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Weekend Escape: Lake Mead : Houseboat Haven : Bring the Ice Chest, Goodies and Games--This Is Hedonism Afloat


LAKE MEAD, Nev. — To appease my sister on her 40th birthday, I spent a holiday weekend trapped on a houseboat with four insurance agents from Chicago. I had to sacrifice two vacation days and drive across the Mojave in 110-degree heat for the privilege. I was appalled that I was doing it and shocked to find I enjoyed it.

I had been pressured into coming along on the Lake Mead birthday trip. Ann, my sister, had anted up two years earlier on my landmark date and she felt no compunction about putting the screws to me when it came her turn. She wanted me along for my bucks, plain and simple.

So there I was, chauffeuring her across the desert on Labor Day weekend last year with over $300 worth of food melting down faster than Chernobyl in the trunk and only one measly bottle of tequila to see me through the ordeal.

She had arranged a rendezvous with five of her friends in the cheapest hotel rooms she could find in Las Vegas on a Thursday night ($25 at Circus Circus). Three people were arriving by air; three of us were driving in from Los Angeles in two cars and a friend of somebody's lived in Las Vegas and was joining us. By midnight everyone had arrived and by dawn's earliest light the seven of us, all women, were barreling toward the Echo Bay Marina on Lake Mead.

Ann had made reservations for the 10-person houseboat in April (Lake Mead houseboats are often reserved a year in advance, but Rick Clemons, a spokesman for Seven Crown Resorts, says houseboats are still available for various weeks this summer). In May she sent in the $300 booking deposit. The balance of the rental fee had changed hands in July. When we arrived at the marina the only thing that stood between us and the water was a $350 security check, and rejecting their kind offer of propeller insurance.

(High season for boat rentals is June 15 to Sept. 15. During off season--the rest of the year--rentals are about two-thirds the cost of high season.)

The marina provided wheeled carts for transporting baggage, ice chests and the many bags of ice that we needed. We deployed our forces and had the cars unloaded, the boat loaded and the ice chests filled in less than 20 minutes.

A quick checkout-of-the-boat procedure was mandatory (we should have paid more attention to the part about relighting the pilot lights).

Things to know about a houseboat. If you have any sailing experience, as one of our crew did, then piloting a houseboat is effortless. Those of us with no experience found, when entering a marina, that it was just as easy to push off the sides of other boats as it was to master steering.

Houseboats have a top speed of about six to 12 m.p.h., which makes them fairly foolproof.

Out on the open lake most other boats give houseboats a wide berth. Houseboats are slow, need lots of room to turn and are usually piloted by idiots.

Amenities. Boats come equipped with air conditioning (in August, the outside temperature ranges 85-105), microwave oven, refrigerator, stove top, propane grill, 38-gallon ice chest, wet bar, indoor/outdoor cassette stereo, deck chairs, 45 gallons of fresh water for drinking and cooking, 120-gallon holding tank of lake water for toilet flushing and showering, toaster, blender, pots, pans, utensils, dishes, glasses and 100 gallons of gasoline. (We put in 50 gallons mid-weekend and then topped off the tank when we returned.)

Brings. You have to supply your own sheets, blankets, food, drinks and amusements.

The four women who worked for the insurance company (turns out they weren't agents after all) had traveled together on houseboats before. They had a daily routine that served us well on this trip. We would cruise during the heat of the day, six miles an hour is fast enough to stir up a breeze. Mid-afternoon we would begin looking for a quiet cove, which were easy to find even on a holiday weekend; there we would tie up for the night.

We'd swim (float around on air mattresses) or explore (paddle around in a kayak) the area until dark, then cook dinner and fall asleep at an unfashionably early hour. We'd be up with the dawn for more swimming (floating) and be underway again by 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning.

It didn't take long to adopt a fairly hedonistic style. After a while even wearing an entire swimsuit seemed like an awful imposition. Cooking became unthinkable--anyone who was hungry had to forage through the ice chests for themselves. Our emphatic lack of activity eventually attracted buzzards.

We were visited by the local wildlife, icky albino-like rodents (in numbers that kept us from making many shore excursions), wild burros and mountain goats and a head banger (a guy with many visibly pierced body parts, tattoos and headphones) on a jet ski. He wanted our tie-up spot. We needed more ice but were too lazy to motor to the marina. We cut a deal, his ice today for our beach tomorrow.

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