When you are a water person, the best vacations happen near a lake, an ocean, or a river. And vacationing near a body of water with a beach was always enough for me—until I got a taste of a vacation on the water. A few days spent aboard a houseboat was the ultimate in water vacations.
I had always heard—correctly, as it turns out—the Lake of Ozarks in Missouri is lovely. The nearly 1,200 miles of shoreline along the numerous bays and inlets of this lake 480 miles southwest of Chicago is well worth the seven-hour drive. Exploring it simply wasn’t possible in the few days we had there, but our brief look was enough to whet our appetite for more.
Forever Resorts loaned us a 59-foot boat. The plush houseboat is designed to sleep 10 to 12 people and has four bedrooms, a comfy living room with TV and VCR, a fully-equipped kitchen and 1½ baths—think a large mobile home on pontoons. Add a second floor with a flying bridge and wet bar and you’ve got the picture.
This boat rents for $1,695-$3,695, depending on the time of year and the length of the rental. Plan to spend another $50-$150 a day in gas, depending on how much time you spend motoring and running the generator. Our boat would have cost $2,995 for a three-day summer weekend rate, with another $287 for gas charges and fees. Our boat’s big brothers, the 65-foot VIP and really cushy 65-foot Millennium, include upgraded facilities and a hot tub upstairs for a fee that can be as much as $5,695 for a seven-day summer rental.
Our three days on the boat included just my family—one husband, two kids and me. The boat easily could have accommodated another family, and a few more kids likely would have made it more fun for our children, Evan, 11, and Tess, 9, who got a bit bored when we were under way.
On our own
I was surprised to find that the lovely, trusting people who work at the Lake of the Ozarks Marina in Camdenton, Mo., were willing to hand us the keys to one of these $230,000 beauties with little more than a few quick pointers, a map of the massive lake and a guide out of the harbor slip. After that, we were on our own. While we are experienced sailors, neither my husband nor I had ever skippered a 59-foot power boat. We agreed it is easy enough that even a novice boater could master it fairly quickly.
We motored for about five hours on Friday, marveling at the mansions being built all along the shoreline, and headed toward the natural splendor of the Lake of the Ozarks State Park. This thickly wooded park is the perfect spot for a secluded mooring. Many of the choicest spots already were taken by other houseboats already tied up for the night or power boaters anchored for an afternoon swim. After about an hour, we found the perfect spot and moored for the night—a surprisingly easy maneuver. We settled in for a relaxing afternoon of fishing, sunning, testing the water slide off the back of the boat and just chilling out.
The dark and quiet spot proved perfect for sleeping. We slept in on Saturday, stayed in seclusion and fished some more, had breakfast, then set off. But we found a different world. After our leisurely Friday ride—akin to cruising along a country road—we were surprised to find our country road had turned into a superhighway filled with weekend power boaters. Dodging the huge, speeding power boats that seemed to aim right at our bobbing houseboat added a bit too much stress to our otherwise relaxing trip.
If you go, here’s what you need to know:
• Buy groceries on site. We packed a cooler full of food and drove it all the way from Chicago. Not necessary. The Save-A-Lot grocery is right in town and, although this is no Whole Foods, the selection of basics is fine and the prices are reasonable.
• Plan to cook and eat on board. The restaurants around the lake may have docks, but they don’t like houseboaters tying up. Seems too many novice houseboaters have crashed into the docks.
• Bring a flashlight. It would have come in handy when the generator wouldn’t start as night fell.
• Bring a cell phone. The Forever Resorts people are available to offer help whenever you need it—if, for example, the generator won’t start—but the marine radio only reaches about a mile. Past that, you need to call for help.
• Bring games and a deck of cards. Once it gets dark, there’s plenty of time for family bonding.
• Make reservations early. This is especially important if you want to rent a boat on a summer weekend. Many boats book up as early as February. Forever Resorts rents houseboats as small as 44 feet (sleeps six) and as large as 70 feet (sleeps 12) on 11 lakes across the country (most are in California, Nevada and Texas; the Lake of the Ozarks is closest to Chicago).
• Go midweek. It’s much more peaceful before the weekend boaters arrive.
Cindy Richards is senior editor and travel editor of Chicago Parent.