Does an ideal vacation on the water mean low-key relaxation in a comfortable environment, or taking on new challenges each day? A trip to Lake Oroville in Northern California for my wife and I revealed the perfect compromise for the lounger (she) and the boater (me): Houseboating.
Neither of us had ever been on a houseboat before, so we were excited as we made the three-hour drive northwest of the San Francisco Bay Area in May into the foothills of the Gold Country to Lake Oroville, about 20 miles east of the university town of Chico. Our destination was the Lake Oroville Marina, tucked into a narrow finger of the lake, which is a man-made reservoir carved into forested valleys. While the center of the lake is wide, much of the beauty can be found in the steep forested fingers and coves on the north and south areas of the lake.
Houseboats are clearly the lake’s reason to exist. As we puttered out to the main area of the lake, we saw a quirky array of houseboats, from the huge and fancy (one house boater, we were told, was landing a mini-helicopter on the roof until being told to stop) to the derelict. The overall feeling is family-focused, although I heard from the locals that it can get loud and crowded during the warm summer months.
It turns out that all you need to take command of a floating house up to 70 feet long and 25 feet wide is to be 21 years old and have the money to rent the boat. It does help to know the basics of boating and understand marine propulsion, electrical and plumbing systems, but all you really need is a driver’s license and a sizable damage deposit. Forever Resorts, which owns the houseboats on Lake Oroville, has produced easy-to-understand written materials and training videos on-line, and their employees will spend a goodly amount of time taking boaters through all the systems necessary to run a houseboat on the water, from the engines and motoring controls through the electrical system, powered by a bank of batteries big enough to power air conditioning, a full electric kitchen, super-sized entertainment center and enough electric plugs to power half a dozen hair driers.
After we arrived, the half a dozen people on our boat divided themselves into groups along fairly predictable lines: the boaters started opening hatches and electrical panels to see what they could learn before we took off; another group gathered around a cooler of beer and wine, and a third group commandeered the fully-equipped kitchen to whip up some snacks. We were getting off to a good start.
Switching from the helm of a 35-foot sailboat (my usual ride) to the helm of a 60-foot houseboat is like moving from a four-door sedan to an 18-wheeler. While I would not want to drive an 18-wheeler all the time, it can be an enjoyable challenge. Same with a houseboat. Our houseboat had four full staterooms, each with a queen-sized bed. The two upper cabins had windows, the two lower ones were more cave-like, perfect for kids or newlyweds, perhaps. The upper cabins also had satellite TV, a distraction for some and a necessity for others. It was baseball season, so it came in handy.
The rest of the boat is about the size of your first apartment after college, but with nicer amenities, including the kitchen, full bathroom and another half-bath, large-screen TV, entertainment center and a combination living room, bar and dining room where everyone congregates for cooking, eating and parties.
For a regular boater, leaving the slip and docking safely at the end of a cruise are the most challenging parts of the journey, but also the most fun. But the Forever Resort folks don’t want people banging up their boats so they drive the boats to a staging area and then hand them off to the customers. For my first time on this floating house, I must admit, that was a good idea. But once I was behind the wheel inching our way through the thicket of moored behemoths, it took me all of 10 minutes to figure out that a houseboat is a regular boat, except with a big weight problem. Slow and steady worked the trick; it is not a vehicle for speed-lovers.
Landing one for the night is another story. Rule No. 1 in boating is not to let your boat hit the bottom. So it was disconcerting when our host pointed out a pretty meadow as a good location to spend the night and then headed directly for shore. As we got closer it became apparent that he was going to run it aground. Apparently this was standard operating procedure. I must have had my head buried in the electrical panel earlier when the instructor said these boats are specially made to land head-first and be tied to shore with stakes each night. That turned out to be great because we could fish from the back of the boat or hop off the boat to hike, take photos or just relax on terra firma.
When I got back from a hike, the food group had already prepared the sundowners – cocktails in boater-speak — and good smells wafted from the oven. As the sun set, quiet enveloped the little cove we were in, far away from it all in the forests of the Gold Country. Both the lounger and the boater had had their fill of an ideal vacation that first day.
We awoke in our comfortable queen bed to the low rumble of an engine making its way towards us. It was early, so that could mean only one thing: our fishing guide was arriving.
