To some, lakes are wide-open playgrounds, practically begging to be fished, snorkeled, and paddled. To others, they are murky reservoirs best enjoyed from the safety of a very reliable boat. No matter which line of thinking you’ve adopted, there’s a lake just for you. We’ve scoured the Southeast to find some of the best, from Alabama’s party-happy Lake Martin to family-friendly Douglas Lake in Tennessee. So dive in—or dip your toe. Either way, the water’s fine.
Bring the Kids
Douglas Lake, Tennessee
When you take your children on a lake vacation, the lake itself holds their attention on Day One. By Day Two, they’re more focused on smacking each other with foam noodles and attempting water-ski tricks that could land them in the hospital. By Day Three, you’d better find some different activities, or somebody’s going to wind up on the evening news.
Thankfully, Tennessee’s Douglas Lake offers diversions aplenty. Located an hour from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and forty minutes from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the reservoir is the perfect jumping-off point for an action-packed family vacation. Spend the day at Dollywood or check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Ride a glass elevator to the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle or hike to Rainbow Falls. If you’d rather stick close to the lake, book a family trail ride at the waterside stables (865-556-3869) or take a helicopter tour of the lake and its historic dam.
Of course, Douglas Lake is a great family spot in itself. A favorite of fishermen of all ages, its 28,000 acres are an ideal place to reel in largemouth bass and crappie. Rent a pontoon boat from Mountain Cove Marina, where you’ll also find Harbor Grill—home of the famous shrimp burger. Order a few to bring on the boat, then tool around the lake until sunset, when the waters are calm and the kids are drowsy at last. If you don’t rent a house on the lake, stay in a cabin in the Smokies; each comes fully equipped with a kitchen and spacious living area. Babysitters not included.
Catch some winks by the water at these lakeside hotels and inns
- Mount Dora’s Lakeside Inn, Florida’s oldest continuously operating hotel, features the original grand veranda that made it a sensation when it opened in 1883. Snag a rocking chair and watch the sun set over Lake Dora.
- Maison Madeleine in south Louisiana’s Acadiana region is set in a restored nineteenth-century Creole cottage on the shores of swampy Lake Martin. Ask about a private cooking class taught in Cajun French.
- Tucked in the north Georgia mountains, Lake Rabun Hotel operates in the bones of a 1922 lodge. Expect refined decor, farm-to-table meals, and views of one of Georgia’s most beautiful lakes.
- At the Inn at Fall Creek Falls in middle Tennessee, take in panoramic views of the hotel’s namesake lake and hike to the mighty waterfall it feeds. Operated by Tennessee State Parks, the inn also offers a swimming pool and game room.
- Race a miniature speedboat, fish for bass, and send your kids on a pirate adventure at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, a New England–style lakeside hotel in Orlando that’s walking distance from Epcot.
- Purchased last year by the owners of the famed Willcox in Aiken, South Carolina, the Greystone Inn on North Carolina’s Lake Toxaway reopens this spring after a million-dollar renovation.
- Stay in a waterfront suite or a vintage Airstream at Smith Lake Bed and Breakfast in north Alabama. Take one of the complimentary kayaks out for a paddle or just relax on the two-story swim deck.
- Lake Blackshear Resort & Golf Club owes half its name to the 8,700-acre body of water it overlooks in middle Georgia. The other half is attributable to its four-star golf course.
- On the shores of Santeetlah Lake in western North Carolina, Blue Waters Mountain Lodge offers lakeside rooms, Friday night barbecues, and picnic lunches to enjoy by the water.
- Moon Lake Farm Bed and Breakfast, set on seventy-five acres outside Tupelo, Mississippi, is home to horses, goats, and geese aplenty. Fish from the pier, then relax on a cozy porch swing in the screened lake house.
Keep It Cool
Lake Lure, North Carolina
You don’t have to venture to Maine to escape the South’s sweltering heat; in Lake Lure, the average year-round temperature is sixty-one degrees. That’s because the town and its namesake lake are located in North Carolina’s isothermal belt, which keeps winters warmer and summers less suffocating. But mild weather isn’t the only thing “luring” people here (Writer’s note: Sorry, I couldn’t resist)—the lake offers twenty-seven miles of coastline and jaw-dropping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including famed Chimney Rock. And because boat permits are limited and jet skis forbidden, it’s a place where kayakers can paddle in peace.
Lake Lure came into existence in 1926, when prominent physician Lucius Morse dammed Rocky Broad River to create a lake retreat. A year later, he opened the Lake Lure Inn, which has since welcomed everyone from Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter (who chose it for their honeymoon) to F. Scott Fitzgerald (who, no doubt, chose it for the on-site bar). Actors Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey stayed here while filming Dirty Dancing in and around the grounds; the town’s annual Dirty Dancing Festival celebrates the eighties classic each August.
