Written by David Wallach
January 2018

If you live in the Midwest and you want to experience life on the water, you don’t have to go very far. From small rivers to the Great Lakes, there are options for every kind of boater and skill set.

In June of 2017, when we decided to remodel our house in Chicago, my family attempted to live in our garage through the remodel instead of renting an entire second home. Two-hundred square feet of living space, a hot plate and a sense of adventure — what could possibly go wrong? Well, dealing with our contractors left us over budget and behind schedule. We were faced with being trapped in the garage or getting out and finding the fun wherever we could.

I am the father of three kids — Katie, 17; Johnny, 8; Charlie, 4 — plus an 8-year-old Golden Retriever, Daisy. Charlie is affected by autism, and as my wife, Tonya, says, our house is a “developmental cesspool,” meaning that there isn’t a moment that goes by when someone isn’t growing, crying, hitting a milestone or trying something for the first time. It can be great but also loud and intense, all amplified by the fact that during the remodel we were all stuck in the garage together.

Luckily, we are fortunate enough to have a small summer home and boat about two hours away from Chicago in St. Joseph, Michigan. When things got too loud and dusty around the house or in the garage, we would jump in the car and spend time in Michigan on the boat. June and July spent shuttling between the garage and the boat were enjoyable, and we had a great time together. Johnny started boating lessons on Lake Michigan.

Katie, our teenager, who had already passed her lessons, would occasionally drive the boat. This gave me the opportunity to spend time with our youngest, Charlie, sharing my love for the water with him, teaching him about water safety and how to master a cannon ball off the bow. Michigan became our haven, a place of peace and calm. Our family ended up growing closer than we have been in a long time.

In late July, it came time to drywall the entire house, which meant that for a whole week we couldn’t even be in the garage. We knew this would happen and had talked about going farther north into Michigan to one of the many islands or towns that dot the Lake Michigan shoreline. But as much as we love Michigan, pursuing even more “Michigan” seemed redundant.

My wife wanted to experience a real adventure, something we had never done before — but, of course, on budget and within driving distance. As we sorted through ideas, they all started to look the same: a water park, a cabin on a beach and some various camping spots. Not that any of those options were bad, we just wanted something different.

Out of curiosity, I searched online for “houseboat vacations,” and one of the first search results was Suntex Marinas’ State Dock on Lake Cumberland in southern Kentucky. After browsing through the photos, I was immediately sold, and we decided to go for it.

The drive from Chicago to State Dock in Lake Cumberland was about seven hours. As we drove, the phrase “our family vacation on a houseboat in Kentucky” kept ringing in my head. These words would either live in infamy of horrible vacation history or be a memory that we would cherish forever.

As we pulled up to State Dock, I realized very quickly that no pictures could truly capture the beauty of the huge cliffs, warm, clear welcoming water and huge trees that provided the back drop for the armada of floating giants that lined the docks. Lake Cumberland is massive, with hundreds of rivers that branch off from the lake and tributaries that run off those rivers, transporting you to a place of peace. It was both breathtaking and a bit intimidating.

State Dock is a marina that has been on Lake Cumberland for almost 50 years. The marina staff has the experience to handle just about any situation and emergency, which is comforting when you are taking off into a strange lake aboard a floating house. A “Welcome to Paradise” sign greeted us as we arrived — it proved to be not just a marketing phrase, but a glimpse into what was in store.

We had reserved one of the smaller houseboats, 64 feet long, 15 feet wide, two stories tall, with a slide off the back, four bedrooms, a full kitchen, two bathrooms, a living room, a grill, cabinets galore and plenty of deck space.

At first, I couldn’t wrap my mind around what exactly we were going to do on the houseboat for a week. Lake Cumberland was nothing like the play pen of Chicago, where there are hundreds of boats tied up in a small space. However, my initial worries were soon quashed. Between traveling from location to location and bouncing from one swimming hole to the next, our days were filled with great times and even better memories.

Tonya and I took turns relaxing on the enormous deck up top. We ate together as a family, cooked all our meals, played cards, fed ducks, jumped off impressive cliffs, slid down the houseboat slide and repeatedly launched ourselves off the top of the boat into the lake. One evening we even witnessed a family of turtles swim around the boat with the sunset as a backdrop.

Our houseboat adventure was a success for everyone. From our teenager to our son with special needs, we all had an amazing week. The entire family found a way to decompress and enjoy being on the water, away from schedules, technology and the many things that clutter our daily lives.

Heading back to State Dock is something we are already planning for next summer and many years after that.

If you enjoy cruising and want to try something different that will take your breath away at 7 miles an hour, then this is an experience to add to your get-away boating bucket list.

Houseboat Vacation Takeaways

  • Don’t Panic
    These houseboats are massive and can seem daunting to even
    a seasoned boater. Every boat has a tracker on it — the marina staff
    members can spot your location at any time and be there to help you within minutes if necessary.
  • Having basic boating knowledge is helpful
    A little boating knowledge will get you a long way and make your vacation less stressful.
  • The experience is what you make it
    Having a son affected by autism, we were nervous about noise and over-crowding, but our fears were quickly put to rest. We found tranquil coves where we were the only boat in sight. We swam and played in the peace and calm and enjoyed the gorgeous sunset each night.
  • Wander
    It’s difficult to wrap your mind around the freedom to do what you want on your own schedule, but my family embraced it. No practices, classes, things to rush off to. As the week went on, the calm set in.