Home on the water

The Parker and Rockwell families at Smith Mountain Lake, Va.

The Parker and Rockwell families at Smith Mountain Lake, Va.

by CC Parker

Jerry Seinfeld once said, “There is no such thing as fun for the whole family.” Most parents know that a family vacation is most often just a relocation: same bickering, same feeding schedule … different venue. Not exactly the restful bonding experience we crave. In spite of this, we persist. We plan those family trips. Maybe this one, we hope, will offer rest and relaxation.

Last Labor Day weekend, my family and I capped off the season with a houseboat trip to Smith Mountain Lake, Va. Friends who had floated for a week there gave rave reviews of the lovely, 32-mile-long lake in south central Virginia. A three-hour drive from Raleigh (near Lynchburg), it’s considered the jewel of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was inspired.

So were our other friends, the Rockwells, who agreed to join us. Having another family with children the same ages would definitely be more fun for all. We both booked houseboats at Parrot Cove.

Like many adventures, ours began with some uncertainties. For starters, we had never seen a houseboat, much less set foot on one. I had absolutely no idea what to pack. I didn’t know what we’d do there. My husband was unconvinced that three days stuck on a boat together would be an altogether positive experience. On the day of our departure, the forecast predicted a 90-percent chance of rain and lightning.

Taking note of our nonrefundable cancellation policy, we embarked. The quick trip through the bucolic North Carolina and Virginia countrysides deposited us at the lake just before lunch. The kids were antsy: hungry, thirsty, bored, and underfoot. When we reviewed the three-day, two-night rental contract for the 53-foot houseboat, runabout, tube, and Wave Runner, and realized the cost was equivalent to renting a fairly nice condo at Atlantic Beach for a week, we, too, got a bit antsy. We sent the kids next door to buy worms.

Moving along to “Houseboat Row,” I began the monumental task of unloading our packed-to-the-gills Suburban. A dozen floaty noodles, five beds’ worth of sheets and blankets, bags of snacks, Labor Day decorations, our favorite coffee pot (and filters and beans), beach towels, bath towels, beach chairs, groceries, fishing poles, a portable fire pit, cases of water, a movie projector and screen, coolers packed with prepared food, sparklers, twinkly lights, beer, a basil plant, and, of course: a case of wine.

Husband: “Why the #%*$# did we need to bring all this stuff?”

Children: Nowhere to be seen.

We were tense. It was hot. My false bravado was beginning to melt. My husband had stopped speaking altogether. My eldest child snuck back into the sweltering car in the hopes we would change our minds and go home. And I realized that the cooler with the food for our second and third days had never made it into the car.

And then: Our daughter and youngest child, who had stealthily bypassed the unloading, snuck onto the dock and made their way to the roof of the Queen Jane.

“IT’S AWESOME!!” they yelled together. 

“IT HAS A BATHROOM!” yelled my son. 

“NO, IT HAS TWO BATHROOMS!!” yelled my daughter.


And, as the entire marina soon learned, a horn to wake the dead. The blast was loud enough to extract the sulky 15-year-old out of the car.

Spirits began to rise. A bit.

With the wave of a couple of $20s, wagons and dock handlers appeared to help unload. I ran to a nearby grocery to replace the forgotten meals. And we got a tutorial on the grill, the generator, the TV and radio, the toilets. The slide, we learned, was even more fun with a drop of Joy dish detergent. And so, with a farewell horn blast from Queen Jane, our Captain Stubing drove us out into the open water. 

The Rockwells had already staked their boat on the shore of a charming little cove, and we attached our boat to theirs so we could walk back and forth easily. This turned out to be a great move. We got into the business of water sliding, unpacking, and settling in. Yes, the beer was still cold. And with that, a trip that can only be described as a smashing success had begun.

In no time, we’d found a happy routine. The littlest children were up at dawn and happily fishing from the boat. The fathers arose shortly thereafter, brewing coffee and helping unhook fish. The teens slept in, emerging from their staterooms at various times. We moms whipped up breakfasts of  bacon, eggs, coffee cake, and fresh fruit. When the littles (and the dads) got antsy at about 10 a.m., they loaded themselves into the runabout and disappeared from the cove to tube in the open water. The moms cleaned up, swapped stories, and yes, jumped from the top deck railing while nobody was watching. It might not have been pretty, but it was fun.

When the father-son boat returned for lunch (chicken salad, BLTs, chips, crudités, fresh-sliced baguettes, and homemade chocolate chip brownies), the teens emerged from sleep. The teenaged girls and older boys kayaked and took turns on the Wave Runner – before handing it off to the fathers, who thoroughly enjoyed a little “alone time” away from the caravan, returning later happy and windswept. The littlest kids begged a ride from anyone willing to take them.

Cocktail hour arrived quite early on the lake; dinner arrived late. Baked potatoes, steak, salad, sliced tomatoes with basil, and chocolate brownie sundaes made a perfect meal. After dinner, the kids watched a movie on a makeshift projector screen on one boat; the parents enjoyed good conversation on the porch of the other.

We found that what is mundane at home feels special on the water, and everyone is happier than usual to chip in and help. Spontaneous dance parties as well as family fights erupted and, somehow, everyone was able to take it all as it came.

After three days packed with action, the boat unload was as quick as it could be expected (with three indolent children), but we had a lot less to transport. After a quick group picture on the dock, 10 tan and smiling faces witnessed a happy memory made. And on the car ride home, everyone was content. And quiet. Should we go for a week next time? I asked my husband. No, he said. Three days and two nights was just right.


• Boats can be rented from parrotcove.com.

• Bring another family (or two)!

• Depending on the size of your party, it’s worth considering getting the larger boat (the 53-footer, not the 39-footer).

• Rent the Wave Runner (or maybe two?), the runabout, and a tube. Kayaks were fun, as well.

• Reserve these auxiliary items when you book the boat, as they sell out.

• Bring your deck chairs and floats for lounging on top deck and in the water.

• Bring an electric air pump for the floats. This is vital.

• There was no outdoor plug for twinkly lights, but candles for the porch are nice.

• Don’t bother buying the $10 map in the office; there is a free one on the boat. (Tuck it away somewhere safe – you’ll need it.)

• You may be “out to sea,” but you are not on your own. The marina staff is there to help. When we had a glitch with the generator, we called the office and they quickly dispatched someone to fix the problem.

• ALWAYS be safe on the water. That big, dark water can be disorienting for inexperienced swimmers.