Houseboats: Living large on the 'Redneck Riviera'

On Kentucky's Lake Cumberland, houseboats rival the luxury mansions of The Hamptons.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Here on the calm waters of Lake Cumberland, at a dock off the Conley Bottom Marina, sits La Louisianne, a houseboat whose broad flank is emblazoned with a simple motto: Laissez les bon temps rouler.

Let the good times roll. Appropriate for a boat that looks, on first inspection, to have been created purely for pleasure. Like so many of the vessels here, La Louisianne resembles the nautical equivalent of Versailles. These floating palaces, which can travel no more than a couple of miles an hour, retail for hundreds of thousands of dollars – sometimes for more – and boast water slides, Jacuzzis, and jet-ski cradles. Most houseboats measure between 60 and 110 ft. in length. Many never leave the dock.

Taken together, the buoyant mansions constitute a bobbing neighborhood for retirees or boomers looking for something more exotic than a Gulfstream RV. This close-docked community, nestled in the foothills of rural farmland, reflects a peculiar nexus of creature comfort and a very American kind of frontierism.

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"We love it – it's the Redneck Riviera," says Vince Messina of Cincinnati, who calls himself a member of the "Ohio navy" and has been visiting the area for eight years. His current boat has five bedrooms; each is equipped with a flat-screen TV.

"The great thing about Lake Cumberland is that we can have a private waterfront estate that moves whenever we feel like it," Mr. Messina says.

The "Redneck Riviera" is a familiar refrain here at Lake Cumberland, which sprawls across Clinton, Laurel, Russell, Wayne, and Pulaski counties in southern Kentucky. The lake was artificially created in the 1950s by the construction of the Wolf Creek Dam, and now covers more than 60,000 acres. That entire expanse, from tip to tip, is dotted with houseboats – small boats, medium-sized boats, but mostly large, shiny boats.

Recent concerns over the strength of the Wolf Creek Dam have prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to lower the water level in the lake, thus decreasing chances of a serious – and costly – breach. But on a recent afternoon this spring, Lake Cumberland was alive with energy. From the hill overlooking Conley Bottom, the boats were visible in every direction. Beyond, lay the wind-chopped water and the bright, leafy Kentucky forest.

"I'm never in a hurry when I'm down there," says Messina. "I'm on lake time."

Besides fishing, and the occasional fast-moving speedboat or Sea-Doo, Lake Cumberland is fairly tranquil, as outdoor vacation destinations go. Like Messina, many houseboaters are here for the languid pace – the grilling, the sunbathing, the snoozing and chatting.

"You develop a dock family if you will, a dock community," says Jack Sniff, an avid houseboater for almost 15 years. "Typically there are about 30 boats on our little pier, and basically we know everyone's names – we know the kids's names, the dogs's names."

Mr. Sniff, who moved with his wife from Lafayette, Ind., has used his knowledge of the lake to create a floating condo business. He now owns a small fleet of luxury boats, and rents them out to eager visitors, of which there are many.

His business, Bluegrass Floating Condos, is in good company. In nearby Somerset, Ky. – the self-proclaimed "houseboat capital of the world" – factories line the highway. Stores advertise all manners of amenities pertaining to the houseboat, from rain gear, to barbecue gear, to fishing equipment. A host of specialty magazines track the latest technological advancements, from stereo systems, to home-theater systems, to high-end water slides.

There is one particular stretch of road that seems to be lined wholly with bait shops. Hulls, awnings, and various marine supplies cover lawns and peek out of garages. The houseboating culture is the lifeblood of this part of Kentucky, and most everyone who lives near Somerset works for a manufacturer or in a related industry, or owns a palace of his or her own.

"Houseboats have come a long way," admits lanky, lean Jeff Foley, who works for a company called Sumerset – it's spelled differently from the town – one of the premier manufacturers in the region. Most sell in the $500,000 to $1 million range. Foley has been working for Sumerset for 12 years; in the past few years, he says, the boats have grown exponentially in scale and luxury.

The Sumerset complex is a cavernous place – hundreds of feet in length – and spills off, in a series of smaller warehouses, towards the highway. In the airy, glass-enclosed showroom, prospective customers walk through two full-sized model houseboats, with five bedrooms each. An artificial pond was created near the parking lot for houseboats to be tested before they are shipped off across the country, from California to New York. In the factory proper, Sumerset employees such as Foley labor over the multistep building process – vessels are opened up, cut apart, put back together. Furnished, and outfitted with all manner of drapery and lush, rolling carpets, each interior will eventually resemble that of a multifloored mansion.

But in a culture where bigger is almost always better, that's just part of the game.

As Steve Marchetti, an Ohio resident, explained in an e-mail, "We've been houseboating for more than 10 years. We rented before buying our first boat."

Mr. Marchetti is now on his fourth, and it's his favorite so far.

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