My sister and I wanted to start a vacation tradition. But finding an inexpensive, fun adventure that would appeal to our parents and husbands as well as my 4-year-old son, James, was a challenge. Hotels would be too pricey for our whole group, and camping was out ― my father admittedly needs a hot shower and a toilet wherever he goes.
Houseboating was our compromise and Northern California's Shasta Lake our destination. This lake north of Redding, the state's largest manmade reservoir, promised the peace and quiet we were all after.
Although I didn't want to be a spoilsport, I secretly wondered how much of that we'd really find, given that 450 rental houseboats cruise the lake, along with noisy jet skis and countless private boats. Still, we booked a five-day trip, renting a 56-foot boat big enough to sleep all seven of us.
Quick dip: As we first ventured up the Squaw Creek arm of the lake, the banks grew increasingly steep, and woodsy mountains surrounded us. We found a secluded cove with a posted 5 mph speed limit, tied up to shore, and within five minutes had donned bathing suits and cooled off. My husband, Jim, was the first to try the built-in waterslide, letting out a holler on the way down. Soon my sister and I were fighting with each other to be next. James, however, was perfectly content on the deck, which was roomy enough for his kiddie pool.
Alone at last: The isolation and quiet were complete. With 370 miles of shoreline, the lake had plenty of room for everyone. It really felt like we were camping "without the dirt," as my father put it.
Unexpected visitors: My screams woke everyone on the boat the first night when a large bat flapped up against the screen door to our small cabin, with its foam double beds. My brother-in-law, Mike, was nonplussed: "Why would you get excited over a little bug like that?" The next day, James spotted several turtles swimming and laughed with astonishment as he watched their heads bob. One crisp morning, we awoke to a flock of 50 Canada geese landing next to our boat. We spent the morning taking photos.
Back to the marina: Our rental was an older boat with a fridge that was small and inefficient. We had to go back to the marina anyway, because the rental company had neglected to empty the sewage holding tank (note to self: check everything before heading out next time), so while we were there, Jim grabbed the coolers we'd brought our food in and filled them with ice.
Puttering along: Part of the fun of a houseboat is that it's slow ― you have time to enjoy the scenery. Driving takes patience; quick turns and abrupt stops aren't possible. Plus, on our boat, the engine noise became annoying after awhile. We ended up hunkered down in a few spots we liked and moved infrequently. That left us time to focus on the week's favorite activities: swimming and eating.
Dining alfresco: Evenings on the lake were mellow, with cocktails on the deck while Jim and Mike grilled dinner on the rail-mounted barbecue. We all could have crammed into the small kitchen and dining area had the weather turned, but eating out on the deck was more comfortable ― and more fun.
Abandoning ship: While many houseboaters bring ski boats, we brought a couple of kayaks. One day we paddled up a stream to a series of small waterfalls. Gigantic boulders jutted up on each side of several clear, deep pools, jewel toned in shades of topaz, emerald, and sapphire. James pointed to the dozens of brown trout congregated far below under the granite overhangs and said, "Come on, Mommy, let's go swim with the fish."
Casting about: My dad spent hours teaching James how to fish: Cast, reel, cast again. James liked the casting part but couldn't figure out why a fish didn't show up at the end of the line each time. For his part, my dad was wondering the same thing. Maybe they'll catch something next year.
OUTFIT: Our rental was in the low price range, and it had seen better days. Although it reportedly slept 16, it seemed best for groups of up to 10. Next time we'll splurge on one of the newer (and more expensive) boats we saw out on the lake ― one with a hot tub, gourmet kitchen, and satellite TV. Families with small children will want a boat with safety railings. At the minimum, plan on bringing your own sleeping bags and pillows, bath and beach towels, and food; ask about onboard appliances.
COST: Houseboat rentals on Shasta Lake start at about $1,050 (three-day minimum) and range up to $2,250 for peak summer season (mid-Jun through Labor Day); they cost less in shoulder season.
GETTING STARTED: This summer 7 companies will be renting a variety of houseboats at 10 marinas scattered around Shasta Lake. The Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association (800/474-2782) has detailed information on houseboating and other area recreation. For more on the lake, contact the USDA Forest Service Shasta Lake Visitor Information Center (530/275-1589).