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A houseboat adventure in Everglades National Park

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Last updated on July 5th, 2024 at 11:21 am

Editors Note: This story was originally written by Bonnie Gross in March 2021 and updated on a revisit by Bob Rountree in February 2023.

Why rent a houseboat in Everglades National Park?

It’s not cheap. I thought it might even be a little boring.

But when I woke up on the houseboat on the first morning, I looked out at the warm dawn light glowing in the clouds and reflecting in the mirror-like waters. All I could hear were birds and rustling wind in the mangroves. I could see for miles, and there was not another sign of man.

Houseboat rentals: Florida Everglades National Park at Flamingo.
Houseboats for rent in Florida: Everglades National Park at Flamingo. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

It struck me: THIS is why! To be here, in this magnificent wild place for dawn, for sunset and to gaze at the spectacular stars in the dark skies.

We rented the houseboat from Flamingo Adventures at Everglades National Park for two nights, heading into the wilderness of Whitewater Bay. 

There used to be houseboat rentals at Flamingo, just as there used to be a lodge, cabins and restaurant. All of that got blown apart by hurricanes in 2005, and Flamingo Adventures is helping bring visitor amenities back to Flamingo under contract with the National Park Service.

The first amenity were the houseboat rentals in 2019. Next came Eco-tents, canvas glamping yurts equipped with electric lights and beds with mattresses and linen. Nearing completion is a bayfront motel and restaurant, and the campgrounds have been improved.

Houseboat rentals Florida: Enjoying the changing light and view was a big part of the pleasure of our houseboat oouting in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Houseboat rentals Florida: Enjoying the changing light and view was a big part of the pleasure of our houseboat outing in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Houseboats start at $300/night if you stay at the dock; $400 plus fuel if you cruise interior bays. Bob’s two-night revisit in February 2023 cost $856, including tax, plus $27 for gas and $40 in tips for the pilot and dock hands, who helped load and unload gear and kayaks.

Expect to pay more for gas if you do a lot of cruising.

While you might save money without ever leaving the dock, you’d miss the best parts of the experience, cruising into the backcountry, as Bonnie did, or just anchoring in isolated Coot Bay, as Bob’s group did.

Houseboats for rent in Florida: These were easy to pilot

The houseboats rent out of the Flamingo marina, and you are restricted to Coot Bay and the vast Whitewater Bay. (Florida Bay is off-limits.) Marina personnel pilot your houseboat from the marina to Coot Bay, where he/she is picked up by a skiff, and you are off on your own. On your return, you are met at the same location.

Once on our own, we were free to make our own route and choose our own night-time anchorages. We opted to explore the Joe River, a sheltered waterway along the southern edge of Whitewater Bay. We liked the narrower waterways, where we were closer to the mangroves, like a scene from “African Queen.”

We chose the narrower waterways of the Joe River for our houseboat outing in Everglades National Park (Photo: David Blasco)
Houseboat rentals in Florida: We chose the narrower waterways of the Joe River for our houseboat outing in Everglades National Park (Photo: David Blasco)

The houseboat was not difficult to navigate. We thought it was fun to steer, although its size and clumsiness must be a little like driving a bus. This is not a speedboat. The outboard engine is a moderately powerful Yamaha 115 HP, but the boat is not designed for speed.

The GPS navigation system ensures you never have to worry about being lost and best of all, the depth finder tells you how deep the water is so you can avoid running aground.

A $2,000 credit-card deposit is required to cover damages. Be sure to inspect and photograph the outboard motor’s propeller in the presence of marina personnel before you leave the dock.

The waters you navigate are shallow — we never went anywhere more than 6 or 7 feet deep, according to the depth finder. There are areas too shallow (less than 2 feet) and you have to be watchful, but we did not find it difficult to stay in 2-to-4 feet of water the whole time.

Dawn from the houseboat Whitewater Bay in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Dawn from the houseboat in Whitewater Bay in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Houseboat rental highlights

The first thing this getaway requires is a change of attitude.

You will not be hurrying anywhere. You will not be multitasking. You probably won’t be fiddling with your phone. (AT&T is the only cell phone service.) We have Verizon and considered it a benefit, not a bug, that we had no service.

