Take the Plunge
Living the Good Life on Georgia’s Lakes
written by SAM BOYKIN | photography courtesy of STOCK.ADOBE.COM; LAKE RABUN; REYNOLDS LAKE OCONEE; LAKE RABUN HOTEL; HARBOR CLUB
TOWARD THE TAIL END OF MY OFTEN STRESSFUL, hour-long commute home, my frayed nerves and percolating temper always start to mellow as soon as the glistening expanse of water comes into view. I’ve lived near a lake for nearly 10 years, and it’s been a wonderful experience. My family and I have spent countless hours enjoying all that it has to offer, whether that’s boating with friends, cooling off with a refreshing swim, watching my daughter land her first fish, exploring the shoreline for critters or simply gazing at the water’s soothing and tranquil stillness.
Lucky for us, Georgia boasts more than 30 lakes that encompass some 425,000 acres, making the sparkling bodies of water one of the state’s most abundant and accessible recreational features. Together, they offer something for everyone from adrenaline seekers in search of thrills to families and retirees who simply want to relax and soak up the scenery. Get ready to dive into Georgia’s top lakes this season — just don’t be surprised if one of these waterfront havens becomes your new year-round address.
LAKE LANIER: Ideal for enthusiasts looking for water sport activities
Named after Georgia poet and musician Sidney Lanier, the lake was created to provide hydroelectricity, flood control and water for Atlanta in 1957. Through the years, Lake Lanier, which spans fi ve counties and nearly 700 miles of shoreline, has become one of the state’s most popular summer destinations.
Situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 60 miles north of Atlanta, the lake is bordered by several highways that provide easy access to area attractions, including a resort and marinas. The south end of the lake, which is closer to Atlanta, has wide, open water, making it a hub of activity during the summer. The north end is less crowded, with fewer marinas and open space.
Of course, water-based activities are what attract millions to Lake Lanier every year. Near Browns Bridge toward the northern end of the lake, Port Royale Marina has private launching ramps, a full line-up of rentals and a ship’s store with all the toys, gear and supplies you’ll need for a day on the water. Amy Looby, Port Royale Marina’s marketing director, grew up water skiing and boating on Lake Lanier, where her parents still live.
“It’s always been like my own private playground,” Looby said, adding that when she’s not working, she often hangs out at Pelican Pete’s, the marina’s Tiki hut bar and restaurant, featuring a sandy beach area and live music on the weekends.
As the rowing and canoe/kayak competition site for the 1996 Olympic Games, the lake’s scenic northern end sports the Olympic Venue, which now hosts professional rowing competitions as well as rowing and paddling camps for enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels.
Spread across 1,500 waterfront acres, more fun awaits at Lanier Islands, a family-friendly resort on the southern end of the lake, where accommodations include luxury suites, spacious ranch-style homes and lavish villas. While landlubbers gravitate to the greens for a round of golf (12 holes offer stunning lake views), horseback riding along a network of scenic trails or ziplining through the trees on a guided canopy tour, water enthusiasts can rent a boat or head to LanierWorld, an expansive waterpark with slides, wave pools and other rides.
For something more rustic, hundreds of campsites are available at Lake Lanier. The 1,040-acre Don Carter State Park, on the northern end, has picnic shelters, playgrounds, miles of hiking and biking trails, a sandy beach area, boat ramps and plenty of spots to hook bass, crappie and catfish. Sawnee, on the southern end of the lake near Buford Dam, is another popular camping destination with 44 sites, fishing, playgrounds and beach areas.
LAKE RABUN: Families seeking a laid-back destination, new style and sense of community
TUCKED ABOUT 100 MILES north of Atlanta in a deep valley along the Tallulah River, the 834-acre Lake Rabun is relatively small, with 25 twisty and narrow miles of shoreline. Generations ago, prominent families from Atlanta began building second homes along the shoreline to escape the summer heat. This tradition continues today. While the area has experienced a big housing boom, residents have formed a powerful homeowners association to limit commercial development.
The result is a close-knit, multi-generational community that has developed many cherished traditions. Among them is an annual Fourth of July celebration with a wooden boat parade, 5K and 10K races and a big fireworks display. Lake Rabun also hosts an annual home tour along with auctions and flea markets to raise money to support the local community.
These are some of the qualities that convinced George and Laura Rhodes to buy a house on the lake nearly 13 years ago. The Atlanta-based couple travels to their lakefront home most weekends and throughout the summer.
“We have all the water sports here like skiing and boating, but this is not the kind of lake where you just have fun for the weekend and then pack up and go home,” Laura Rhodes said. “Lake Rabun has a really rich history of families and neighbors getting together and connecting.”
A prime example of this community spirit is the Pavilion at Lake Rabun. Local residents banded together and, through the Lake Rabun Association, acquired land to construct a local meeting place. Key residents oversaw the design and construction of the facility, which was completed in 2006. The beautiful open-air stone and wood building is nestled among the trees and overlooks the lake. It’s the site of numerous summer parties, complete with live music, dancing and BBQ cookouts.
