One of the few rivers in the Western Hemisphere that flows north, the St. Johns River can get as big and wide as an ocean bay, or as narrow and tight as a classic Florida creek.
In its upper reaches south of Orlando, the St. Johns snakes through a low marshland where alligators and wildlife rule. But as it meanders north toward Jacksonville, the river opens up. The Seminoles called it “Welaka,” or “River of Lakes,” which makes it perfect for a slow, lazy journey by houseboat.
Storied Past and Present
Paddle-wheeled steamers once roamed freely up and down the St. Johns. The current, at times, is barely noticeable, which makes it ideal for landlubbers and experienced boaters alike to explore.
In the 1930s, Florida’s favorite author, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of "The Yearling," traveled along the St. Johns in a small powerboat and camped on the river shore at night. She wrote about the experience in her book "Cross Creek."
Today, the St. Johns River retains its Old Florida charm, but adventurers can explore this age-old river in style – and with all the comforts of home – in a fully equipped houseboat.
The small Central Florida town of DeLand could be called “houseboat central.” Holly Bluff Marina is the only rental location in Deland, and has been renting houseboats and pontoon boats here for 20 years. The outfitter has a variety of watercraft to choose from, and trips can be as short or as long as you like.
Houseboaters will be surprised to learn that you don’t have to travel very far to see the best the St. Johns has to offer.
Hontoon Island State Park
Over the years, this island near DeLand has been a lot of things: cattle ranch, pioneer homestead, boatyard and camp for commercial fishermen. It is said that a federal revenue agent, or “G-Man,” once used the island as a base from which to hunt moonshiners who operated stills in this wild country during Prohibition.
Today, the state park looks much the way it did a hundred years ago. Accessible only by public passenger ferry or private boat, the park is one of those hidden gems of the state system. There is no admission fee but donations are encouraged.
But Floridians have been enjoying this island oasis long before Columbus “discovered” the New World. In 1955, a dredge uncovered a 600-year-old owl totem sunken in the water of the St. Johns.
Visitors can view a replica of the carving, a rarity outside the Pacific Northwest, near the ferry landing, the original having been moved to a museum.
Hontoon Dead River is a deep-water run with plenty of good places to anchor for the night. This sheltered waterway gets very little traffic, and if you are lucky, you might have the river to yourself.
Blue Spring State Park
Located just a half-hour north of Orlando, this spring off the St. Johns spews 104 million gallons of pure, fresh water every day. Swimming is allowed in a designated area separated by buoys from the manatee refuge zone. For more adventurous souls, scuba diving is allowed in the spring.
Divers with proper cave-diving certification enter the spring at a pair of crossed logs and descend against a rising current. At a depth of 100 feet, the shaft opens into a chamber.
Note that there is no swimming from mid-October to mid-March for manatee breeding season.
Blue Spring was one of Florida’s original tourist attractions. In 1766, after months in a hot, cramped sailboat, naturalist John Bartram rounded a bend in the St. Johns River and discovered a mysterious stream whose source lay hidden somewhere behind a leafy curtain of oak and bay.
Don’t worry – houseboats are easy to drive, even if you don’t have much boating experience. Before you set out on the river, an instructor will spend about an hour familiarizing you with the boat’s operation and potential problems you may encounter.
The houseboats at Holly Bluff Marina range from a 38-foot, one-bedroom craft to a 53-foot, four-bedroom floating condominium. Each boat is powered by a reliable inboard/outboard stern-drive engine for fuel economy. The boats also come with an independent, gas-powered generator to run the air conditioner and other appliances.
You won’t need to bring much more than a toothbrush. Amenities include linens, cookware, utensils, stove, refrigerator, microwave, marine radio, depth finder, hot water, color television/DVD combo and air conditioning.
Holly Bluff Marina is located about 45 minutes from Orlando and 35 minutes from Daytona Beach. From the marina, you can cruise north to Lake George or south to Lake Monroe.
To rent a houseboat, you must be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver’s license. There is no separate license required to operate a boat in Florida, and boats can carry up to 12 passengers.
For more information, contact Holly Bluff Marina, 2280 Hontoon Road, DeLand, at 800-237-5105 or website www.hollybluff.com.