, though they sing along with knowing winks to Lou Rawls’s “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”

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If you like, move all over the boat, stem to stern; lean over the railings; scamper up the steps as a pair of 10-year-olds are doing. But I’ll dawdle here, a sightseer drinking in bulkheads, boathouses, the tall masts of sailing vessels, fluttering flags, floating docks, and the sole house on stilts — no longer permitted — that was used in Dirty Dancing.

On a far speedier course than ours, a cigarette boat spewing an impressive flume zips by. Partiers aboard pontoons wave as we serenely glide past. But these water sprites don’t have our perspective; a big lake can accommodate a big boat — the Catawba Queen’s dinner cruise can hold 80 — and tonight, I’ll take this quieter, more commanding vantage, high above the water, to experience Lake Norman, weekend destination or permanent home to many North Carolinians.

• • •
 

A slow arc as we make the turn, the sun at my back now. Ninety-nine islands dot Lake Norman, and one sits far off — for habitation? For docking? Below deck, guests — families, lovebirds, a prom-bound pair — are bypassing the bar, with its mahogany fittings, for the buffet, and generous portions of salmon, chicken, beef, plus all the accompaniments.

The blue-gray slash of a heron soars above, stalky legs folded beneath itself. To the port side, a Jet Ski, whose motor seems muted in the quiet romance of the evening: groomed lawns, pretty gazebos at the end of docks, that sweet, small swaying of the Catawba Queen.

This is a cruise, not “cruisin’.” A ride, not a race. The pace is leisurely, lovely, intended for enjoyment. The pair who’ve watched the low wake of the Catawba Queen throughout the evening have become silhouettes at the stern. The sinking sun lights low-lying clouds with orange and peach; the trees are a delicate tracery of filigree. A kind of hush — both relaxed and expectant — descends upon the passengers. The Catawba Queen glides into Queen’s Landing, the gangplank is lowered, and the first twinkling stars greet us as — fed, refreshed, with a new version of Lake Norman in our memory banks — we disembark into the summer night.


Carolina Cruise

The “queen” of Lake Norman has reigned since the early ’90s, when two friends, Jack Williams and Bud Lancaster, bought the riverboat and started running cruises from Queen’s Landing in Mooresville. Both Williams and Lancaster have since passed away, but the Catawba Queen and a sister ship, Lady of the Lake, live on. For more information, call (704) 663-2628, or visit queenslanding.com.

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Kelly is a contributing editor at Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.