Articles & Photos by Patti Morrow
It seems to be on everyone’s bucket list. Just mention the word “houseboat” and you’re sure to evoke romanticized images of a home floating on the water in some exotic paradise.
The marriage of a water-bound “hotel” to a gorgeous tropical setting can be found right hand here in the United States. I recently stayed in a magnificent vessel in Naples, Florida and I have only one thing to say: I cannot wait to go back.
Naples, located on the southwest coast of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico, is an upscale city with a population of just over 20,000, many of whom are transplants from cooler climates.
Naples is known for an abundance of golf courses, fast, expensive cars, and high-end shops and eateries. Named Best US Luxury Destination in December 2015 by JustLuxe, the city boasts miles of white-sand aquamarine beaches.
Bill “Walker” Harding always dreamed of having a bed on the water in Naples. He purchased a boat slip on Naples Bay and ten years later, it became home to what he affectionately calls “Walker’s Retreat,” a 1,400 square foot houseboat that he now offers for rental.
“I decided that a houseboat would be most suitable, mainly because it’s half house and half boat,” said Walker. “Most boats, if you go inside, they’re usually dark and they don’t have an upper area to view the water.”
But not Walker’s Retreat; the 52’ Harbor Master boat is open, bright and comfortable. There’s easy access off the back bow, and if the tide is not too
high you can just step off onto the dock. On the second floor is an expansive deck, which is what most people use. “They love it up there!” Walker said.
Photo Courtesy: AirBnB
Covering the upper deck is not your standard canopy. Originally, the boat had a large eleven-foot umbrella on the deck (see photo above). Although attractive, it was problematic when the wind blew in off the ocean. “With the umbrella, you might as well go down to the beach and try to catch it,” laughed Walker. “Or hang onto it and float to Mexico!”
Anything above 15 miles per hour would take it sailing, so Walker had to build something that would sustain the winds that sometimes pass through Naples. The sturdy-but-attractive canopy (shown below) is able to withstand wind and also shields from both sun and rain, making the deck usable in every season.
It wasn’t easy getting the 52’ x 14’ fiberglass boat to the slip, though. First of all, finding a fiberglass houseboat in Florida is a challenge. Typically, houseboats are not designed for salt water or long journeys on the ocean and riverboats are made out of aluminum, which is not conducive to salt water. There are only three or four manufacturers that made fiberglass boats in the past, but they do not make them anymore.
Walker found his boat near Knoxville, Tennessee. They had to obtain special permits to go through Knoxville and Chattanooga, and they had to take the top off of the upper deck to fit under bridges. It took three days to drive the 900 miles or so to Naples. A lot of the inside furnishings came with the boat.
The outdoor furniture and rugs arrived after the boat was nestled into the slip. The attractive finishing touches and accessorizing that transformed the vessel into the nautical-but-comfy home were done by interior designer Kathleen Scanlan.
When asked if he ever takes the houseboat out onto the ocean, Walker told me that it’s a real boat and it can get up to approximately 20 miles per hour, but he doesn’t take it out much, mainly because of all the furnishings and décor inside. “It would be rocking and rolling,” he said. “I have a smaller boat that I use if people want to go out in the ocean.”
At the Marina
The big attraction is not just the boat, but Naples Bay itself. As one of the most popular areas of Naples, the bay is home to the Cove Inn, the Dock Restaurant, and the Tiki Hut Bar, all well-liked. Visitors can rent bikes at the marina, and there are more than 50 restaurants within walking distance of the boat. Sunrise at the marina is not to be missed.
A 10-minute stroll takes you to Third Street South, a colorful historical walkway of lush courtyards brimming with fragrant flowers, antique European fountains and contemporary sculptures. You’ll also find sophisticated dining, specialty coffee shops, and chic boutiques selling the latest fashions, fine jewelry and accessories. Whether you browse or buy, prepare for your senses to be in overdrive.
The Naples Municipal Beach and Pier on the stunning Gulf of Mexico is approximately a 20-minute walk from the houseboat and marina. Sunbathe on six miles of sugar-sand beach, frolic
in the warm aquamarine surf, dolphin-sight just off the beach, or reel in your catch from the 19thcentury pier. The beach is the perfect spot to spend hours of fun and to watch the sun dip into the ocean.
Everyone that comes to Naples does two things: they go to Naples Bay, and 5th Avenue South – the heart of downtown, and the perfect blend of controlled business growth and charming shops. Evening on Fifth events feature live musical performances throughout the sidewalk areas of 5th Avenue, as well as dancing and dining.
For vibrant nightlife, head to Mercato. The mega-complex offers a combination of upscale restaurants, bars, and retailers as well as luxury residential condominiums. Mercato hosts a vibrant year-round event calendar with most events free and open to the public. Arguably, the most charismatic nightlife in Naples is found in Mercado at the Blue Martini. The contemporary architecture and undulating live music beckon passersby who then find themselves unable to tear away from the frenetic and fun atmosphere.
A fun way to see a lot of the history and charm of Naples is with the Naples Trolley Tours that runs seven days per week. Hop on at any of the stops and the tour guides will entertain you with the history, humorous folklore and legends of Naples. There’s also the Water Shuttle which will take passengers to waterfront shopping, hotel and dining destinations along Naples Bay.
There’s plenty to do for all ages in Naples, for those who want more than a relaxing respite; bike tours, Segway tours, manatee viewing tours, and a day trip to Marco Island are just a few options.
Walker put the houseboat up for rental on Airbnb not knowing what to expect. The rental was so wellreceived that he was elevated to Super Host status after receiving the required number of five-star ratings.
“I try to take care of the guests and text them every morning. I keep tabs on them and make sure they don’t need anything.” said Walker. “I take 30 to 40 minutes when we first get to the boat to show them everything,” and laughingly, he adds, “Then I expect them to call me that night and say “where do we find the light switch?” or “where is the hair dryer?”
His combination of ocean, home and host is working. Walker now has a lot of repeat customers, often booking into the next year, from all over the world.
How does a week’s stay in Naples on a houseboat sound to you? If you’re the least bit tempted contact Walker today