by Jessie Ammons
photographs by Lissa Gotwals
Summertime childhood memories for me are all about the lake. Growing up just north of Raleigh, as soon as the weekend rolled around, we were off to Lake Gaston, an hour away but a world apart. Toting marshmallows for s’mores, sugary cereals, sunscreen, and swimsuits, my two brothers, my parents, and I joined cousins, aunts, and uncles at our grandparents’ lake house. We kids slept on pull-out couches and bunk beds – it didn’t really matter, because most of our time was spent outside kneeboarding, innertubing, and catching fireflies.
The second I turned 14, I got my state boating license and my first taste of independence: I could jet ski – alone! – from our dock to my best friend’s. She would hop on board and we’d spend all afternoon touring the lake, stopping for ice cream cones instead of lunch.
Before too long, and much to our delight, my parents, Jan and Andy Ammons, decided to invest in a lake house of their own. They found a simple A-frame with great bones in a cove just off the main lake. As I grew up, so did the house: Hardwood floors replaced linoleum, cable railing opened up the view from our deck, and creaky ping-pong tables made way for pool. But while our weekend shack became a bona fide family home over the years, our love of the place has always been less about the space itself than about our time together in it. Or our time together outside it. Now, we end most days by piling into the boat and heading out to a certain spot on the water near mile marker 11 to watch the sunset. Sipping cocktails and listening to classic rock, we talk about nothing in particular. This “sunset cruise” has become a tradition; the latest memory-making ritual that to me is what summer is all about.
Here are a few spots worth checking out on your way to or from Lake Gaston, plus some to visit while you’re there.
Flip Flops Bar at
Shady Shack Grill
Palm trees and bright colors distinguish this hangout, where no shirt or shoes are required.
183 Hendricks Mill Rd., Bracey, Va.
Great for family-friendly entertainment, Littleton’s community theatre will this month perform Shrek The Musical, Jr. and Laugh In, a collection of gag skits based on a television show from the late ’60s.
411 Mosby Ave., Littleton, N.C.
Norlina’s version of a food truck makes great road trip fuel, especially the $3 cheeseburger (order it with slaw).
Corner of Hwy. 158 and Hycko Rd., Norlina, N.C.
The Pointe at Eaton’s Ferry
Located right by the prominent Eaton’s Ferry Bridge, this spot is on a lake main drag. Think tiki bar, live music, fried seafood platters, and familiar faces.
1865 Eaton Ferry Rd., Littleton, N.C.
Around these parts, everybody knows the best cantaloupes come from Ridgeway. Many locals will tell you it’s the state’s cantaloupe capital, and every July the unincorporated community hosts a Cantaloupe Festival.
Produce stands are along Hwy. 1, Ridgeway, N.C.
When traveling on I-85, try taking exit 226 for Ridgeway Road.
Ridgeway Opry House
Every Saturday night and some Fridays, head to this historic little building for good ol’ bluegrass jams. Words to the wise: Save room for a slice of the homemade cakes and pies. And if you happen to imply that you’ve maybe ever barely touched an instrument, you’ll likely be dragged onstage, like it or not.
704 Hwy. 1 S., Ridgeway, N.C.
Roost Crossroads Antiques & Collectors Mall
A place to find hidden gems with local flair, like vintage small town farmers’ market posters.
135 Hwy. 1 S., Norlina, N.C.
Rosemont of Virginia
Lake Gaston straddles the North Carolina-Virginia border, and not far over the state line is this vineyard. Try the dry rosé for summertime sipping.
1050 Blackridge Rd., LaCrosse, Va.
What appears to be a standard gas station and convenience store also has a kitchen serving up some of the best breakfast biscuits around. If you feel adventurous, try the “torpedo”: scrambled eggs, cheese, and sausage all rolled up into a pancake.
2192 River Rd., Henrico, N.C.
While still pretty casual, this is the lakeside place for a finer seafood meal. During the summer, there’s a little ice cream window on the back side of the building that’s open during the daytime.
2107 Eaton Ferry Rd., Littleton, N.C.