Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid staying at a hotel, especially when you’re traveling for work. Business travel can cement the hotel mentality, overlooking a world of lodging possibilities that are out of the ordinary — and far better options if you want to blend in with the local vibe that you won’t find in the touristy parts of town.
When most people think of Florida, they think of the beach — and we do have some nice ones. But focusing on the ocean ignores our other saltwater treasure, Florida’s hundreds of miles of Intracoastal waterways that extend around the entire coastal region of the state.
The Intracoastal is the true maritime lifeblood of Florida; the arteries that carry boat traffic, and provide sheltered haven from the rough seas and frequent storms. Farther inland is where saltwater coming in from the ocean meets fresh water draining from the mainland, creating the brackish transition zones teeming with the most incredible variety of birds and wildlife. The varied character of the inland waterways ranges from the wild salt marshes, swamps, and wide saltwater rivers of the Canaveral National Seashore, to the more urban and domesticated network of engineered canals and waterways that weaves through Fort Lauderdale and Miami farther to the south, making some parts of town look like Venice.
For people who live in Florida, living near the water means the Intracoastal, not the ocean. Tourist hotels and condominiums dominate the developed areas of the coast; and if you want to plug into the real, laid-back Florida lifestyle and escape the tourist traps, you’ll want to skip the ocean hotels and rent a houseboat in one of the Intracoastal marinas. Many people overlook this lodging option because they don’t have any experience with boating. The good news is you don’t need to know port from starboard, or a lanyard from a manhole cover, to enjoy the liveaboard lifestyle. You can have all the benefits of being on the water and never untie from the dock, all the while enjoying the comforts of modern living like air conditioning, showers, full-size beds, cable TV, and wifi.
Most rental houseboats never leave the dock, and some don’t even have engines. If your houseboat can travel and you do decide you want to take a moonlight cruise along the Intracoastal at night, you can hire a crew to handle the tricky navigation while you enjoy the city lights from the comfort of the open deck. The really great thing about renting a houseboat instead of staying at a hotel is you have a water view out of every window, and most cost less than a similarly-appointed hotel room. Many of the urban Intracoastal marinas are only a short cab ride from the trendy shopping and dining areas, and you can even go to the beach if you like; but most of the time you’ll find you’re just fine where you are. You’ll also meet one of the most friendly and relaxing of Florida lifestyles, that of the live-aboard crowd. These are people who have shunned traditional housing in favor of living on their boat full time.
How to Find a Houseboat or Yacht Rental
The hardest part of escaping the hotel tourist trap is finding houseboat rentals. Many are booked over the entire season with regular visitors, and a few don’t advertise at all. Finding available rentals in the summer and shoulder season is a lot easier than December through March. If you’re visiting Miami, then go with a local charter service like Captain Joe’s, which offers a 65-foot houseboat with all the comforts of home that’s docked near all the trendy parts of Miami. You can hire a pilot to drive you around if you’re inclined to take to the waterways. You can also rent jet skis, paddle boards, and kayaks, if that isn't enough adventure.
If you’re looking for a freshwater adventure, then options like the crystal clear waters of the St. John’s River and Lake George might fit the bill, relaxing on a giant 58' x 15' luxury houseboat that’s more like a like a floating cabin.
Your next best option is to check with a listing service like SleepAfloat.com, that lists hundreds of houseboats, not just in Florida but all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. You can also find houseboats listed on Airbnb in many coastal cities.
When renting a houseboat, there are questions you want to ask that you normally wouldn't think about when staying at a hotel. First, make sure your rental includes parking at the marina — and not “parking available,” which usually means an extra charge. For long-term rentals, a cleaning fee of between $75 and $100 is typical, which is frequently waived for shorter stays — but be sure and ask up front so there are no rude surprises at check-out time. Also be clear about whether you’ll want to motor around or stay dockside; a pilot and gas will be extra. Do ask for clarification of any extra fees or charges before you arrive; unlike hotels, boat owners will negotiate, and can accommodate almost any need with a little advance notice. Be sure and ask if you have access to the marina facilities, as some have a pool, workout center, and other amenities for marina guests.
So, the next time you’re planning a trip to Florida, forget the oceanside hotels that smell musty — and rent a houseboat for the weekend. You may discover a whole different part of the Sunshine State that few tourists ever get to see.