Travel: Deliverance!

Houseboating down Florida's St John's river? Good idea - but watch out for uninvited guests.

Florida never ceases to amaze and horrify. For the travel snob, a trip there may be considered the cultural equivalent of a visit to a mall. But behind the theme parks, away from the traffic-accident-strewn highways, there is another Florida, one that is wild, unspoilt, even wonderful.

This year my family of four decided to go houseboating down the swollen St John's river. It took less than an hour to drive from Orlando to the marina in Deland, an area of lush swamps, willows dripping Spanish moss, and vast tracts of beautiful and varied parkland.

When we arrived, a cheerful blonde girl brought us over to our boat, the Chief 4.

Boat? The thing was a floating two-bedroom apartment, complete with fully equipped kitchen, air-conditioning, shower and front porch barbecue. We carried in our basic supplies, then watched a 20-minute instructional video on Chief 4's VCR.

The friendly man on the tape vaguely mentioned a generator, a motor, a septic system, a bilge pump, oil levels and other boating essentials. When it was over, we looked at each other. Was that it? Were we supposed just to take this expensive, floating liability out into the Florida outback?

Yep. That was the idea. The blonde girl waved us good-bye and, with a lot of grinding of propellers and frantic consultations of the manual, we chugged off into the hinterlands, the theme from Deliverance ringing in our ears.

It had taken us so long to find the generator switch that, by the time we got under way, there was only an hour of daylight left. We had no choice; we would have to spend the night anchored in an offshoot of the St John's called Dead River.

The most terrifying aspect of Dead River was trying to get the family to co-operate (one with the front anchor, one with the back anchor, one steering, one shouting instructions over the chatter of the engine) to anchor our metal home without ramming into the cypress trees or ending up in the middle of a shipping lane. In the dark. It was a bit like one of those survive-or-die corporate rural excursions.

When the last rope was attached to the final cleat, we did what any group of urban warriors could be expected to do. We took a look outside, noted how peaceful and beautiful it was, then turned on the TV and made dinner in the microwave oven.

Dad was the first one up the next morning. I found him sitting on a chair on the front porch, his feet up on the picnic table. "We had visitors," he said.

I looked around. We were in a shallow, narrow, dead-end river, surrounded by bird-heavy cypress trees. There was no real shoreline, just marshland with fallen, rotting trees and cypress roots. It was neither swimmable nor wadeable.

Dad explained that he had been fussing around the kitchen when he saw two large, rangy dogs sniffing around on our front deck. They didn't seem dangerous but, to his expert eye, one of them looked "sneaky". Then, sure enough, Sneaky Dog started to cock a rear leg. "It was trying to scent- mark my bloody boat."

My indignant dad chased them off. They jumped into the water and disappeared into the swampy underbrush.

Given our remoteness, the whole thing seemed odd. Finally we settled on the coolest option and decreed them to be wild swamp dogs. After breakfast we prepared to move off. Sister was dispatched to the rear to liberate the anchor. We heard a shout and rushed out. She was staring at a spot about 5ft off our rear. I followed her eyes. There, lazing on a log, just next to where we had thrown out anchor in the dark the night before, was an enormous alligator.

Once we had learnt to spot them, we saw so many 'gators over the next few days that we didn't bother pointing them out. But your first is special. So we stared, took an embarrassing number of pictures, and very, very carefully pulled up our anchor.

We followed our waterproof map north, up the St John's River towards Lake George. We were heading towards Silver Glen Springs, one of the few spots in the area where the water was 'gator-less and warm enough to swim in.

Human habitation came in clusters along the river. Long stretches of cypress shoreline would break to allow for a marina, a restaurant, a petrol station. In between would come maritime suburbs of lovely houses, each with its own pier.

We took turns steering the boat, sitting on the roof deck watching the bird life (great blue herons, ospreys, egrets, eagles), trying to spot manatees and chatting to the bridge masters on the CB radio.

As we arrived at the entrance for Silver Glen Springs, the water became clearer, the bottom shallower and sandier. We rounded the final bend and, instead of seeing the fountainhead of the spring, we saw the rear end of another houseboat.

We slowly pulled alongside. A woman in the other houseboat, Ruth, mother of a family of four, shouted to us that their engine had broken down. Could we help?

We tied the houseboats flank to flank and Dad went over to have a look. He soon got their boat started and, in a fit of holiday spirit, the eight of us shared a big dinner aboard our boat. Our new friends were from California, lively and delightful. Over coleslaw and steak, we started to swap stories of life on the river, and Dad described our run-in with the swamp dogs.

"Oh," said Ruth, "that explains it".

She said that on their way up river, a weird-looking back-country guy in a small motor boat had pulled alongside. He carried a shotgun and looked hostile. He had shouted: "You got my dogs?" When Ruth and her family said no, the man wasn't convinced. He wanted to board their boat to search for them. Ruth refused, and after an argument the man sullenly motored off.

Mystery solved. Who could ask for a more Disney-perfect ending to a Florida vacation?

Getting there: British Airways (0345 222111) and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) fly non-stop from Heathrow to Miami and Gatwick to Orlando; American Airlines (0345 789789) operates from Heathrow and Gatwick to Miami. Lowest fares are likely to be from discount agents.

Houseboats: Contact Hontoon Landing Resort and Marina, 2317 River Ridge Road, Deland, Florida 32720 (00 1 904 734-2474) www.hontoon.com; or Holly Bluff Marina 2280 Hontoon Road, Deland, Florida 32720 (00 1 904 822-9992) www. houseboat.net/rental/holly.htm

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