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); or Holly Bluff Marina 2280 Hontoon Road, Deland, Florida 32720 (00 1 904 822-9992) www.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...