More Absolutely Florida

If the old ho-hum, what-should-we-do-this-year? vacation questions comes up and you're down Florida way looking for a cool alternative, try motor-homing afloat.

It's different, it's exciting, no experience is necessary (you can learn to navigate in less than an hour) and best of all, it's an opportunity to get away from the maddening tourist crowds you're likely to run into while traveling on the highway. Plus you can explore out-of-the-way places not accessible to four wheels. If you see an alligator or a manatee in its natural habitat, well, that's just an added bonus.

Check out the layout of the typical houseboat and you'll see the connection to a motorhome. Up front, a cockpit for the driver (pilot?) and a means of maneuvering around, then living quarters almost identical to a motorhome - living room, kitchen, bath and bedroom. In the rear, some means of propulsion - usually an outboard or inboard/outboard engine. Motorhomes and houseboats suck up a lot of gas, so the connection extends beyond mere appearance. In both a motorhome and a houseboat, you travel in style with ample elbow room, full kitchen and bath facilities and rarely a need to unpack when you arrive at your destination. If you're watching your budget, you can cook aboard and save on dining out expenses.

If you're timing is right, you could spot some alligators, blue herons, eagles and osprey. In nearby Blue Springs State Park, the waters reach 72-degrees even in the winter, so it's not uncommon to see manatees nibbling on the aquatic vegetation around Holly Bluff. Cruising around casually (and casual's important when you're paying for the fuel), you can plan on covering 20 to 30 miles a day and along the way fish, explore coves and inlets and stroll ashore to visit some of the most remote towns in this corner of northeastern Florida.

Average Houseboat Rental Rates
High Season: March thru November
Low Season: December thru February

Weekend rates - 1 pm Fri.-4 pm Sun
Mid-Week rates - 1 pm Mon.-10 am Fri
Weekly Rates - 7 days of rental

38-foot 4-Sleeper Houseboat
Weekend, $700
Mid-Week, $750
Weekly, $1,200
Weekend, $600
Mid-Week, $650
Weekly, $1,100

44-foot 8-Sleeper Houseboat
Weekend, $800
Mid-Week, $850
Weekly, $1,400
Weekend, $700
Mid-Week, $750
Weekly, $1,300

45-foot 6-Sleeper Executive
Two private staterooms, central heat, air, luxurious furnishings, screened deck
Weekend, $1,000
Mid-Week, $1,050
Weekly, $1,800
Weekend, $900
Mid-Week, $950
Weekly, $1,700

Pontoon Picnic Boats
24-feet, 55 h.p. engine
Daily (8 hours), $125
Half-Day (4 hours), $75
Weekly, $500

By Pete Johnson

The idea of exchanging highway travel for waterway travel appealed to us during a recent trip to Florida, so we rented a houseboat - a 38-footer powered by a 165-horsepower OMC engine. - downloaded our personal effects from the motorhome and moved into our new home afloat for the next week. The boats have a draft of only two-feet, so you can explore both the deep and shallow waters of the St. John's. Sizes range from 38-feet to the ultimate 52-foot corporate model with private staterooms that can sleep up to ten people. Our houseboat was equipped similar to our motorhome; color TV, pots and pans, utensils, bed linens, microwave, air conditioning and some nautical extras like deck furniture, a depth finder and marine radio. The transition was simple...just step off the land and onto the deck with personal possessions in hand. Florida is a seasonable state, so you'll pay more for everything visitor-related during the peak season (March through November) than you will during the low season. (December through February).

While I lugged our clothes and fishing poles aboard (nautical-speak for "on the boat"), my wife did some careful can-we-afford-it? arithmetic. During our Florida trip, we were averaging over 200 miles a day in the motorhome, dashing from one end of the state to the other trying to do, see and experience everything. Hectic! Our gasoline expenses were soaring and we were both road-weary. The thought of parking the rig and freezing the motorhome's odometer in place for a week or so sounded appealing. We'd eliminate the wear and tear on the motorhome, save on campground expenses and admissions to land-based attractions and do something we've never done before. While dollar signs flashed through my wife's head, I had adventure flashes - the urge to become a houseboat captain and replace steering wheel with the helm! We both agreed we weren't ready to trade in the motorhome for a motorboat forever, but life afloat for a week or so was worth a try.

"The average family of four - or two couples - can travel and live comfortably in our smallest model, the 36- footer," Judy Armstrong, the owner of Holly Bluff Marina told us. "The rental rates include everything you need to be comfortable. All houseboats are equipped with OMC engines and Onan generators for reliability. When you arrive at your destination each night you can nudge the nose into a cove and tie up to a dock or a tree (free) and settle down. With a well-placed cast of the fishing line, you might even pull dinner out of the river. If you like a little more civilization, you can pull into a marina and have dinner at a local restaurant."

The St. Johns is rated one of the best fishing areas in the southeastern United States and fishing gear is available for rent. "Traveling a few hours a day (rushing dulls the experience)," she explained, "the cost of operation should be far below what you'd spend pushing that big motorhome around. Because there are more free things to do and experience along the river, you'll spend less time moving around and overnight parking in a seclude cove costs nothing."

The sofa on our houseboat converted into a bed and each houseboat comes with a generator for electricity and 12-volt lights. Even the small boats have spacious sundecks topside so if you're traveling with children, they can sleep topside under the stars while the adults stretch out below in complete privacy. All of the windows have screens, but if you sleeping outside, stock up on bug spray because a night in the jungle does have its drawbacks.

For the next ten days, we cruised the St. Johns River, stopping over each night in small fishing towns or anchoring in out-of-the-way coves and inlets, falling asleep to the sound of water lapping against the hull and the flapping wings of wild birds. Those splashes we heard during the night could have been anything from a small fish to a large alligator looking for a midnight snack. Here, in the rural northeastern corner of Florida, waterfront tieup facilities tend to be rudimentary, usually a rickety fishing dock jutting out into the water with no shoreside facilities other than a bare light bulb dangling from a tilting post. We avoided marinas whenever we could and used the houseboat's generator sparingly. During the day we'd cruise, loaf on deck, explore and fish. With 118 species of fish flourishing in the waters, we were pulling crappie, bream, sunfish, pickerel, shad and bass out of the water. Two nights we spent at a marina and treated ourselves to dinner ashore.

Dockside, just prior to casting off, we met John and Jeanette Davis and two couples from Lake Placid, New York who had driven their three motorhomes down from the north and were spending four month In Florida. They planned a week cruise north to just south of Jacksonville. "By splitting expenses," John said, " it's certainly an affordable option for everybody involved and a special vacation experience. When we divided all of the expenses between three couples," Jack said, "the cost is reasonable." How reasonable? The Davis' figured about $250 a week per person which included fuel and operating expenses.

For further information and a free brochure with descriptions of the houseboats and rates, contact the Holly Bluff Marina
2280 Hontoon Road
Deland FL 32720
or call 800/237-5105.