You've got kids — lots of kids — and you're wondering how you're going to fit them into that resort condo unit. You also wonder how you're going to keep them all happy and, maybe most important, how you're going to be able to get away from them. Even the most devoted parent, now and then, needs to de-compress.
The answer: a really big houseboat. Being confined to a boat might not immediately top your list of good things to do with large numbers of kids. But if our recent experiment is any indication, the houseboat thing really does work.
So just how many kids are we talking about here? In our case, a total of eight: our grade-school age daughter and our grown-up daughter's seven kids, ages 1 through 13. Figure in three adults and you can see that planning for this trip would be only slightly less complex than the Normandy invasion.
If you haven't rented a houseboat before, the first thing to understand is that these boats are far bigger and more spacious than regular boats. In our first houseboat articles we used to compare them to waterborne RV's, but the truth is houseboats nowadays are much bigger than even the most spacious RV's. On this particular trip to Northern California's Lake Berryessa, we rented a 70-foot Millenium — which is to a small power boat what a 747 is to a Cessna 150.
The 70-foot Millennium offered by Forever Houseboats has an open layout featuring a large living area in the front salon with a dining table and chairs. There is a breakfast counter and fully equipped kitchen along with four private bedrooms, six queen beds, two full baths, a wet bar, sun canopy and a hot tub on the top deck. Like most houseboat rentals, this also featured a waterslide on the top deck that kids find irresistible.
The setting for our experiment — Lake Berryessa — is less than an hour's drive east from Napa, and shares with the Napa Valley a landscape of sun-drenched scenery that is as pretty as anyplace you'll find in California. The wooded hills, forests and country roads in this part of the state are perfect for enchanting Sunday drives or picnics or hikes. Adding to that is the 23-mile-long Lake Berryessa, a turquoise jewel that is as practical as it is scenic. This man-made lake is actually a reservoir known for excellent fishing and warm summer temperatures that make it ideal for swimming and other water sports.
Endless water recreation is one reason houseboats work for large families. It's not like you're crammed into a boat for your entire vacation — the boat is just a place to hang while you're putting meals together or watching a movie on the elaborate satellite wall-mounted television. When you are beached, the water in that particular cove is now your swimming pool and a pretty big one at that. More than likely, you'll find trails from your beach leading to hours of fun hikes and exploration, another activity that will keep the kids occupied and completely engrossed in what they're doing.
With a houseboat, you can be as stationary or mobile as you want to be. We've done houseboat trips where we spent hours each day cruising and then found a new beach mid-afternoon to explore and settle in for the night. On our Lake Berryessa trip, we found the kids especially enjoyed the shore activities, so we kept our cruising to a minimum and set up camp sometimes two nights in a row in the same location. The point is, you can do whatever you want to do — there is no itinerary to keep, no deadlines to worry about. Just go where the spirit takes you.
Another reason we spent more time parked on a beach is that, with eight kids, there can be a lot of pent-up energy when you keep them on a boat for long periods. But even that was not a big problem due to the size and design of the Millenium. The upper deck is so large that it was the perfect place to send the older kids to burn off their energy, leaving the main salon in relative silence as we cruised the Berryessa shoreline enjoying the coastal scenery.
The other advantage to this boat was that, with so many bedrooms and separate quarters, the kids had places to put all of their belongings so that nothing was under foot -- except maybe once in awhile when the youngest brought toys to play out on the huge 16-foot-wide salon floor.
Meals on the Millenium were easy to prepare with lots of counter space available and cupboards and drawers fully stocked with dishes and kitchen utensils. Hot dishes were easily prepared in the microwave as well as on the multi-burner stove. The refrigerator had plenty of capacity for a family this size, assuming you put cold drinks in the many ice chests available on the boat.
The size of the boat might seem a little daunting for the first-time boat captain, but Forever Houseboats and other houseboat rental companies we have rented from put a lot of emphasis on making the experience easy and stress-free. For starters you never actually are required to dock your houseboat or even operate it in close quarters — rental company personnel will take your boat from the dock to an open-water area before they hand you the controls. Then, when it's time to bring the boat back, they'll come out and meet your boat and dock it for you.
When you do take the controls you notice that everything's been simplified and automated. You've already been given detailed instructions before you even leave the dock, so you're completely versed on the throttles and shifting as well as electrical and other systems on your boat. An easy-to-read manual is always at the ready just in case you don't remember everything.
The main thing a new captain has to remember is to stay away from shallow water where your prop can get damaged. The most technical thing you'll be asked to do — and it's not difficult — is to beach your boat. As we've done on previous houseboats, we determined ahead of time who would be our "stake-drivers" and then it was just a matter of A/ the captain driving the boat at low speed straight onto the beach and B/ the stake-drivers, one on each side, advancing onto the beach at 45 degree angles from the boat to pound stakes and tie lines from the stern of the boat.
One rule we imposed on this trip -- because we had so many kids on board -- was to put someone in charge of all the kids and take them to their cabins during the landing process. We didn't want to have one of them jumping off too soon or distracting the landing crew.
The kids found all of this exciting and, whenever we landed at a new beach, they couldn't wait to begin their exploration. Each new cove — and there are many on Lake Berryessa — was like a new Robinson Crusoe adventure. It all added up to a vacation the kids will long remember and one they say they can't wait to do again.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Forever Houseboats are available at Pleasure Cove Marina, less than an hour's drive from Napa. Because the lake level has been down in recent years, be prepared for carrying your supplies down and up a steep grade between the parking area and the dock. While the marina-supplied handcarts help, we found it much easier to drive our car down the boat launching ramp and then cut over to dock area where we parked our vehicle for unloading.
WHAT: Lake Berryessa is 23 miles long and three miles wide and is known for warm temperatures in summer and fishing for such species as rainbow trout, bass, catfish, crappie, and bluegill. With numerous coves, the area offers many places to safely beach a houseboat.
WHEN: Houseboats on Lake Berryessa are available year-round. Our August trip had ideal weather and water temperatures above 75 degrees. The downside is that peak summer dates also are the most expensive.
WHY: Houseboating is an excellent family adventure that combines boating, hiking, fishing, water sports and relative solitude in the Great Outdoors.
HOW: For more information on renting a houseboat on Lake Berryessa, call 800-255-5561 or visit www.goberryessa.com/ .
Photos, from top: Kids find plenty to explore at every stop; Berryessa shoreline offers many different views; lunch time on the top deck; hot tub is especially popular tih the kids
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway