You step up to the dock and announce yourself, sometimes in a pause of silent reflection as you focus on the water, sometimes in a boisterous childlike warning, “Cannon ball!” A millisecond of mental preparation, then you launch yourself forward above the water. It’s a moment of exhilaration and glee, a sense of abandon and exuberance that captures the essence of the lake and is capped off with a satisfying splash.
Boat rides with the whip and whoosh of wind and water and the wide open skies above; screened-in porches filled with familiar voices and the gentle jangle of laughter; watching summer storms rumble past; and enjoying the bold beauty of nature as the sun lazily surrenders to the summer day—these are the timeless moments we savor at Lake Martin.
Birmingham locals have been enjoying the lake since the the construction of Lake Martin Dam in the 1920s. With 44,000 acres of lake and 800 miles of wooded shoreline, Lake Martin offers bounteous natural beauty, iconic landmarks, beautiful homes, bustling eateries, and endless recreation. Let’s explore this beloved weekend getaway.
WHERE TO PLAY
Emboldened lake-goers have been diving from the cliffs of this popular hangout for generations. On hot summer Saturdays, there can be a hundred boats surrounding the island, watching people launch themselves into the waters below. You might spot the floating kitchen and eatery, Nibbler’s, making its way through the crowded boats and serving up delicious eats. Years and layers of spray paint adorn the great rock with declarations of pride and emblems of college loyalties.
Some people joke that DeSoto brought the goats to this island near the Lake Martin Dam. No one really knows how the goats got there, but people love to visit the adorable herds of goats and toss them food from their boats. “They are really cute,” says Kenneth Boone, Editor and Publisher of Lake Martin magazine. “They’re a really friendly bunch this year.”
The AMP is an open-air amphitheater atop a large grassy hill, where the audience has a panoramic view of the waters of the Kowaliga Basin. The AMP hosts popular annual events, such as the Fourth of July Fireworks Blast, the Alex City Jazz Fest and the Labor Day Weekend Concert.
Every Friday from May 22 through Labor Day, the rustic, old-world hamlet of Russell Crossroads hosts Fridays on the Green, with live music, lawn games and relaxation with friends and family. Next door, Catherine’s Market hosts wine tastings from 5-7 pm. And if you are an early bird, bring your yoga mat and water bottle to the sprawling lawn at 7 am for Yoga on the Green.
Visit the Adventure Center to rent a bike, canoe or kayak. Or book a guided horseback ride or naturalist-guided excursion through the surrounding wilderness. At the rustic twin cabin next door, peruse the Company Store’s locally made wares, including jewelry, art, pottery, clothing, lake-house decor and children’s games.
“As a child, I was a critter magnet,” says Marianne Hudson, Naturalist and Wildlife Educator. A state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Marianne gives presentations at the Naturalist Cabin at the Crossroads and leads guided nature tours through Russell Forest. “I really enjoy rehabilitating White-tailed Deer and Virginia Opossums, but one may be surprised to know that teaching about our area’s insects is one of my favorite things to do,” says Marianne. “It’s easy for people to get busy and forget about the absolute wonder that is all around us. Awakening that wonder is my job, and it’s a responsibility I do not take lightly.”
This 8,000-square-foot equestrian center offers guided horseback rides, horse-drawn wagon rides, summer adventure camp, picnics, birthday parties, school field trips, business retreats, and clinics for veterinarians, vet technicians, and farriers. However, the stables’ biggest business is weddings and receptions. “We never dreamed we would be doing weddings, but with a facility like this and the beautiful scenery, it was just too good for the brides to pass up,” says Linda Ingram, Office Manager and Event Coordinator at the Stables. “I love the seeing the brides’ dreams fulfilled and being a part of one of the biggest events in a couple’s life.
With more than 100 miles of trails winding through several thousand acres of protected forest, nature lovers can enjoy the canopied trails by horseback, bike or with walking stick in hand. The different trails feature lake views, creek crossings, pristine habitats and even picnic areas.
Founded over 25 years ago, Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin campus is a place where families of seriously ill children can come for fun and relaxation. Children’s Harbor works with 23 partners to provide free camp experiences to around 4,000 patients and their families each year. “We have camps for children with cancer, autism, spina bifida, organ transplants, burns and more,” says Tammy Jackson, the Children’s Harbor Fund Development and Community Relations Staff for South Alabama. “I love knowing that the services that we offer make a difference in the lives of so many. With the many support services available to the families, free of charge, we are able to alleviate some of the stress that they experience when dealing with their child’s illness.”
The Hank Williams Kowaliga Cabin
On the grounds of Children’s Harbor, nestled among the pines, stands the cabin where Hank Williams stayed when he wrote his chart-topping song “Kaw-Liga” in August of 1952. Tales suggest that Hank came to Lake Martin for a respite from life on the road. He penned “Kaw-Liga” after hearing folklore of the Kowaliga Indian tribe that once lived in the valleys that are now covered with water. A framed copy of the hit record hangs on the wall of the two-bedroom cabin, where the kitschy decor preserves that cabin in all its 1950s glory. Visitors can rent the cabin—and support Children’s Harbor—for $250 per night.
Many residents in Willow Glynn enjoy the proximity to the private Willow Point Golf & Country Club, home to one of Alabama’s most beautiful and enjoyed golf courses. The centerpiece of Willow Point Golf & Country Club is the 18-hole championship golf course surrounded by sparkling lake waters. Willow Point also offers members access to a magnificent clubhouse and restaurant, tennis center, lakeside pool, courtesy boat docks, cabana, snack bar and private fitness facility. Purchasers at Willow Glynn have the opportunity to apply for membership at the prestigious Willow Point Golf & Country Club.
