Here’s the thing about people who live in the Lake Norman area: Many of us have only a passing acquaintance with the actual lake. In my case, that means passing while driving over it on Interstate 77.
Don’t get me wrong. Lake Norman is a whopper of an attraction. With 520 miles of shoreline, it’s North Carolina’s largest man-made body of fresh water, created in 1963 by Duke Power, now Duke Energy, by damming the Catawba River. The lake stretches into four counties – northern Mecklenburg, southern Iredell and eastern Lincoln and Catawba.
Lake Norman has been a magnet for growth, attracting thousands to beautiful lakefront homes. But most growth in the Lake Norman area, which includes the towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville, has been on non-lakefront property. Public access to the lake is limited, so if you don’t live on it or park a boat in a marina, you can almost forget that it’s there.
And this is fine. The Lake Norman area has much more to offer than water.
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Davidson, for instance, is home to Davidson College, a top liberal arts college (and alma mater to NBA All-Star Stephen Curry, if you haven’t been paying attention). Davidson’s Main Street offers a bookstore, coffeehouse, shops and a range of good restaurants. My new favorite: Kindred, which was recently named one of the best new restaurants in America by Bon Appétit. On Saturday mornings, the Davidson Farmers Market is the place to be. It’s full of local produce and products, live music, children, dogs and good karma.
Mooresville’s downtown also earns big points for charm. It’s got Epic Chophouse for higher-end dining and What-A-Burger at the lower end. (Eat in your car!) Shops include D.E. Turner Hardware & Co., which sells everything from wagons to local honey and has been around for more than a century. Mooresville bills itself as Race City USA because it’s home to auto and racing museums and several NASCAR teams.
Huntersville, with a population of more than 50,000, is the largest town in the Lake Norman area and also closest to Charlotte – 15 minutes or less if traffic is good. One of its most popular venues is Birkdale Village, a mixed-use development with more than 60 shops, plus movie theaters and restaurants. Huntersville’s Discovery Place KIDS museum will delight children with educational hands-on exhibits, as will the Carolina Raptor Center, where you can get up close and personal with birds of prey.
The town I know best in Lake Norman is my own, Cornelius. Once a humble mill village, it’s now home to 27,000 people. Like the other towns I’ve mentioned, Cornelius straddles I-77, with its original downtown on the east side and newer development on the west side, including lots of million-dollar-plus lakefront mansions. In recent years, it’s been great seeing the old downtown blossom with new shops, art crawls and food trucks. I love buying gifts at Bebe Gallini’s and eating at Fork!, a great farm-to-table restaurant on Main Street.
There’s a lot more to Lake Norman, including the towns of Troutman, Denver and Sherrills Ford. And though I personally don’t take advantage of many lake amenities, plenty do exist. Queen’s Landing in Mooresville offers dinner cruises. Numerous restaurants, including North Harbor Club in Davidson, feature lakefront views.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the downside of living in such a popular area: Traffic congestion. I-77 from Huntersville to Davidson is one of state’s most congested stretches of highways. It’s the only part of I-77 in Mecklenburg County that’s still two lanes in each direction. The plan now is to widen I-77 from Charlotte to Mooresville with “express lanes,” which will be toll lanes unless you’re carpooling with three or more people. They’re scheduled to open in 2018, though an increasing number of elected officials are now speaking out against the project.
Development is booming in Lake Norman, and whether the new lanes are eventually built or not, traffic, at least in the short term, can only get worse. Word to the wise: If you’re considering a move to Lake Norman, know that it’s lovely. But drive around in rush hour, or on a Friday afternoon, before you decide.
Pam, a reporter for the Observer, has lived in the Lake Norman area for 26 years.
Visit Lake Norman State Park in Troutman: If you don’t live on the water, this is the perfect place to get the full lake experience. There’s fishing and boating, plus hiking, bike trails, campgrounds, picnic areas.
Stroll Davidson College’s campus: The liberal arts college campus is a lovely place for a walk. While you’re there, enjoy a meal at a restaurant on Main Street.
Check out the Hugh Torance House & Store in Huntersville: It’s one of the few remaining 18th-century structures in Mecklenburg County and the oldest standing store in North Carolina.
Attend the North Mecklenburg Christmas Parade: This parade, from Davidson to Cornelius, usually on the first Saturday of December, retains a small-town feel. Look for fire trucks, many cute children and, of course, Santa.
Read “A History of Lake Norman: From Fish Camps to Ferraris”: Chuck McShane’s 2014 book traces the history of the lake and surrounding region.