The wide range of activities for people of all ages is one reason houseboating has become so popular. Today's rental houseboats are nothing like the spartan vessels common in the early 1980s. At the high end, they're 75 or more feet long and 18 feet wide, sleep a dozen or more (the adults in staterooms with queen-size beds), and come equipped with waterslides, TVs, gourmet kitchens, hot tubs, and air conditioning. Veteran houseboaters often tow along speedboats, kayaks, and other specialized craft. "The more toys you have, the more enjoyable your vacation is going to be," says avid houseboater Joe Mouren-Laurens, 52, general manager of a Paramount (Calif.) packaging company.
Often two or three families rent a houseboat together and split the cost. If you factor in the money saved on hotels and restaurants, it isn't overly expensive. At Forever Resorts (foreverresorts.com), which offers houseboat rentals at a dozen locations, the biggest boat in the fleet is the 75-foot, 12-person Silver XT, with five staterooms and two full-size baths. It goes for $12,995 per week year-round at Arizona's Antelope Point Marina on Lake Powell. Less expensive options include a 50-footer available on Lake Mead (also on the Nevada-Arizona border) that sleeps eight and rents for $2,995 per week in June, July, and August, and as little as $1,695 from October through late April.
Every fall, insurance company account executive Brian Brazell, 42, and two dozen friends from the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Ill., rent a pair of 62-ft. houseboats in La Crosse, Wis., from Huck's Houseboat Vacations (hucks.com) for a guys' weekend. The cost per person, including gasoline for tooling up and down the Mississippi and prodigious quantities of ribs, chili, and beer: a mere $250.BUSINESS MEETS PLEASURE The appeal of houseboats even reaches beyond friends and families. Companies find them an economical venue for team-building and promotional events. "It's a chance to get to know each other in a closed environment," says Scott Korey, vice-president with Points West Sales & Marketing, a food-services broker in Phoenix.
Among the most popular destinations are huge manmade lakes such as Powell, Mead, California's Lake Shasta, Georgia's Lake Sidney Lanier, and Kentucky's Lake Cumberland. "Each lake has a different vibe," says Keith Landers, 40, a vice-president at Trusted Network Technologies in Alpharetta, Ga., who lives on Lake Lanier and has done a lot of houseboating. Powell, Mead, and Shasta have hundreds of hidden coves and canyons. Many boaters simply motor for a couple of hours until they find an isolated spot, tie up on the beach, and stay put for a few days.
Houseboats aren't hard to pilot. Huck's owner Michael "Huck" Ehrlich says his customers have traveled 150 miles up the Mississippi to St. Paul, Minn., and as far south as Dubuque, Iowa, overnighting at beaches or tying up at levees along the way. No special driver's license is required, and rental companies say neophytes can master the basics with an hour or two of instruction. A rental houseboat's top speed is about 8 mph, and the companies will help you with the hardest part, getting in and out of the dock at the start and finish. Some rental outfits will provide a sleep-aboard driver. Antelope Point Marina charges an extra $250 per day for a pilot who also cooks and acts as a fishing guide.
Irvine (Calif.)-based Seven Crown Resorts (sevencrown.com) says its customers typically spend $62 per day on gas, but the tab will soar if you motor around a lot and keep a speedboat going all day for waterskiing. Mouren-Laurens usually pays a $300 or so preboarding fee that allows him to get on the boat the night before departure. "You can get an early start, and you don't have to pay for a night in a hotel," he says.
Finding a marina close to home is easy. There are rental outfits in more than 30 states and most Canadian provinces. Web sites such as gordonsguide.com and Houseboat magazine's houseboatrentals.com are good places to do research. You can also get a copy of the magazine's free rental guide by calling 800 638-0135.
With the dollar at historic lows against the euro, Europeans have begun flocking to the most popular U.S. destinations. "Walk down here in August, and hardly anyone seems to be speaking English," says Steven Carothers, general manager of Antelope Point Marina. It's just another testament to houseboating's near-universal appeal. By Thane Peterson