Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a houseboat vacation? Just the thought of being able to spend several consecutive days on the water, with all the luxuries of home, seems attractive enough. Add the opportunity to try it someplace fun, beautiful or surrounded by nature and the idea seems almost too good to be true.
“It really is something special,” says John Martinez of KeySea Houseboats (www.keyseahouseboats.com/rates) in Key Largo, FL, “especially for nature lovers. Down here in The Florida Keys, for example, you’ll actually overnight in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and pass through parts of the Everglades. You can cruise for up to three hours from our dock and choose from dozens of interesting places to explore or drop anchor. The fishing and snorkeling is great, too, and you’ll see plenty of dolphins – every day. We provide free snorkel gear, fishing equipment and a kayak with each rental.”
Indeed, renting a houseboat for a few days presents a ton of options from romantic getaways to family fun. As with anything else, however, the devil is in the details. For starters, you’ll want to be sure the houseboat you are renting is allowed to cruise. Most advertised “houseboat” rentals are really floating hotels. That is to say they remained tied to the dock at all times. These may offer a great water view, but to actually go anywhere you’ll need to drive by car, take a taxi, bike, walk or swim.
“A cruising houseboat really offers the best experience,” explains Bob Attanasio, Marina Manager at Parrot Cove Marina (www.parrotcove.com) on Smith Mountain Lake, VA. “With the ability to go wherever you want the opportunities are so much more robust. Think of houseboats as big RVs but on the water. Many come with full amenities, including kitchen utensils, linens, a galley or gas grill, even a big screen TV. All you really need to do is bring along food, clothing and personal essentials. Some also provide a kayak, SUP or the option to tow along a PWC or even a runabout if you want to go water skiing, fishing or speed off on your own every now and then.”
Surprisingly, you’ll have to do some serious searching to find a cruising houseboat rental that’s close to home. Some on-water communities flat out prohibit them – think frat parties on the water every weekend – while in other areas waters are too rough, shallow, crowded, stump-filled or strong of current to make it a good idea. As a rule, cruising houseboats operate in reliably calm waters – often on large, vacation-based destination freshwaters like Lake Powel in Utah, the Erie Canal and Thousand Island areas of Upstate New York. Florida was once a houseboat haven, but much of the fleet has been wiped out by the strong hurricanes of recent years and only a few have come back on-line to date.
“You might be surprised at the size of some sweetwater houseboat options, however. Smith Mountain Lake, for example, is 40 miles long and ringed with so many deep, navigable coves that it actually has 500 miles of shoreline. That’s a pretty expansive area to explore.
Generally speaking, houseboat rental fees vary based on size of vessel, location and which items come standard. Expect to pay between $300 and $400 per night, with discounted rates should you stay longer or visit at the beginning or end of boating season. Figure you’ll spend about $150 for gas on a three or four night stay, more if you tend to wander. Boat sizes run from roughly 30 to 50 feet in length, accommodating anywhere from two to ten people. Plan to book four to six months in advance if heading to a vacationland hot spot during peak season. Also, check if the boats you are renting accommodate pets. Most do not.
As for standing at the helm, even a novice can drive a houseboat. Most run at top speeds of only 8 to 10 mph. They drive like big pontoon boats and other captains tend to give wide berth as you approach. Stay in the primary channels and you should have no problems. Expect to get some driving instruction before being allowed to leave the dock, and to receive a detailed chart or cruising manual noting water depths, hazards, ports and the specific boundaries of your adventure
Way down upon the Suwannee River, on the upper west coast of Florida, Dana Collins, manager of Gateway Marina (www.gatewaymarina.us) says that renting a houseboat is the best way to see what nature really has to offer. From the marina dock in Suwannee boaters can head nearly 40 miles up-river to explore undeveloped stretches and try their hand at fishing, birding, photography or simply relaxing. Much of the river remains in its natural state, and there are plenty of amazing freshwater springs to investigate.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of days than cruising this beautiful stretch,” says Collins with hometown pride. “Being on a houseboat forces you to slow down, and that really lets you take in the sights. It’s just a wonderful way to relax and have fun at the same time.”