Houseboating on the St. Johns River

By Ilona Merritt

If you’re looking for entertainment, shopping, or fancy restaurants on your vacation, this one is not for you. However, if you ever wanted a truly relaxing holiday, houseboating on the St. Johns River would be the answer.

The St. Johns River is the longest in Florida and is significant for commercial and recreational use. At 310 miles long, it flows north and winds through or borders twelve counties. The drop in elevation from headwaters to mouth is less than 30 feet. Like most Florida waterways, St. Johns has a shallow flow rate of 0.3 mph and is often described as “lazy.”

My long-time dream of a houseboat trip came true this summer, with my husband and two dear friends. Hontoon State Park near Deland was our destination. Once you leave I-4, it is all two-lane country roads. We had to cross a drawbridge before turning onto Hontoon Road, where the Holly Bluff Marina was located, only to travel later on the river when we had to radio the Bridge Tender to open up the bridge for us to pass beneath.

Upon arrival at the marina, we were greeted by a very gracious and helpful staff. The entire area was well organized, and the houseboats were all lined up waiting for us. They are well cared for, and supplied with everything we needed for the trip. We only brought our food and packed casual clothes. An amicable staff member came aboard and gave us instructions on how to handle the boat, and off we were on our adventure. It is important to know that whenever the boat is moving, it must be piloted. Therefore we appointed a captain and a first mate.

A cruise on St. Johns is a return to original natural Florida. The scenery along the river varies with elevation. Pines occur in the higher areas while palms, swamps, and marshes variously border the river and its tributaries. Much of the land bordering the river is part of the Ocala National Forest and will never be developed. Many parts of the Tarzan movies were filmed here, and while relaxing on the deck, it was easy to imagine Tarzan traversing through the trees and swamps. Wildlife is abundant. In the winter, the manatee travel to this area for the warm water springs, constant 72 degrees. We saw great blue and little blue herons, ospreys, and eagles soar in the sky above. Lest we forget, fishing is prevalent.  There is no swimming in the river. The water is brackish and brown with tannin. Alligators are common, as are other water inhabitants, such as bull sharks and snakes.

The route to travel is laid out very precisely and was sent with the contract. There was plenty of time to study the course. With Lake Monroe on one end and Lake George on the other end, there were many things to see and wildlife to watch. It is essential to stay in the channel due to the shallow water. There are branches of the river which are hazardous and are not to be entered. The lakes are shallow and can be dangerous. The river features scattered pockets of civilization with small communities. There is an abundance of alligators in the St. Johns River. Once considered endangered, they are now a preservationist success story.

The river experience will not be forgotten. We enjoyed our meals on the boat and spent the evening playing board games and cards. We charted our own course, enjoyed the beauty of this area of Florida, the camaraderie with our friends, and the casual and laid-back life on the St. Johns River.

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