Besides the inn, Lake Lure’s most noteworthy landmark is its three-acre beach and water park, where kids have been firing water cannons at their parents for generations. History-focused boat tours leave from the nearby Washburn Marina every hour, and Lake Lure Flowering Bridge—a historic pedestrian bridge turned community garden—is an easy stroll from the beach.
Reel ’Em In
Lake Murray, South Carolina
If you store a tackle box in your car, keep the local taxidermist on speed dial, and display more photos of your fish than your family, you’re gonna love Lake Murray. This 50,000-acre lake has hosted the FLW Tour Forrest Wood Cup—the world’s largest bass fishing tournament—three times. It’s also where anglers have reeled in the largest white bass, carp, white crappie, and white catfish on South Carolina’s books. Nearly a dozen guides can lead you where the fish are biting, and seven marinas sell essentials like bait and beer.
Created as a power source for nearby Columbia in the late 1920s, Lake Murray is now nicknamed the “Jewel of South Carolina.” Lovely homes line its waters, and Dreher Island State Park offers public access to twelve miles of sandy shoreline. Don’t miss the views along Lake Murray Dam Walkway, which stretches nearly two miles across the mighty Dreher Shoals Dam. Look west and you’ll be treated to a birds-eye view of Lake Murray; turn east and spy the Columbia skyline.
If you don’t hook a catfish for supper, book a sightseeing dinner cruise on the Spirit of Lake Murray yacht. Grab a drink at the onboard bar and watch the sunset from the observation deck. Stay at the Gables Inn and Gardens, a restored 1905 Victorian home situated on nearly four acres near Lake Murray. Tuck into your antique bed and catch a little sleep before your alarm goes off at 4 a.m. Ah, the joys of fishing.
These waterfront restaurants make a splash
- Reel in a catfish on Lake Marion, South Carolina’s largest lake, then head for Bell’s Restaurant, where the cooks will fry it for your dinner.
- See ya later, alligator! Chow down on fried gator and enjoy live music and brews at Tanner’s Lakeside, a bar and grill on the shores of Lake Howard in Winter Haven, Florida.
- Southern Voodoo Kitchen, a Cajun and Creole joint at Sardis Lake Marina near Oxford, Mississippi, is known for its shrimp “voodoo rolls,” hearty crawfish bread, and friendly staff.
- Discuss local lore over a basket of fried shrimp at Dale’s Seafood on Lake Waccamaw. There’s plenty to talk about: A decade ago, the fossil of a prehistoric whale was found in this ancient body of water in southeastern North Carolina.
Float Back in Time
Winter Park Chain of Lakes, Florida
Lake vacations and history lessons go hand-in-hand in Winter Park, home to a chain of five lakes connected by canals. How did the canals get there, you ask? In the 1880s, workers dug them so boats could transport pine logs from the shores of Lakes Osceola, Maitland, Minnehaha, and Mizell to a sawmill on Lake Virginia.
It was a boom time for the city, which also saw the opening of Rollins College, Florida’s oldest institution of higher learning, in 1885.
You’ll learn facts like these—plus get the chance to photograph strangers’ lake houses without looking creepy—during an hour-long pontoon boat tour focused on the history of the nearly 3,000-acre chain of lakes. Speaking of houses, your guide will point out several built by noted mid-twentieth century architect James Gamble Rogers, plus the giant brick estate in which Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, lived during the early 1950s.
For even more background on the area—and a little exercise—take a guided kayak tour of the lakes. As you paddle through the canals, you’ll spot ginger plants, banana trees, wild bougainvillea, and perhaps a resident sunbathing nude in his backyard. (True story.) Stay at the Alfond Inn, an artsy boutique hotel in Winter Park just steps from Lake Virginia and glitzy Park Avenue. Or, for a hip experience, drive ten minutes to the Grand Bohemian in downtown Orlando. Either way, make time for dinner at Hillstone on the banks of Winter Park’s Lake Killarney. An Adirondack chair facing the water offers the perfect spot to sip a martini while watching locals arrive at the restaurant by boat.
Soak up the fun at these watery attractions
- Margaritaville at Lanier Islands, a water park just north of Atlanta, is home to a floating adventure course, beach volleyball, and the largest wave pool in the Southeast.
- Outside Charleston, Trophy Lakes offers everything from ski lessons and boat rentals to an obstacle park and disc golf. Want privacy? Ask about renting the lakes for a day.
- Cypress Gardens Theme Park may be no more (it closed in 2009), but its famous waterski show lives on at Winter Haven’s Chain of Lakes. The third Saturday of the month, watch the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team, starring many of the show’s former performers, put on a complimentary show with tricks and stunts.
