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Tied up in a cove on Cumberland Lake, a houseboat of vacationers is a common -- and populat -- sight in Kentucky.
Tied up in a cove on Cumberland Lake, a houseboat of vacationers is a common -- and populat -- sight in Kentucky. (Stacy Rosien for The Boston Globe)
 KENTUCKY: If you go: Kentucky

Houseboat-bound under a Kentucky moon

Email|Print| Text size + By Julia Rosien
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2006

BURNSIDE, Ky. -- Who knew the Bluegrass State had so many rivers and lakes?

We found out recently when we vacationed on a houseboat in Kentucky. Although landlocked, the state has more miles of chartered waterways than anywhere in the United States but Alaska. And with more houseboats built and launched there than in any other state, it has earned the moniker ''the Detroit of the houseboating industry."

We set our sights on Cumberland Lake, a two-hour drive south from Lexington International Airport. Cradled by 1,200 miles of rugged shoreline, the lake stretches an impressive 100 miles. Because most of the area is undeveloped, it's a natural refuge for birds and animals like deer, and elk. Driving a houseboat is a lot like driving a car, according to Diann Boone, regional coordinator for WaterWay Adventures at Burnside Marina, where we rented out floating hotel.

While some boating experience is helpful in maneuvering the vessel, common sense is even more useful. We had heard that the lake is boater-friendly, but before heading out we wanted to know about navigating around other craft. Drivers have rules for right of way. Boone said boaters look at the situation a little differently: ''The bigger one always gets to go first."

After a 20-minute lesson, we were set free.

We pulled away with my husband, Stacy, navigating with the help of the GPS (global positioning system) unit. We cruised at a comfortable 10 miles per hour, and the lapping waves lulled me into a blissful state. We found seclusion tucked behind a corner of the shore that scooped backward into the perfect parking spot. Docking was as simple as pulling up and tying a rope to a few trees.

Houseboats here range from 60-85 feet. Sleeping arrangements vary from bedrooms with queen-size beds to pullout sofas in the main living area. Large houseboats have a clothes dryer and dishwasher, but no washing machine. Kitchens include all the essentials. A satellite TV pulls in the hottest movies.

Being alone with nature without forsaking modern amenities was intoxicating. After stopping, we hiked along the shore, skipping rocks and sharing memories.

The next morning, we woke at dawn as the sun crept skyward, its light stretching across shimmering waves. I cradled a cup of coffee as songbirds serenaded us. The deck gently rocked as we drank in the tranquillity -- what houseboating in Kentucky is all about.

No matter what time of day, we loved the hot tub on the upper deck, whether for an early morning soak or a midnight dip.

Though relaxation topped my priority list, exploring the state's natural beauty had its appeal. We went horseback riding through Daniel Boone National Forest. You can also raft the Cumberland Plateau. The rim of the gorge, which is lined by sandstone boulders, is visible from the river.

''The first place we paddle to is the foot of Cumberland Falls," says Dania Egedi, part owner and guide of Sheltowee Trace Outfitters. ''You can feel the power of the water coming down. Some of the things we see on the river you just can't see when you're in the car, like the sheer rock boulders, high cliff lines, and 10 miles into the trip, we hit the backwaters of Lake Cumberland."

Cumberland Falls, an inspiring 125 feet wide, boasts a ''moonbow," a nighttime rainbow that hovers above the falls. One of only two predictable moonbows in the world (the other is Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe), you can see the phenomenon three days before and after a full moon. Kentucky State Parks offers a brochure that outlines possible dates each year.

Nearby, DuPont Lodge, built in 1941, is a quaint place for a taste of Kentucky. ''We're told our catfish are the best our guests have tasted," said Lisa Davis, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park manager, ''but we're trying to balance out the down-home fried favorites with healthier choices."

This area, like much of the state, is dry, but in Somerset, Picasso's Bistro, which looks out over the lake, is one of a handful of restaurants licensed to serve alcohol. ''We try to be a one-stop diner for tourists and locals," said Steven Morris, part owner, floor manager, and chef. ''You could order a grilled cheese sandwich or filet mignon and have your choice of exactly the right wine to go with it."

On the last day of our journey, we rose early to enjoy our final sunrise on the lake. After a leisurely cruise back to the marina, we gathered up our belongings and stepped ashore. We looked at each other a little sadly when we handed in the key. When we want to escape again, we'll point our compass toward Kentucky.

Contact Julia Rosien, a writer in Kitchener, Ontario, at JuliaRosien@rogers.com.

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