“These kind of events bring together generations,” Rhodes said. “It’s pretty awesome when you’ve got a grandmother dancing with her grandson at a Pavilion party. You just don’t see that very often this day and age.”
LAKE OCONEE: Golf enthusiasts interested in a luxurious lake setting
ABOUT 60 MILES EAST OF ATLANTA, Greensboro, founded in 1786, is noted for its revitalized downtown, with antebellum homes, quaint shops and restaurants. Perhaps the town’s biggest attraction is the scenic 19,000-acre Lake Oconee. Hannah Wilcher, Tourism Coordinator for Greene County, has lived in the area for 12 years, and spends a lot of time on the lake. “One thing I love about Lake Oconee is that it’s only about an hour from Atlanta, but it feels like this totally unique, faraway destination,” she said. Wilcher said another nice feature is the size of the lake. “Even on holidays you don’t feel rushed or crowded. And there’s just so much to do here.”
Such charactistics have drawn top-notch attractions to the area, including the AAA Five-Diamond Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Lake Oconee. Tucked among towering pine trees along a 30-acre stretch of the Lake Oconee shoreline, the luxury resort offers 251 guests rooms and suites. For something more private, there are spacious lakeside cottages with wraparound porches.
Guests here can enjoy the newly renovated infinity pool, which is just steps away from the lake, where you can rent Jet Skis and boats or go fishing. When your stomach starts to rumble, the dining options range from a classic steakhouse to a casual bistro specializing in fresh, regional and organic ingredients.
For a little decadent pampering, be sure to check out the luxurious spa, which has relaxation lounges, a 24-hour-access fitness center and manicure/pedicure room.
The resort also hosts special events during the summer, such as live concerts, fireworks and kids’ camps, during which the little ones can go on nature hikes, scavenger hunts or play sports. While the youngsters are busy, parents can play too. Situated around Lake Oconee are 99 holes of championship golf. Most of these renowned courses are within the resort communities of Harbor Club, Reynolds Plantation and Cuscowilla, all of which are part of the new Georgia Golf Trail.
The 1,600-acre Harbor Club course offers a sweeping lakefront design that winds along the shore, past creeks and several interior lakes. For accommodations, guests can choose from a number of multi-bedroom cottages and townhomes. Additional amenities include a junior Olympic swimming pool and tennis courts. The 15,000-squarefoot clubhouse offers full-service dining, a golf shop, locker rooms and a fitness center.
New to the scene is the Boathouse at Harbor Club, which has a general store, fi shing gear and mouthwatering barbecue that is smoked onsite. The Boathouse also has a boat ramp and community dock, where you can rent kayaks and Jet Skis.
Reynolds Lake Oconee boasts the first golf course built on Lake Oconee, which was unveiled in 1986. It features a variety of holes that wind through naturally wooded areas and rolling hills. Reynolds Plantation has three- and four-bedroom cottages with screened-in porches and golf course views. Guests can also enjoy a pool, tennis courts, playground, athletic field, croquet court, driving range and the new lakeside park and pavilion. Finally, Cuscowilla is a residential and resort community in a beautiful natural setting. Accommodations include golf cottages, lake villas and romantic, Mediterranean- style Lodge Villas. The lakeside golf course is situated along 700 rolling acres and offers a number of challenging holes.
LAKE KEOWEE: Blissful beauty beyond state borders
ONLY ABOUT A TWOHOUR DRIVE from Atlanta in northwest South Carolina, Lake Keowee is a 17,660- acre lake with 300 miles of shoreline, situated in the foothills of the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.
Visitors can explore the area’s natural beauty at places like the Keowee-Toxaway State Park, which has non-motorized public boat access, about 20 campsites, a three-bedroom rental cabin, and more than 6 miles of hiking trails, including a 1.3-mile loop with a natural bridge that crosses a picturesque creek.
Another hub for activity is the Lake Keowee Marina, which offers a full lineup of boat rentals, a restaurant and bar, gift shop and launch ramps. Jerry Blankenship, one of the mangers at the marina, has lived at Lake Keowee for about 20 years. He says he’s resided near the water all his life, including in Miami and the Bahamas, and was lured to Lake Keowee by the clear, clean water and laid-back lifestyle. One of his favorite pastimes is simply cruising along the lake and exploring all the little islands and waterfalls.
“You can go out during the week and maybe see only two or three other boats,” Blankenship said. “And with the beautiful mountains in the background, you always have a scenic view.”
Blankenship says many full-time lake residents are retirees who live in gated communities, but there are also plenty of great vacation homes available in the surrounding towns of Seneca, Clemson and Pickens. To help preserve the area’s unspoiled beauty, local residents formed the Friends Of Lake Keowee Society.
Though the allure of lake life varies, the common thread, like a rope tying a boat to the pier, is how special life on the waterfront is for visitors and residents alike.