The houseboat is equipped with a marine radio for direct communication with the marina (or the Coast Guard in case of emergency). You will be shown how to use it.

Once we were acclimated, we began to notice and appreciate the subtle beauty of this place.

Yes, the scenery is an endless expanse of shallow water and mangrove-covered islands. But that Florida sky! It is always changing and always dramatic.

We saw birds – not vast flocks, but enough to keep us always looking and identifying them. My favorites: Two swallowtail kites, circling and swooping in the sky together. We saw herons, hawks, osprey, egrets, but no more than you might see on land throughout Everglades National Park.

A dolphin swims along side our houseboat in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
A dolphin swims along side our houseboat in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The dolphins, on the other hand: you won’t be seeing those from the car, and they were a joy. A half dozen times, pods of dolphins swam alongside our houseboat. They particularly liked swimming directly under our boat, slightly ahead of the boat’s twin pontoons.

One of the mangrove snappers I caught; photographed to make it look less puny. (Photo: David Blasco)
One of the mangrove snappers I caught; photographed to make it look less puny. (Photo: David Blasco)

Of course, if you fish, you will know exactly how to amuse yourself in Whitewater Bay. We are not fishermen and we headed out with two rods that were left over from when our daughters attended summer camp 25 years ago. At Dick’s Sporting Goods, we found ourselves having to ask a bemused customer what we should buy for lures and bait.

I can assure you, if I can catch two fish – and I did! – with my knowledge, skills and gear, then ANYONE can catch fish here. Granted: Mine were small mangrove snappers, but I considered catching them a miracle.

Our time passed quickly on the houseboat.  Like camping, spending time on a houseboat is about doing ordinary daily things in an extraordinary setting — like fixing dinner and eating on deck.

We enjoyed picking our anchorages for the night and figuring out where to drop our anchor so the wind wouldn’t push us into the mangroves (as it did once).

We watched the sunsets, we got up before dawn (after the moon had set) to be dazzled by more stars than I’ve seen in a sky since a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park.

Houseboat rentals Florida: View through the living/dining/kitchen area of the houseboat in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
View through the living/dining/kitchen area of the houseboat for rent in Florida Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Logistics for planning a houseboat rental getaway

The houseboats technically can sleep six. Three houseboats have a queen bed, a double bed and a sleeper sofa. Another boat has two double beds and a sleeper sofa. A fifth has a full-size bed and full-size bunks.

The head (bathroom) is accessed through the mid-ship bedroom, awkward for a midnight privy run for two or more couples. Quarters would be tight with six on board.

Bed and bath linens are provided.

One of the most common uses of the houseboats is for a group of fishermen who head out with powerboats, the houseboat functioning as base camp.

This isn’t roughing it, but there are some other minor inconveniences.

Similar to an RV, the refrigerator, water heater and stovetop run off propane when away from dock power.

There is a 3500-watt generator on board to power standard 110-volt household outlets, microwave and air-conditioning, but the generator is noisy, disrupting the wild Everglades experience.

Interior lighting, navigation and anchor lights and the marine radio are powered by the boat’s 12-volt batteries.

Bring a cigarette-lighter converter to charge your phone or camera from the pilot’s console, and a spare battery pack would be useful.

houseboats for rent in florida houseboat motor A houseboat adventure in Everglades National Park
Houseboat rental: Florida Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Every time you turn on a faucet, the water pump hammers into action, reminding you that this precious resource is limited. There’s plenty of water (70 gallons), but hearing the sound of it being depleted gives you pause.

The same is true, of course, for battery power needed to start the motor and run the GPS; you’ll find yourself being careful with lighting.

BUGS! One reason to keep lights low or off is they attract bugs. There are 40 species of mosquitoes in the Everglades, and while most don’t bite, some do. Bonnie reported no mosquitoes on her trip, but Bob encountered swarms of bugs, including mosquitoes, on his revisit. The second night, Bob’s group turned off all but the anchor light and used low-power battery lamps inside. Bugs swarmed the anchor light and aft deck but not the forward deck, which was dark.

The boats are equipped with two 12-gallon tanks of gas, and even though we motored very slowly, we were surprised to use up nearly all of the first 12-gallon tank.

