A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Less than a half-hour drive north of Charlotte, Lake Norman offers a welcome respite for sun seekers who would gladly trade salt and surf for freshwater boating and calm lake

Madison County Championship Rodeo

Less than a half-hour drive north of Charlotte, Lake Norman offers a welcome respite for sun seekers who would gladly trade salt and surf for freshwater boating and calm lake

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Less than a half-hour drive north of Charlotte, Lake Norman offers a welcome respite for sun seekers who would gladly trade salt and surf for freshwater boating and calm lake

Your Place to Play: A Guide to Exploring Lake Norman

Less than a half-hour drive north of Charlotte, Lake Norman offers a welcome respite for sun seekers who would gladly trade salt and surf for freshwater boating and calm lake ripples. “With such a big lake, there are lots of places to explore and discover,” says Dan Stone, who opened Carolina Boat Rentals in Cornelius with his wife, Noreisis, in 2007. “On the weekend, it’s the best place to go for boating and swimming.”

With 520 miles of shoreline, our state’s largest manmade lake spans five towns that present outdoor attractions ranging from waterside parks with boat launches to casual and fine-dining restaurants. Read on for a roundup of our favorite ways to experience lake life.



From the Lake to the Sky

Jetton Park
Many of Mecklenburg County’s parks feature small lakes and ponds, but Jetton Park is one of the few with an expansive waterfront on the shores of Lake Norman. Benches and picnic tables, which overlook the rocky water’s edge, are shadowed by towering pine trees providing shade from the hot Carolina sun in the summer months.

Bask in the warm sunshine on Jetton Park’s beach, where you’ll find passersby walking along the shaded waterfront trails while their dogs wade in the cool lake water. The park also features a 1.3-mile bike trail, which provides scenic glimpses of Lake Norman through the tree line.

Carolina Boat Rentals
You don’t have to own a boat — or even have a boating license — to experience the thrill of zipping through the water. At Carolina Boat Rentals in Cornelius, the Stones offer half- and full-day pontoon boat rentals to drivers who are experienced enough to dock a boat, anchor it, and navigate the lake.

“As you drive around, you’ll see little islands and beach areas,” Dan says. His personal favorite is the Lake Norman Sandbar, where he takes guests on his two-hour boat tour. “We’ll set you up with a captain who shows you all the best spots — the pretty houses and coves — and you can swim at Lake Norman Sandbar.”

Aloha Paddle Sports
Aloha Paddle Sports in Davidson gives you the opportunity to take in Lake Norman’s natural beauty sans an engine — with the freedom to explore the lake’s islands and coves oftentimes otherwise inaccessible by boat. “You’ll see blue herons and osprey,” says owner Rob Bennett, who likes to watch the osprey dive in and out of the water, carrying their prize fish. 

Kayaking on Lake Norman photograph by Jeremiah McLamb

Bennett’s instructors guide paddleboarders on the how-tos of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). “Lake Norman is only 34 miles long, but with so many miles of shoreline, there are lots of coves and inlets,” he says. The true secret, though, is to take advantage of Aloha’s guided sunset SUP tour and SUP yoga classes, both of which take water sports to another level.

Queen’s Landing Sightseeing & Dinner Cruises
Not quite adventurous enough to go stand-up paddleboarding? Queen’s Landing Sightseeing & Dinner Cruises has you covered. Since 1991, this Mooresville-based company has helped thousands of visitors experience the beauty of Lake Norman while relaxing in the comfort of a luxury yacht.

What began as a business with just one vessel — the “Catawba Queen,” a replica of a classic Mississippi riverboat — has now expanded to include two boats, both of which traverse the lake while providing a three-course dinner and drinks to guests.

For something a bit more casual, opt for the sightseeing-only cruise, which provides the same Lake Norman experience without the pan-seared salmon and wine.

 

Time to Dine

North Harbor Club
For casual waterfront dining, locals head to the Davidson staple, North Harbor Club. “We’ve celebrated baby showers there, Mother’s Day brunch, and it’s always a spot we take our out-of-town guests to,” says Lindsey Regan Thorne, who lived on Lake Norman for years and went to North Harbor Club for pan-seared scallops with their lavender lake tea. “It’s a laid-back, waterfront gem, and the food is amazing.”

While the restaurant’s alfresco dining, which overlooks the marina and Lake Norman shoreline, is the real draw, the restaurant’s interior is just as inviting and fun. Dark wood paneling gives way to classic — not kitschy — nautical decor, including canoe paddles, fishing tackle, and even a circa-1918 Olde Towne H.W. canoe on display above the expansive bar.

Kindred
When historic Davidson’s Kindred opened in 2015, Bon Appetit and Southern Living named it one of the country’s top restaurants — and for good reason. “Kindred may be in Davidson, but Charlotte likes to claim it as its own because in so many ways this small-town restaurant put our dining scene on the national map,” says Sarah Crosland, a native North Carolinian and self-described foodie.

Kindred’s diverse menu created by Chef/owner Joe Kindred features elevated comfort food using locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients. Owner/sommelier Katy Kindred helms the libation menu and impressive wine list, so you can pair every dish to a complementary cocktail. And don’t miss Kindred’s signature warm, pull-apart milk bread.

Kindred’s signature milk bread photograph by Elizabeth Cecil/Kindred

Davidson Wine Co.
Ever since former lawyer-turned-winemaker Lindsey Williams opened the stylish wine bistro Davidson Wine Co. in 2019, it’s become one of Davidson’s most popular destinations. An affiliate of California-based Waters Edge Wineries, Davidson Wine Co. draws visitors from around the Lake Norman area for girls’ nights out to date nights and everything in between. “This is definitely a place you’d want to go with friends for a drink and small plates,” says Tracy Gonzalez, who lives in south Charlotte but has a second home on Lake Norman.

Enjoying a glass of wine at Davidson Wine Co. photograph by Lindsey Williams/Davidson Wine Co.

The micro-winery — or urban winery, as Williams refers to it — purchases grapes from vineyards all over the world, including California, Italy, and California, to create their more than 50 wines. Pair one of the harder-to-find varietals such as a Petit Verdot or Barolos with a charcuterie board, artisan flatbread pizza, or small plates like the crab cake bites. Better yet, opt for a wine tasting so you can sample a little bit of everything.

Hello, Sailor
For years, the majority of lakeside dining options on Lake Norman were more bar-and-grill than elevated dining. That was until Hello, Sailor opened in 2017. This Cornelius hot spot, also owned by Joe and Katy Kindred of Davidson’s Kindred, has a Palm Springs-inspired, mid-century modern aesthetic via a Sputnik-chandelier-lit bar, cacti, and even a vintage photo booth. The vibe is casual but chic, which perfectly complements the restaurant’s contemporary take on classic Southern dishes. Chef Craig Diehl helms the kitchen and adds his own twist to dishes such as hush puppies served with a classic yuzukosho honey butter, easily one of the highlights on the menu.

A contemporary take on classic Southern dishes at Hello, Sailor photograph by Elizabeth Cecil/Hello, Sailor

This story was published on Oct 12, 2020

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Blake Miller

Blake Miller is a Charlotte-based writer who has written for numerous magazines including Southern Living, Coastal Living, House Beautiful, Prevention, Fast Company, domino, and more. She is also a Forbes Travel Guide correspondent.