If you're looking to "strike gold" in your next vacation experience, you might consider a houseboat getaway in California's Gold Country. New Melones Lake just happens to be situated in a scenic part of the state that is almost like a giant theme park focused on some of California's most interesting tourist attractions.
Even if you just want to enjoy the peace and relative solitude of the 12,500-acre lake, New Melones will not disappoint. The fifth largest reservoir in California, New Melones has plenty of coves, beaches, trails and scenery to keep you enthralled for the length of your vacation.
There are, of course, several inns and lodgings throughout this region of the Sierra Nevada foothills about the same latitude as San Francisco. But for our most recent trip to the area we indulged our passion for boating by renting a luxury houseboat -- an experience that proved rewarding for both our family and friends who came along to enjoy a week of sightseeing and relaxation.
Renting a houseboat is one of the best ways we can think of to combine the feeling of a complete escape to Nature with certain amenities that, the older we get, the less we want to do without. Gone are the days of tent camping on a pristine lake high in the alpine wilderness -- an adventure that we loved when our backs didn't ache from sleeping on hard ground. Nowadays we're doing kinder, gentler forays into the "wilderness" where we greet each sunny new day after sleeping restfully on a comfortable bed — in this case, in our own private stateroom aboard the Arete, our houseboat for the week.
We have done houseboats many times over the years, but this one was special. It was bigger, fancier, better equipped and easier to operate than any of our previous boats. This 56-footer included all the amenities you could ever hope for out on the water: a full gourmet kitchen with such appliances as a dish washer and trash compactor, an entertainment center with satellite TV and movie-style digital sound, an open-air hot tub on the upper deck, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sleeping loft and a wet bar adjacent to the top-deck flying bridge.
We did this adventure with one other family -- a total of seven people, including three kids. The houseboat company says you can sleep up to 15 people on this boat -- and you can -- but our recommendation is you don't put more than two small families, or one extended family, on one boat. You have to have a little space when you're sharing a boat for a week and, although we were quite comfortable with seven, we could not imagine cramming another family on board.
If you're new to houseboating, the New Melones experience is a great place to get started. The houseboats are rented by Houseboats.com, which has operators take your boat in and out of the dock area, thereby eliminating 99 percent of the potential for serious damage to your boat. You won't be docking your boat the entire week and even novice captains will find it easy to beach these boats along broad sandy shorelines with steep drop-offs that keep you from damaging your prop on the lake bottom. The lake has many coves that offer complete protection from wind, thereby eliminating one more frequent boating hazard. About the only thing you need to be careful about is avoiding snags lurking just under the water in a few generally well-marked places around the lake.
When you eliminate most of the usual boating hassles and hazards, you're left with just the carefree relaxation that boaters crave. It's the feeling of being out away from everything, in charge of your own destiny and the excitement of discovering new points of interest along a hundred miles of New Melones shoreline.
One of our favorite spots was Rose Island, which we discovered about midway through our week -- a place several acres in size with rolling green hills and occasional stands of oak trees overlooking numerous beaches, coves and jagged cliffs. A squadron of Canadian geese call the island home, while we saw evidence of larger animals who must reside here. Standing atop the island and looking at the green hillsides below we could not help but draw a comparison with the views you would see in the Irish countryside.
We found several other coves where we would follow our normal procedure of beaching the boat, getting off to explore and take pictures, and then settling in for a meal, some family games, some star-gazing from the hot tub and an early bedtime. Surprisingly it wasn't until the next to last day that we even tuned in the satellite television -- we just didn't miss it, and somehow to us it just seemed like a little too much contact with civilization while we were enjoying our communion with Nature.
We did stop back at the boat dock a couple of times during our week -- some of us had some business to attend to, while others did some sightseeing in the area. The marina is located just eight miles from Angel's Camp, which is just one of the many historic communities in this area that offer sightseeing, quaint shops, great restaurants and, in some cases, nearby wineries. We especially enjoyed stops in historic Sonora and Murphys, the best place to find a number of wine-tasting rooms as well as many wineries located in the immediate vicinity.
Another side trip was to Columbia State Park, a historic western theme town that is authentic and fun for the entire family. Several businesses offer such items as candy and memorabilia, while the town also has an interesting museum and a couple of authentic saloons. The City Hotel is just like the hotels you see in the westerns with plenty of antiques and ornate architecture. If you want to try your hand at gold panning, there is a place that will teach you how.
Our friends visited nearby Moaning Caverns, a place where you can go far underground and also experience a new zip line thrill ride through the forests. The caverns are deep and give you a chance to see a variety of rock formations.
We also took a side trip to see Mark Twain's former cabin where it is said he wrote some of his works while visiting Gold Country. You'll want to note, however, that this is a replica and not the actual cabin. Nevertheless, it does give you a sense of what life must have been like for Twain during his stays in the area.
But most of this particular week was spent on our boat, a kind of Robinson Crusoe holiday in which we let the waters carry us to whatever new adventure awaited us along this vast and interesting shoreline. It was like running our own cruise ship -- we determined our own daily ports of call and then retired at night to a comfortable, luxurious cabin where we could not wait to awaken to another day of discovery.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: New Melones Lake is 53 miles east of Modesto or 136 miles east of San Francisco and is located near such popular tourist attractions as Angels Camp, Sonora, Murphys and Columbia State Park.
WHAT: New Melones is one of California's youngest recreation lakes and offers a variety of hiking trails, beaches and other activities. Fishing is also popular and the lake yields several different kinds of fish.
WHEN: Most people rent houseboats during the summer months when the weather is almost guaranteed to be hot and sunny. The lake has an elevation of about 1,100 feet and definitely has four seasons. We found spring to be an ideal time because there were fewer boats on the lake and the weather was mild — generally in the low 60's during the day, with plenty of sun.
WHY: New Melones is an ideal place to try houseboating because the boats are easy to operate and there are plenty of places to beach your houseboat away from any potential wind.
HOW: Houseboats can be rented for a few days or, more commonly, by the week. While some boats are less expensive, the Odyssey that we rented goes for between $198 and $439 per family, per day plus fuel, depending on time of year and assuming you are sharing the boat with one other family. For more information, call 877-468-7326 or visit www.houseboats.com. To plan a trip to Calaveras County, contact the Calaveras Visitors Bureau at 800-225-3764, or visit www.gocalaveras.com
Photos, from top: Pounding stakes at new port of call; scenic bridge on New Melones Lake; fun on the upper deck; no age limit on the houseboat's waterslide
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway