Ever since my in-laws bought a house at Smith Mountain Lake in 2008, I've been hearing a lot about this place. A recent episode of House Hunters was filmed here, as was an episode of MTV's Cribs, and Facebook is alive with "heading to the lake" status updates. So my husband, our 1-year-old son and I made the drive in early August to see it for ourselves. Located about an hour southeast of Roanoke, Smith Mountain Lake was formed in 1966 when the American Electric Power Co. dammed the Blackwater and Roanoke rivers to produce electricity via turbine generators. The Smith Mountain Lake dam (540-985-2587) itself is an interesting destination. Adults will appreciate the awesome task of building the dam, and kids will love the interactive exhibits. The dam is a good 30-minute drive from my in-laws' house, but the view from the overlook is worth it. I can imagine that when our son reaches elementary-school age, he'll think it's one of the coolest things ever.
But the real attraction of Smith Mountain Lake, of course, is the lake, with a depth that averages 55 feet. Bring your own watercraft if you have it; otherwise there are several places with rentals ( Bridgewater Boat Rentals , 540-721-1639 or bridgewaterplaza.com/marina.html; State Park Rentals , 540-297-3642 or bridgewaterplaza.com/statepark.html). If you're new to boating, though, be sure you understand the rules of the water first, which are basically the same as the rules of the road.
As the daughter of an educator, I never had a childhood vacation without some sort of teachable moment. And now that I'm a mom, my family is no different. So, on our way out of town we stopped at Burroughs Farm (540-721-2094 or nps.gov/bowa) in Franklin County, the birthplace of Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery and went on to found the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This inspiring site includes a visitor center and a self-guided tour of the property, complete with a reconstructed slave cabin and a horse barn.
Don't fret if you're not lucky enough to have family or friends with a house at Smith Mountain Lake (smith mountainlakerentals.com). Rentals range from $895 a week for a two-bedroom lakefront home to $2,195 a week for a lakefront home with views of the mountain and three master-bedroom suites. Just like at the ocean, prices are lower in the off-season (Sept. 1-Memorial Day weekend); some homes can be rented for less than a week with a two-night minimum. The Love Stone Inn (540-296-0510 or lovestoneinn.com) is another option. It boasts five rooms ($110 to $250 per night), a loaner library, a common living room and a rec room. A private boat and Jet Ski dock, 6 acres of gardens, floats and boat-trailer parking are also available.
To get in some energy-boosting protein before a long day of swimming, check out The Blackwater Café (540-721-4333 or theblackwatercafe.com) for basic breakfast grub. Options include the Southern Platter — two eggs, a biscuit, sausage gravy and grits for $5.49 — and a pot-roast burger for $9.95. Ordering the daily special netted us a delicious cheese, ham and tomato frittata. At night (the cafe isn't open for lunch), executive chef Mark Crim's menu features hickory-smoked barbecue pork ribs, herb-crusted chicken, and crab-and-corn fritters; most items are under $15. The restaurant has won a bevy of awards from Smith Mountain Laker Magazine, including best chef in 2009 and best bartender in 2008.
For a treat between meals, order up a cone at the Ice Cream Cottage (540-721-1305). You'll find more than 20 flavors of Hershey's ice cream here, including the best birthday-cake ice cream my husband and I have ever tried.
After my son fed the equivalent of an entire box of Cheerios to the ducks by my in-laws' dock, we heard about some huge carp at Bridgewater Marina (540-721-1639 or bridge waterplaza.com) that needed some food. We hopped into the boat, bought a bag of popcorn and let my son go to work dropping kernels into the water off of the dock. The sheer volume and size of these fish will blow your mind. Even more amazing was the tween boy who postured for his posse by pulling one of the giants up onto the dock. He sure impressed us.