WHERE TO EAT
For more than 20 years, the Dunham family has been selling boiled peanuts on the waterfront at Peanut Point, a small island west of Wood Island. Tim and Brenda Dunham took over the family business from Tim’s Father, Louis. What was once Louis’ weekend hobby continues to grow as a business and is now a favorite Lake Martin excursion. Tim and Brenda boil 100 pounds of peanuts to prepare for a normal summer weekend. The delicious southern snack sells for $4 a bag, cajun or regular, and Brenda recently added Peanut Point koozies ($2) and t-shirts ($12-$15). The Dunham’s two-year-old Chihuahua, Lucy, greets customers as they pull up to the point, where people often chat while children enjoy the sandy shoreline.
“It’s a little slice of paradise on the lake with a Key West vibe,” says Jane Garret Harris, Public Relations Manager for Chuck’s, which also has WineStoppers, a casual wine bar above the 20-year-old pizza kitchen where customers can enjoy a view of the lake. “Our panoramic view catches our breath all the time,” says Jane. “We love to watch the sunsets and rainstorms from here.” The bustling marina-restaurant offers live music Friday and Saturday nights and hosts huge fundraisers for the local fire department and library. “Our favorite thing about Chuck’s is the people that come back every year. So many have become good friends, and we’ve watched their children grow up and their dogs grow old.” Come visit Chuck’s for their popular Chimney Rock pizza, their version of the supreme. Then come back next year to check out their expanded digs. “We have outgrown the pizza kitchen, so we’re building a new one in fall 2015, and we want to put an ice cream, yogurt or shaved ice place in the old pizza kitchen.”
The hub of Russell Crossroads is Catherine’s Market, where there are a steady stream of patrons ordering prepared salads and pastries at the deli counter or standing in line to order breakfast or lunch from the in-store cafe. The butcher counter is always stocked with organic, quality meats and seafood. The produce shelves are a vibrant cornucopia of colorful, local vegetables. The wine shop boasts a diverse and well-rounded collection, and the beer cooler features many local, high-gravity brews. Catherine’s own Ready-made dips, soups, desserts, and more tempt shoppers as they stand in the checkout line. Visit Catherine’s Friday night wine tastings from 5-7 pm, enjoy the WiFi and a snack in their indoor or outdoor dining area, or come for Gameday Saturdays during football season when the flat screens are tuned into all the big games.
Hands down, the best waterfront dining spot on the lake, Kowaliga Restaurant is a Lake Martin institution. Opened the year after Hank William’s song “Kaw-Liga” brought fame to the lonesome Lake Martin Indian—“whose heart was made of knotty pine.” The wooden Indian is proudly displayed in the entryway and the walls are filled with Hank Williams memorabilia in tribute to the lake’s Native American past and the legendary musician. When it opened, the restaurant was known for its fried catfish, hushpuppies, and putt-putt golf. Children still run around the shoreline, tossing the Kowaliga-supplied turtle food to the army of hungry turtles. Others hang out on the small beach or the restaurant’s impressive wraparound porch, watching the sun set after a long day on the water and enjoying a craft cocktail while waiting for their food to arrive. Named the tastiest tacos in Alabama by the Food Network, Kowaliga’s famous catfish tacos sell like hotcakes.
Twice selected as a semifinalist for “Best Chef: South” by the James Beard Foundation, SpringHouse’s Executive Chef Rob McDaniel crafts dishes that embrace the complex flavors of local produce and meats that showcase, as he describes it, “deep Southern roots with some worldly influences.” SpringHouse is a three-story culinary behemoth, featuring indoor and outdoor dining upstairs and downstairs, an open kitchen with a chef’s counter, roaring stone fireplaces, a hearth, and each level has its own bar that opens to serve its patio. Cocktail aficionado Will Abner, whose Bourbon Root Beer Float was recently featured in Garden & Gun, crafted the inventive specialty cocktail menu. The working hearth in the center of the main dining room crackles with warmth from September to May, when SpringHouse chefs prepare wood-grilled meats over its embers. An underground reserve wine cellar winds its way to the WellHouse, a special private dining room that seats up to twelve at a rustic round table. The WellHouse opens to a lush garden patio overlooking the grounds of the stables where beautiful horses stroll through green fields as the sun sets each evening.
WHERE TO STAY
By now you are itching to stay at Lake Martin, right?! The best way to visit is to book a vacation rental through VRBO. And for those hunting for a lake place to call your home away from home, let’s check out some of the latest digs on the Lake Martin market!
We’re excited about this new community situated on a private peninsula near Real Island. These 24 lakefront lots are being developed with several different cottage designs, each combining a rustic cabin feel with the breezy lightness of their open floor plans. Note that the price of each lot includes cottage, land, seawall and pier. Prices start in the mid-$600s.
Russell Lands’ real estate is comprised of 12 distinct neighborhoods, and the focus of all of their developments is to promote conservation and thoughtful use of Lake Martin’s natural resources. Most homes begin in the mid-$800s and prices vary depending on lot selection and chosen home design.
Drive down to Lake Martin and explore the trails and waters of this gorgeous Alabama getaway!
All images not credited appear courtesy of Russell Lands on Lake Martin.