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Houseboats offer slice of the high life on Sutton Lake

Kenny Kemp
Moored on a wooded bank at Sutton Lake, a luxurious rental houseboat offers all the amenities of home -- and then some. A canopied upper deck features a sunning area, a water slide and a wet bar with icemaker and fridge. The boat sleeps 10 to 12.
Kenny Kemp
Marina owner Bill Hunt enjoys a turn at the helm of one of the posh 59-foot houseboats he added to the marina's rental fleet this season. Sutton is the only lake in the state offering houseboat rentals, he said.
Kenny Kemp
In the spacious houseboat kitchen, marina manager Karen Swiney prepares some of her homemade chicken salad sandwiches for lunch guests. Mary Hunt fetches beverages from one of the two refrigerators. The kitchen includes a full-size stove and microwave.
Kenny Kemp
A third bedroom features adjacent queen-size beds with privacy curtains and large windows for a view of the lake.
Kenny Kemp
Following an afternoon cruise, Frank Dardi maneuvers the houseboat back to the docks. The sofa in the living parlor makes a bed. It sits directly across from the entertainment center.
Kenny Kemp
Cruising on Sutton Lake offers glimpses of wildlife like this deer munching on foliage.
SUTTON, W. Va. -- The beach? Been there.The mountains? Done that.Camping? Never again.The lake? Well ...Try a houseboat.Not just any houseboat. This one is more like a posh, personal floating hotel. Imagine stretching out on a comfy chaise chair, basking in the lap of luxury on the topside sun deck, soaking up a slice of the high life on the clear green waters of Sutton Lake.Ah, sweet summertime.Vacation options in West Virginia multiplied this spring when Sutton Lake Marina introduced two huge rental houseboats outfitted with every imaginable amenity -- plush carpeting, three bedrooms, full bath and powder room, canopied upper deck with a water slide and a wet bar with icemaker and fridge; a fully equipped kitchen with gas and electric refrigerators; an entertainment center; air conditioning; two giant insulated ice chests filled by the marina and scads of other niceties, your own miniature mansion on water.The vessels are manufactured by Fun Country Marine Industries in Indiana for 12 marinas operated by Forever Resorts."They've been in the rental houseboat business for 20 years and have locations at prestigious, high-end lakes, like Lake Powell in Arizona, Lake Tahoe and Lake of the Ozarks," Sutton Marina owner Bill Hunt said."They couldn't find houseboats that worked well for them as rental boats, so they started building these. There are several hundred in operation throughout the country. When they get to be about 10 years old, they sell them."Hunt bought two from the Lake of the Ozarks marina.No other lake in West Virginia offers houseboat rentals, Hunt said. "We're very proud of them."The boats, measuring 14-by-59-feet, operate with two 115-horsepower outboard engines. "Another inch in length would require a captain's license to operate it," marina manager Karen Swiney said, "so they stop at 59."
The generator runs a three-ton air conditioner.Renters take an hour-long orientation course to learn to maneuver the boat. Then they make a trial run with lake personnel on deck. "We take it out and let you drive it with us aboard," Swiney said. "If you're comfortable with it, we have a taxi come get us. Or we can take it out and anchor it for you so you don't have to drive it at all.""There are a lot of dials and switches," Hunt said, "but the controls are electronic, so it's very easy to operate."As the ad brochure points out, "If you can drive a car, you can pilot one of our houseboats."The boat holds 275 gallons of gas. Not that you'll need it. Swiney said most renters mosey immediately to Wolf Creek -- the finger deemed by regulars as the prettiest place on the lake -- and moor there for the duration.Mosey describes the pace. You don't zip around the lake on a boat this big. Top speed is 14 knots, or about 16 miles per hour.
Some renters bring a small runabout or pontoon for lake exploration and fishing. Or, for an extra $195 a day, the marina will supply a tag-along pontoon as a yacht tender. An extra $30 provides a nicer pontoon with a grill and potty and a motor big enough to tow water toys.The houseboat itself won't break the bank, especially if couples or families split the tab. You can book a three-day prime-season weekend for $1,290."It's very cost effective for a family or a couple of families," Swiney said. "The boat sleeps 10 very comfortably. It's way cheaper than motel rooms -- and a lot more fun."Two bedrooms have queen-size beds. A third bedroom features two queen-size adjacent beds equipped with privacy curtains. There's a queen-size sleeper sofa in the living parlor. "And there's plenty of room for sleeping bags," Swiney said.She recommends the four-day midweek (Monday-Thursday) package. "It's $100 cheaper, at $1,190, and you get an extra day."An entire week (Monday through Sunday or Friday through Thursday) costs $1,735. You can rent by the day for $385 if the boat isn't occupied.For $195, you can board early and have everything arranged before you take off. Another $195 buys a last night at the docks so you can pack up and depart the next morning.Spring (April 22 to May 29) and fall (Sept. 1 through Oct. 2) offer the cheapest rates. Off-season weekends cost $895, four-days midweek will run $795 and a seven-day booking is $1,195."Fall is a beautiful time up here," Swiney said.To moor the boat, Hunt suggests tying up to two trees with 150-feet of line. "No anchors to fool with, and the boat never moves."Formed 50 years ago by the construction of the Sutton Dam, the lake covers 14 1/2 miles. Land attractions include a swimming beach, picnic area and playground.Swiney takes particular pride in the clarity of water from the Elk and Holly rivers. "We have gorgeous water. Last summer, you could drop a coin in the lake and see it drop 22 feet."Hunt and his wife, Mary, bought the marina in 2009, burned down the aged facility they found there and replaced it with new docks and a floating grocery, café and store. Merchandise includes fishing supplies, and even a line of swimsuits.A retired real estate broker, Hunt said he put "way over six figures" into the marina makeover.The Hunts arrived in West Virginia from Virginia as hippies in the 1970s, he said. "We were here two years before we knew the lake existed." They started boating at Sutton from the time they discovered it.In the mid-80s, they moved to Washington, D.C., always with the thought that they would retire in West Virginia. When they learned the marina was available, they snapped it up.Hunt rewards slip tenants with a few fringe benefits. On Memorial Day weekend, he bought 200 ribeye steaks and invited slip holders to a cookout. A Low Country Boil is planned for Labor Day weekend."If it weren't for them," Mary Hunt said, "there wouldn't be us."When Hunt isn't monitoring things at the marina, he's probably off enjoying his hobby. He restores and shows antique boats.For more information about houseboat rentals, call the marina. at 304-765-2120.Reach Sandy Wells at or 304-348-5173.
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