After a hearty breakfast of DIY omelets, we took turns trooping off two at a time with local fishing guide Ron Gandolfi. It never ceases to amaze me how important local knowledge is for successful fishing and I always hire a local guide to learn the water and what tackle works at any given time of the year.
Lake Oroville is loaded with a wide variety of bass. It was voted #24 in the Bassmaster Magazine top 100 bass lakes in the country in 2013. I might have chosen to use the old standby crank bait for bass fishing in early summer, had I not met Gandolfi, who has fished these waters for over 20 years.He tied on a Senko lure, which looks like a big worm, for my wife and I and told us exactly where to cast. Bingo. We had about a dozen hits in 90 minutes and reeled in half a dozen nice sized spotted and one red eyed bass. Ron is sensitive to varying skill levels. He immediately caught on to my lousy fishing skills, but was careful not to make a fool of me in front of my wife; he also made my inexperienced wife feel like a tournament champion.
After we returned from the fishing trip, ate lunch onboard and took a spin in a motorboat rentable by the day to explore some of the nooks and crannies of the huge lake, I could tell my wife was wanting something. We had been so busy that we had failed to have any serious lounging time. So with a glass of wine in one hand and a book in the other, she took the steps up to the roof for some quiet time. The top level of our houseboat model was half-covered with a canopy and half open to the stars. And while we had no kids on our trip, it was easy to see how this level was built for them. A water slide and a wide-open space for roughhousing and sleeping outdoors would have been perfect for kids of most ages.
Our group was small enough to fit on the boat, but in exploring the lake that afternoon, we had seen something else that looked appealing, especially for a larger group: floating campgrounds. Built on floating pontoons, the two-story structures came equipped with a bathroom, outdoor kitchen, picnic-style dining table and plenty of room on an upper level to doze under the stars. These floating islands are hard to get during the summer months, so sign up way in advance if you are interested.
Lake Oroville is a reservoir, which means the water in it is owned by farmers and big cities (Read: the Central Valley and Los Angeles) and they, more than the needs of recreational visitors, control the lake level. Early in the spring the water is high, cold and close to the tree line. As the season wears on and farmers and lowlanders get thirsty, the lake level falls, exposing lots of rock. It can be a little disconcerting for the nature-loving purist to realize you are essentially in a man-made water catchment. But you get used to it, or forget about it as you are generally having too much fun. If you like high water, go in the spring; if you like warm water, go in the summer and early fall.
After two nights on the lake, we had to make our way back to the marina and head back to reality. I’d had my fix of boating and my wife had the chance to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings. It was truly a moveable feast.
All of this comfort does not come cheaply. The smallest houseboat on Lake Oroville charters for about $600 per day, with the largest 70-footer going for more than $1,200 per day. There is some discounting for longer charters. Still, the 60-footer sleeps four couples very comfortably, with room for 3 or 4 kids sleeping in the living room’s fold out coach or in sleeping bags upstairs on the huge patio.
Another option: If you want to go more casually and pay less, Forever Resorts has an option they call a Patio Pontoon, like a houseboat without walls or bed rooms, which would work for a group wanting to party together and sleep outdoors on couches, floors or on the spacious upper deck.
Bring lots of things to burn on the grill. Each of the boats is equipped with a gas barbecue, and there is nothing more quintessentially American than burning a good steak on the barbecue while floating gently on a boat.
Bring toys. The houseboat acts like a home base, perfect for landing in a remote bay and launching all kinds of fun floating devices like noodles and floating lounge chairs. Lots of visitors bring ski boats or fishing skiffs and tie them up to the mothership when not in use.
Remember to leave time to do nothing. The lake itself is a great place to relax and enjoy nature, or sit on the spacious houseboat deck and read a long book. Or take a good nap in the warm summer air.
Pick your season. Spring and Fall are the best times for the most relaxing experience. Locals report that in the summertime the lake attracts boaters of all types. And the central lake can get pretty full of party boats and water-skiers. Obviously, holiday weekends are only for the young, restless, party-like-there-is-no-tomorrow types.
In addition to California, Forever Resorts has houseboats in Arizona, Missouri and Nevada. Their website has lots of details.
This is a guest post by Spencer A. Sherman who was a guest of Forever Resorts.