When it comes to water-filled summer destinations, there are few better places than the lake. Now I know many people may be partial to the beach, which I also love, but there’s something special about going to a lake. The peaceful quiet in the early morning and evening hours, with only the calls of waterfowl filling your ears. Glassy water that reflects back the splendor of the sky above. The joy of jumping off a dock into the refreshing water and watching as the ripples undulate around you.
One lake more than any other holds a special place in my heart: Lake Gaston, North Carolina. Thanks to my grandparents’ generous hospitality, going there has always been a beautiful part of my life, and its in my blood to return to this stunning setting. As a child, long days were spent paddle-boating or fishing or tubing on the lake, only to be interrupted by going inside for some of MaMa’s delicious home cooking and a slice of her famous six-layer chocolate cake.
Bringing my kids back to the lake, year after year, the still water serves as a magnifying glass on how much, and how quickly, they’re growing up. Last year, my oldest daughter still swam with floaties and my middle child would barely go near the water. This year, my oldest was snorkeling to the bottom of the lake with her Poppa while my middle floated happily in the deep. And the baby, no longer a baby, toddled excitedly all around the dock, pointing out fish and birds.
While most of our time at Lake Gaston is spent in blissful simplicity, just hanging around the dock and swimming in the water. Every so often we get out for a little venture and discover something new, or something long-beloved, in the area. These were our five favorites from this summer’s trip.
1. Island Hopping
I love a good island. That sense of feeling just a bit removed from mainstream life. Though we may not have had the opportunity to travel overseas to exotic islands this year, there are so many accessible islands that give a similar into the water and out of the ordinary feeling. Within Lake Gaston, the small islands speckled throughout the lake have become hot spots for exploratory boaters. We’re lucky enough to have access to my grandparents’ wonderfully maintained pontoon boat to explore the lake. But depending on where you put in, some of the islands can be easily reached by kayak or canoe, or there are plenty of companies that rent boats on Lake Gaston (note: I can’t vouch for any of these companies since I haven’t used them personally). Once out on the water, there are a number of little islands with amusing names to choose from. Grandma’s Island is a personal favorite, thanks to it’s proximity to my grandma’s house and the stunning sunrises we watch above it’s towering pines. While no longer populated by goats, Goat Island has become a popular spot – it’s maintained by Dominion Energy and boasts picnic tables, trash and porta-potty, sandy beach, and a floating dock for ease of use. Wobble Island is the place for fun with a sandbar connecting the mainland to the island for swimming and wading in the shallow water. Tony’s Butt Island, despite it’s peculiar name, is gorgeous in the early morning light and has a swing with a view of the main body of the lake. There are a host of others just waiting to be discovered, but my best advice is to set out early to avoid the crowds.
2. Watching a Sunrise or Sunset on the Lake
There are few things more peaceful than watching the brilliant hues of a sunrise or sunset over a lake. The fiery colors of the sky reflected back in the waters below, seeming to absorb you in glistening light. Fortunately, depending on location, you can see both on Lake Gaston. The house we stay at is east-facing, so when the kids woke us at the crack of dawn, we’d grab a cup of coffee and wander down to the dock to watch the pastels paint the sky. I don’t usually consider myself a morning person, but it was a gorgeous way to start the day. Later, after the kids were tucked in bed following a long day of swimming, we’d ask someone to keep an eye on them so some of us adults could hop on the boat and cruise around the point of our cove to catch the the other colorful bookend of the day. Boats linger in the main body of the lake, lining up near Eaton Ferry Bridge to watch the sun dive into the water. In the twilight, boats race home and settle into a quiet evening at the lake.
It’s hard to imagine a day at the lake, with its early start and beckoning sunrise, without a steaming cup of coffee enjoyed on the dock. Fortunately, Lake Gaston has one of the best coffee roasters that we’ve found throughout our many travels. In fact, my husband and my deep appreciation for a good cup of coffee began with a tasting session by Lake Gaston Coffee’s owner, Jason Shearin, at their former roastery and warehouse a handful of years ago. We ditched our coffee maker in favor of pour-over and I ditched my cream and sugar to truly taste the flavors of his incredible roasts. Since that time, Lake Gaston Coffee has expanded throughout the community, and also expanded into it’s own beautiful coffee shop. With gorgeous detailing and a relaxed, friendly atmosphere, it’s more than just a coffee shop – you can grab a sandwich, snacks, a beer, or fun local goods. It was well worth an afternoon away from the lake to stock up on great coffee, enjoy a refreshing beer, and let the kids experience their first Dippin’ Dots treat.
No matter how much you wish and hope for good weather, there’s eventually bound to be a rainy day at the lake. With three young kids, it’s less than ideal to be trapped indoors surrounded by my grandparents many delicate decorations that are so tempting for small hands. So, I was thrilled to find a place to keep those little hands busy: Halifax Studios. My mother’s hometown of Halifax, just a half hour from the lake, is steeped in history, and in recent years has gone through an amazing revitalization. The sleepy Main Street I remembered from childhood visits is now bursting with new businesses, including the lovely art studio. The studio offers a variety of classes and events, utilizing different media and techniques. Or, for our purposes, we scheduled a time to come in and simply paint pottery. My older kids loved getting to pick from the vast selection of pre-made pottery (and may have convinced us to come home with more ceramic pets than we bargained for), and had fun choosing a rainbow of colors with which to transform their wares. These usually wild banshees were quietly focused on their projects, and the studio itself was such a peaceful, beautiful place to pass a couple of hours. It was a great spot to pick out and personalize some thank-you gifts for our generous hosts along our travels, and my kids couldn’t have been more excited to unwrap their creations in all their glazed glory.
After some time spent painting at Halifax Studios, we loved popping across the street to grab a sweet treat. Just two doors down from it’s big sister restaurant The Hen & The Hog (a dining experience well worth a trip to Halifax, NC), Two Doors Down offers a more casual and quick atmosphere to grab a sandwich and drink, pre-prepared food to go, coffee or baked goods. You can get any coffee drink you can dream of, thanks to local Red Rabbit Coffee (roasted by Lake Gaston Coffee Co.), and even pick up a bottle of wine. But what really made the Two Doors Down experience was the delicious desserts. The best things come from simplicity, and their menu is just that. The kids were thrilled to enjoy ice cream fit for royalty when their orders came out in cute cordial glasses flanked by a gold spoon. But the ultimate dessert, in my opinion, was the Cinnamon Bun Blondie, served hot, and topped with house-made cinnamon ice cream. The stuff dessert dreams are made of. And be sure to grab some of their baked goods to take back and enjoy lakeside later. Because visiting the lake is nothing if not an excuse to enjoy all the sweet things in life.