Take the jungle cruise out of Disney and what do you have? A weekend houseboat journey on Florida’s oldest highway, the St. Johns River. You’ll see no animatronic hippos or elephants here, but real wildlife, including manatees, alligators, and eagles. You choose when to anchor, when to swim, fish, or just relax amid lush subtropical greenery. Whether you take a three-day self-driven houseboat cruise or a short guided tour, a journey along this American Heritage River makes indelible memories.
Day 1: Learn the Ropes
Once Florida’s main highway, the north-flowing St. Johns is in many areas as unspoiled as it was in 1763, when naturalists John and William Bartram explored the river. Their resulting book, Travels, remains a fascinating guide. Just west of DeLand, a charming college town north of Orlando, the river runs through Hontoon Island State Park, where you have two choices for exploration. If you want the freedom of navigating your own vessel, head to Holly Bluff Marina , which rents fully equipped houseboats for four to 12 passengers. Those less bold can visit Hontoon Landing Resort & Marina, to take a two-hour pontoon-boat cruise.
Holly Bluff’s houseboats should be booked three months ahead, especially for school vacations or holidays, but the boats are available all year. Buy supplies in DeLand prior to your 1 pm check-in, as there are no groceries available along the river. Once you board, a dock master gives a training session so thorough even inexperienced boaters become comfortable driving the vessels, which have an average cruising speed of 5 mph. Drivers must be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver’s license, but no separate license is needed to operate a boat in Florida. The onboard Cruising Guide contains all necessary charts (with anchorage locations) and information for the trip. With scant commercial traffic, no tides, little current, and lots of space to practice, the river beckons you onward.
A 45-minute cruise to nearby Blue Spring, winter home to manatees, makes a perfect first outing. Once you gently beach the boat at this stunning spring, there’s time for a refreshing swim in the 73-degree aquamarine water. But don’t forget, this river valley is home to alligators and snakes, so don’t swim near reedy banks or at dusk. After moving to a nearby anchorage for the night, enjoy the sunset from the top deck with a home-cooked meal while watching flocks of white egrets settle in nearby rookeries. The sound of frogs, owls, and cicadas, along with the gentle movement of the river, will ease you to sleep.
Day 2: Take in the Natural Beauty
After breakfast, return to Blue Spring and explore the run along the raised walkways from which, particularly in the winter, you can view manatee families. Back aboard, head downriver past Holly Bluff Marina, to the Hwy. 44 bridge, which opens at your boat’s signal. Fish along the way, or visit a riverside eatery for blue crab or gator tail. Remember the dock master’s advice about not cruising after dark, and leave enough time to get to your next destination, Catfish Bend. Once tied up, you can prepare the catch of the day on the grill.
Day 3: Up a Lazy River
After two days on the river, your routine will be ruled by the sun and the current and the gentle speed of the houseboat. This is a relaxing day, with a late brunch, swim, and leisurely exploration of the river on the way back to the marina for your 4 pm check-in.
When to Go
If your schedule is dictated by school vacations, book early, as that’s the busy season. Late fall, winter, and early spring bring cheaper prices, milder temperatures, fewer mosquitoes, and a less congested river.
Most flights into Orlando arrive at one of two airports: Orlando International, just south of the city, or Orlando Sanford International, about 20 miles north of the city. Getting to Hontoon Island, 35 miles north of Orlando, will require a car.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Florida Guide