Go for Glam
Lake Oconee, Georgia
Here’s a rule of thumb: If it’s good enough for country star Carrie Underwood, it’s good enough for the rest of us. And Lake Oconee appears to be just fine for Ms. Underwood, considering she held her 2010 nuptials to pro hockey player Mike Fisher on its shores. The 19,000-acre lake has long been a favorite of the Range Rover set, thanks to its world-class golf courses, exclusive gated communities, and endless opportunities to take the new sport boat out for a spin.
By lake standards, Oconee hasn’t been around long; it was created as a power source in 1979. After its waters rose, million-dollar vacation homes and retirement communities cropped up around it, luring out-of-towners with warm temperatures, golf courses designed by the likes of Fazio and Nicklaus, and easy access to Atlanta (which lies an hour west).
As the story goes, Lake Oconee eventually lured Underwood, who bought out the entire Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee, for her big day. Small wonder she liked the place: The luxury hotel spans thirty acres of shoreline and has a white-tablecloth steakhouse, a giant spa overlooking the lake, and a boathouse renting jet skis, kayaks, even a double-decker pontoon with a slide. You know, the basics.
Lake Oconee is part of Georgia’s Lake Country, which includes the Mayberry-esque towns of Eatonton, Madison, Milledgeville, and Greensboro. Head to the latter and stop in at Yesterday Cafe, where you’ll see housemade buttermilk pie in bold print on the menu. Underwood bought 300 of the desserts for her wedding, but you can order a slice for just $2.99. Close your eyes, and imagine you’re at her reception, wowing the crowd with your dance moves and getting big hugs from the bride. Hey, it’s Lake Oconee. It’s a good place to dream.
Live It Up
Lake Martin, Alabama
For some folks, “lake” rhymes with “beer”—at least it does after they’ve knocked back a few. They could care less about fishing, kayaking, or other activities associated with the early-to-rise set. All they want is a boat, a beverage, and a designated captain.
If this sounds familiar, you might already know about Alabama’s Lake Martin. Home to thirty-eight mostly uninhabited islands with names such as Boogie and Cheeseburger, this 44,000-acre lake is a party-lover’s dream. On weekends, dozens of boats anchor around “the Rock,” a sixty-foot cliff from which many brave souls have leapt. Most folks think its real name is Chimney Rock, because when you consume enough cocktails, it looks like Chimney Rock, which is actually a little to the west. In truth, the cliff’s name is Acapulco Rock, but whatever. Have another.
Don’t have a boat? Rent one at any of the half-dozen marinas offering them by the day. Sail to Harbor Docks, where you’ll find burgers, oysters on the half shell, and live music on weekends. Stay in a vacation rental or snag one of the twenty-five guest rooms at Creekside Lodge overlooking the water. If you’re planning to come for Alexander City Jazz Fest in June, book your stay early. It’s an epic party, and you’re not the only one who likes that sort of thing.
Best bets for lakeside fun this spring and summer
- Florida Storytelling Festival
April 12–15, 2018
Lake Dora, Florida
This Mount Dora event includes front-porch storytelling at the Lakeside Inn and a story cruise on Lake Dora.
- Art on the Lake
April 21–22, 2018
Lake Guntersville, Alabama
Browse for pottery and paintings at this Guntersville festival. Come hungry: The bake sale is legendary.
- Nine Lakes Wine Festival
May 17–19, 2018
Melton Lake, Tennessee
Sample dozens of Tennessee wines, watch chef demonstrations, and tap your toes to live music on the shores of this lake outside Knoxville.
- White Lake Water Festival
May 19–20, 2018
White Lake, North Carolina
Dive into this beloved festival in southeast North Carolina with a day of water skiing, a nautical-themed parade, and dancing on the beach.
- St. Jude Bass Classic
May 27, 2018
Sardis Lake, Mississippi
Experts and novices alike are invited to cast a line at this popular charity fishing festival near Oxford. Reel in the biggest bass, and you’ll net five grand.
- South Carolina Festival of Flowers
Lake Greenwood, South Carolina
Tour the gardens of some of Greenwood’s loveliest homes, enjoy wine tastings, and watch a boat parade during this monthlong event.
- Cross Lake Floatilla
June 15–16, 2018
Cross Lake, Louisiana
This rowdy floating party in Shreveport features a decorated boat contest, a poker run, and fireworks.
- Swamp Stomp
July 14, 2018
Lake Bradford, Florida
Bring a lawn chair and snap your fingers to blues, ballads, and everything in between at this Tallahassee event.
- Cajun Food and Music Festival
July 20-21, 2018
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Feast on jambalaya, dance to live Cajun music, and join the raffle for a live hog at this one-of-a-kind festival.
- Rockin’ the River
August 18, 2018
Wheeler Lake, Alabama
At this north Alabama event, bid summer farewell with a youth fishing rodeo, live music, and appearances by the area’s best bass fishermen.
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Southbound.