The houseboats have roofs that were fully intended to be used as sun decks. But you are instructed not to go up there, and for a good reason. In order to get under the one bridge, the boats do not have railings around those decks, making them unsafe, according to Captain Bret Freeman, marina manager for Flamingo Adventures.

We loved the changing view and the Florida sky as we cruised in our houseboat in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
We loved the changing view on on our houseboat rental. Florida skies were ever-changing as we cruised in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Swimming is not allowed because of park service rules, but there is a ladder on the stern for climbing into a kayak. You are allowed to bring your own kayaks, and deck hands will help you store them on the rear deck.

The kitchenette was equipped with basic pots and pans, dishes and silverware, but space is small and poorly lit after dark. This kitchen calls for the simplest of food preparation.

There is a propane grill on the aft deck for grilling, but do it before dark.

The lighting is dim, and the on-off switches are in the ceiling fixtures. We brought a battery powered lamp, which was perfect for the bathroom overnight and the kitchenette.

You might consider bringing your own battery-operated fan instead of firing up the generator for air conditioning (unless you are out there on a brutally hot day or night in summer).

The houseboats can be rented for up to seven days but you must return to the dock once in that time for water and gas, we were told. Also: Because returning to the dock requires a pilot, there is an extra charge for additional returns.

Everglades Boating Certificate required

The boater certificate is a new requirement for boaters in Everglades National Park. It was not required when Bonnie first took this trip in 2021, but it was required when Bob returned in 2023.

To obtain the certificate, you must first take the online Everglades Boater Education course. The 15-question test is challenging, even for experienced boaters, so don’t skip any part of the course content, including the short videos. If you fail to achieve an 80% passing grade, as I did, you can take it again after repeating the course.

You must produce the certificate, which you download as a PDF, before being allowed to board the houseboat.

Marina personnel will brief your party on the houseboat operation before you leave the dock, and the pilot will provide further operational instruction en route to the drop-off point in Coot Bay.

dolphins swim alongside houseboat
A dolphins swims alongside the houseboat rental in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Valuable Tips

Arrive earlier than the 3 p.m. rental start time to load the houseboat, fill out forms and pay your balance. You’ll be ready to go at 3 and have plenty of time to find your anchor for the night, especially a good idea with early sunsets in winter.

Gear: Bring battery-powered camping lanterns and a small cooler for bait, beer and/or soft drinks. Your drinks can go in the refrigerator but not the bait. Sunscreen and mosquito repellent is recommended. I’m a fan of the Thermacell Mosquito Repeller ($20 on Amazon), which works great on the forward deck.

Food: Prepare food in advance so you just need to heat it up. Silverware, dishes and basic pots are on board, but the kitchenette is small with zero workspace. We prepared two dinners in advance, including our usual camp chili, and just reheated it. Noodles and meatballs for the second night. Hot dogs for lunch, yogurt and granola for breakfast, snacks and dip for in-between.

Coffee: On board, there is an electric drip pot, which is useless unless the generator is running, and a French press (ours was broken). Our backup was a high-quality instant coffee, such as Mount Hagen Organic Instant Coffee. (25 single-serve packets for $9 on Amazon)

Linens: Adequate bath and bed linens are provided, including wash clothes, and they were plentiful and clean. Extra pillows are in the closet.

Clothing: Keep it simple. Shorts and T’s, rubber-sole shoes or sandals, a lightweight rain jacket, such as this one from Columbia ($37 and up on Amazon). Storms pop up out of nowhere in the Everglades, even if the forecast is sunny. I also brought jeans, which I never wore, and a long-sleeve UV-protection T-shirt, which I did wear while paddling.

Fishing: Light to medium tackle should suffice. Only frozen bait and ice is available at the marina, so bring a small bait cooler. The houseboat’s propane refrigerator/freezer is off-limits to ‘bait.’ For artificials, bring your favorite.
Houseboat rentals in Florida: The only manmade structure you see from your houseboat in Everglades National Park are camping platforms for boaters. (Photo: David Blasco)
The only manmade structure you see from your houseboat in Everglades National Park are camping platforms for boaters. (Photo: David Blasco)

Planning your visit to Everglades National Park

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