WA­TER ESCAPES

Slow down and take in the scenery with a house­boat va­ca­tion

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY KITT WALSH

Rolling on the River

“We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then … It was kind of solemn, drift­ing down the big still river, lay­ing on our backs look­ing up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talk­ing loud …” ­— Huck­le­berry Finn

While float­ing on an open raft might not be the best choice of get­aways, some savvy trav­el­ers are putting a mod­ern spin on Mark Twain’s fic­tional es­cape. In­stead of check­ing into a land­locked re­sort for their va­ca­tion, they are tak­ing the plunge and leav­ing the bus­tle be­hind by rent­ing a house­boat.

Cap­tain Bob Pektas of Par­adise Va­ca­tions House­boat Rentals rents house­boats that travel up and down the Caloosa­hatchee River, from Fort My­ers to Boca Grande and all the bar­rier is­lands in be­tween. ( The house­boats don’t go out into the Gulf.) The fleet in­cludes three 41- foot­ers and one 37- footer, all based out of the City of Fort My­ers Yacht Basin.

You need no li­cense to op­er­ate a house­boat, but the Cap­tain per­son­ally over­sees a few hours of train­ing on the morn­ing of your char­ter, and you must demon­strate that you can par­al­lel park the boat be­fore you are turned loose. ( For an op­tional $ 75, Boat USA’s tow­ing ser­vice will res­cue you if you er­rantly hit a sand­bar.)

With a top speed of 10 knots ( 12 miles an hour), your house­boat will have a cruis­ing area of about 50 miles. But as the cap­tain points out, you could spend weeks ex­plor­ing just those miles and never see the half of it.

“Our scenery is ever chang­ing,” says Pektas. “From kayak­ing and bird- watch­ing to walk­ing a beach at mid­night or stop­ping at Captiva for lunch, each day is unique and get­ting there is half the fun”.

The boats sleep eight and have full kitchens and two baths, with all linens and cook­ware pro­vided. Capt. Bob’s wife, Maria, will even pro­vi­sion the boat with the list you pro­vide for an ex­tra fee.

A $ 1,000 re­fund­able ( less fuel) de­posit is re­quired, and there is a min­i­mum rental of three nights. Char­ters cost ap­prox­i­mately $ 420 per day, plus fuel ( there is a mil­i­tary dis­count of 10 per­cent). Diesel costs around $ 3.60 per gal­lon, and a week­long char­ter usu­ally con­sumes about 60 gal­lons.

Bob Krueger and Jan King left their Colorado home and re­cently rented a 41- foot house­boat from Par­adise Va­ca­tions. “We

were look­ing for a man­age­able ad­ven­ture,” says Krueger, “and one that of­fered a cer­tain level of isolation. We wanted to un­plug.”

The cou­ple spent two- thirds of their time at an­chor at places like ’ Tween Wa­ters Inn on Captiva and, when it got a lit­tle too windy, at South Seas Is­land Re­sort. But they fished from the boat ev­ery day ( catch­ing sea trout, cat­fish and even a bar­racuda), rented a skiff to ex­plore “Ding” Dar­ling Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, and mar­veled at the wildlife all around them. “An enor­mous ray came com­pletely out of the wa­ter right next to the boat, and the dol­phins were just spec­tac­u­lar,” says Krueger. “We felt like we were liv­ing in their world, not the other way around.”

The 10- day trip, in­clud­ing fuel, costs $ 4,000, but Krueger be­lieves it was money well spent. “I would ab­so­lutely rec­om­mend rent­ing a house­boat,” he said. “Jan and I re­al­ized how well we work to­gether. We re­ally were dis­con­nected from the rest of the world and truly re­laxed.”

To get even fur­ther from civ­i­liza­tion, you can rent a house­boat that is docked at your own pri­vate is­land. The owner of rent­my­is­land. com, Robert Rainek, owns Char­lie’s Is­land just off Marathon Key. Ex­cept for a ca­bana for rain shel­ter, a grill, a ham­mock and some tiki torches, you might think you’re on Sur­vivor.

Fly into Mi­ami, West Palm Beach or Key West and a staffer will meet you and take you out to the house­boat to ac­quaint you with its sys­tems. Then you are on your own to en­joy snor­kel­ing, fish­ing, kayak­ing or just sun­bathing ( sans suits if you are avoid­ing tan lines!). The house­boat re­mains sta­tion­ary, but a 17- foot cen­ter con­sole boat comes with the rental for ex­plor­ing nearby ar­eas.

TO GET EVEN FUR­THER FROM CIV­I­LIZA­TION, YOU CAN RENT A HOUSE­BOAT THAT IS DOCKED AT YOUR OWN PRI­VATE IS­LAND.

WE WERE LOOK­ING FOR A MAN­AGE­ABLE AD­VEN­TURE AND ONE THAT OF­FERED A CER­TAIN LEVEL OF ISOLATION. WE WANTED TO UN­PLUG.” — BOB KRUEGER, CUS­TOMER OF PAR­ADISE VA­CA­TIONS HOUSE­BOAT RENTALS

“People with a sense of ad­ven­ture en­joy the is­land,” says Rainek. “Fam­i­lies spend­ing qual­ity time, lovers, fa­thers and sons, people who love to camp— it’s like The Swiss Fam­ily Robin­son with bet­ter ac­com­mo­da­tions.”

The two- bed­room two- bath house­boat sleeps six to eight, rents for $ 2,795 per week and is only a five- minute boat ride to civ­i­liza­tion— though it doesn’t feel that way. “People love the peace of the is­land,” says Rainek. “Ev­ery­one who vis­its wants to stay longer.”

If you are less of an icon­o­clast, con­sider rent­ing one of the docked house­boats at Gil­bert’s Re­sort & Ma­rina in Key Largo. Laura DeG­root and Bill Schramm, own­ers of Keys House­boat Rentals, were them­selves es­capees from the frozen north ( Chicago) who left win­ter and the cor­po­rate world be­hind to go live on a house­boat. Now they own four boats, which rent from $ 120 to $ 220 per night in high sea­son.

“Rent­ing a house­boat makes for a unique and eco­nom­i­cal va­ca­tion,” says DeG­root. “You get a great float­ing ho­tel room, don’t have to eat out since you can cook a meal right on the boat, and our guests have full ac­cess to all Gil­bert’s has to of­fer.” You can use the beach, swim in the pool, pad­dle­board, rent jet skis or boats, catch a fish­ing char­ter and sip a cold one at the tiki bar while lis­ten­ing to live en­ter­tain­ment.

“When it starts get­ting cold up north, people start book­ing the boats,” DeG­root says. “If a storm kicks up down here, the boats only rock and roll a lit­tle, and even that is fun.”

DeG­root and Schramm them­selves had to down­size to live full- time on their house­boat, but they have never looked back. “The wa­ter, the sun and the people can’t be beat,” says DeG­root. “The guests who rent our house­boats agree.”

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Gassed up and ready to go, a house­boat is a won­der­ful way to re­lax, ex­plore and re­con­nect.

Un­ob­structed views are just one perk of rent­ing a house­boat, which re­quires no li­cense to pi­lot.

For a real es­cape, Char­lie’s Is­land near Marathon Key comes with a house­boat for six to eight and lit­tle else but peace and quiet.

Sleep­ing up to eight with com­forts like fur­nished kitchens and cozy liv­ing rooms ( top right), the docked boats of K eys House­boat Rentals are like float­ing ho­tel rooms ( top left).

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