Why rent a houseboat in Everglades National Park?
It’s not cheap; I thought it might even be a little boring.
But then, when I woke up on the boat 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 wasn’t another soul; not another sign of man.
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.
In mid-March, we rented a 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 the new overall concessionaire, Guest Services, is finally bringing visitor amenities back to Flamingo.
The first amenity is houseboat rentals, which began in Winter 2019. Next will be eco-tents – canvas cabins with shared bath facilities but equipped with electric lights and beds with mattresses and linen. The eco-tents are being built now and will be open later in 2019. In the next year or two: Cabins and a restaurant.
Right now there are four houseboats with four more on order. They rent for $350 a night plus tax and fuel. (Our two-night, three-day outing was $788 for everything, including gas.) You can save $50 a night by enjoying the houseboat without ever leaving the dock at Flamingo. But you’d miss the best parts of the experience.
Houseboats: Easy to pilot
The houseboats rent from the Flamingo marina, but you are not allowed to go out onto the open waters of Florida Bay. In fact you can’t even leave the dock — a tricky maneuver — on your own: a captain must drive your houseboat out of the marina to the first lake, Coot Bay, where he 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 more 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.”
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. The GPS navigation system ensures that you never have to worry about being lost and best of all, it tells you how deep the water is so you can avoid running aground.
The waters here are shallow — we never went anywhere more than 6 or 7 feet deep, according to the boat’s navigation system. There are areas that are 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.
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. (The exception: AT&T has cell phone service in this area because of a tower in Flamingo. We have Verizon and considered it a feature, not a bug, that we had no service. You are given a hand-held radio to use for emergencies.)
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 not more than you see in a day on land in Everglades National Park.
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 us in the area between the boat’s twin hulls.
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.
Logistics for planning a houseboat getaway
The houseboats technically sleep six with two double beds and a sleeper sofa. Quarters would be very tight with six; even two couples would find privacy nonexistent. One of the houseboats has bunk beds instead of doubles, which a group of friends would prefer. One of the most common uses of the houseboats is for a group of fishermen who head out with powerboats, with the houseboat functioning as basecamp for the group.
This isn’t roughing it, but there are some minor inconveniences.
There’s no plugging in an appliance. (Bring a cigarette-lighter converter to charge your phone or camera at the pilot’s console.)
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, of the electricity needed to start the motor and run the GPS; you’ll find yourself being careful with lighting. The stove top and refrigerator operate on propane but the microwave doesn’t work once you unplug at the dock.
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.
Swimming is also not allowed, Freeman says, because of park service rules. You are allowed to bring your own kayaks and store them on the roof, and it would be fun to kayak into narrower spots than the houseboats can reach.
The kitchen was well equipped, but space is small and the work space is particularly poorly lit after dark. This kitchen calls for the simplest of food preparation.
All the lighting is pretty dim, in fact, and the on-off switches are in the ceiling fixtures. We brought a battery operated night light, which was perfect for the bathroom overnight.
Since there is no air conditioning once you leave the dock, you might consider bringing your own battery-operated fan.
Summer visitors may want to opt for paying $50 a night for a generator that allows you to use air conditioning, the microwave and the outlets.
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, Freeman says. Also: Because returning to the dock is captain-assisted, there is an extra charge for additional returns.
One final note: The houseboats are only rented to people with some previous boating experience. You are asked at check-in to list your experience. Don’t be intimidated by this; the captains provide a comprehensive briefing before you depart. Freeman says their goal is to make sure this is not a visitor’s first time piloting a power boat. They want those renting the houseboats to know the basics, such as how to anchor a boat.
Planning your visit to the Everglades:
- Flamingo Adventures, which includes houseboat rentals, as well as rentals of pontoon boats, skiffs, kayaks and bikes.
- Admission has been increased at Everglades National Park and is now $30 per car with a pass good for seven days. (As soon as you turn 62, get a senior pass. For $80, it offers lifetime admission. Also: Take advantage of these free days in national parks.)
- The Everglades National Park website
- Camping in the Everglades
- Everglades National Park map
- The Anhinga Trail
- Shark Valley entrance, with its 15 mile trail and trams ride
- Robert is Here, the funky fruit stand near the Homestead entrance.
- The rural area around the Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park is full of interesting places to visit and tasty experiences, including Fruit and Spice Park, Schnebly Redland’s Winery plus strawberry farms and a historic railroad village. This is a guide to visiting the Redland region.
- Knauss Berry Farm, for strawberry milks shakes and Florida’s best cinnamon rolls, in Homestead.