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Tiny Houseboat Vacation in Historic Downtown Sanford

One great thing to come from the last year is a renewed sense of curiosity and desire to explore the areas we call home. Both Tyler and I have been to Sanford many times, but we had never taken the opportunity to explore it as intimately as we have during 2020. So, it was fitting that our first opportunity for a staycation in 2021 would give us a new perspective at the streets of downtown Sanford that we knew and loved.

We arrived downtown on a sunny Wednesday morning, feeling excited and curious about our first experience in a tiny houseboat. Perhaps we were more curious how something so interesting sounding had eluded our awareness. And if I’m being honest, yes the Saint Johns River is right there in Sanford and I never remember it when I go to visit. Perhaps it’s the charm of the downtown streets, the small town feel and quaint shops that demand my attention more than the waterfront. Not to say that the Lake Monroe waterfront park isn’t one of my favorite spots for a picnic in all of downtown, but somehow I never put two and two together, and when I saw we were staying at the marina so close to the main street I had to pull up Google maps to double check that I had the right place. Only minutes from downtown (both walking and by bicycle or golf cart) our tiny houseboat was perfectly located as a cozy jumping off point to our romantic getaway.

From the moment we entered our tiny haven, we fell in love. We fell in love with the little nooks that were carefully thought out and well planned to maximize the efficiency of the space. We fell in love with the record player and vinyls that filled the living room with music and life. We fell in love with the cozy porch chairs and balcony that looked out into our sea of serenity. Upstairs we fell in love with our mezzanine style bed that reminded me of pillow forts and secret hideaways, complete with a hideaway of its own, a self-titled zen room. As a self-proclaimed Airbnb connoisseur, I’ve stayed in a myriad of homes around the world in my travels. I tend towards unique experiences and homes with design that matches my preferences. In this home, I was thrilled to find a combination of both. As an added bonus, our host was an Airbnb Superhost, ensuring that little details of our home made our stay memorable.

After putting down our bags and a quick champagne welcome toast, we grabbed our bikes (thanks to Sanford Golf Cart Rentals) and took a quick ride by the marina, to enjoy the scenic view as we started our day.

Our first stop was a bit of antique shopping. After seeing our record player and checking the collection on the boat, we knew we wanted to find a few records of our own. We headed over to Treehouse Antiques, a shop that literally has any and everything you could ever want (and even a few things you didn’t know you wanted!). We were greeted warmly by the owner, Stephanie, who felt like a magician as much as a shop owner. Any time we picked up something interesting, she would magically pull out the perfect item to compliment it, from a spot right in front of our noses we had somehow missed. The shop is packed with all kinds of wonderful things waiting to be discovered.

For anyone interested in vintage clothing and accessories, I cannot recommend her selection enough. We also picked up a few records and I couldn’t resist checking out her impressive selection of vintage cameras.

Our next stop was to head to Hollerbach’s Outfitters, which was a brief bicycle ride down the street. For those who recognize the name, yes, it’s owned by the same people who run the famous German restaurant in Sanford, Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe. Tyler and I were ecstatic about our dinner reservations later that evening, as Willow Tree is one of our favorite places to eat. Our stop at Hollerbach’s Outfitters put us in a festive mood, we both tried on traditional German attire (me a dirndl and Tyler even played along with some lederhosen).

We had so much fun playing dress-up and almost bought some lederhosen for our puppy but decided to wait until he stops growing.

After a lot of laughs and a few photos with the cutout in the store front, we headed back to the waterfront for a cooling bike ride and to make our way toward the docks for our paddle boat tour.

Officially open as of Spring 2021, the Pedal Cruise run by Captain Rob Paul is Sanford’s latest pedaling attraction. Much like the pedal bicycle bars you see on the streets, this pedal cruise takes that same fun energy on a guided boat tour up and down the Saint Johns River. We caught the soft opening, so it was Tyler, myself, the owners and their friends.

Since it was a test-run we sailed on Lake Monroe, but the owners explained to us that the intention is to have tours starting at noon and ending at sunset seven days a week, running for an hour and a half each tour. 

The cost will be $45 per seat for a group tour and $750 to reserve the entire boat (which can fit twenty), BYOB (and wine, but no liquor). This new attraction will be a great way to blow off a little steam with your closest friends (or make new ones like we did)!

Once we returned to shore, it was time to collect our golf cart for the evening (thanks to Sanford Golf Cart Rentals) and get ready for our sunset dinner date on the rooftop biergarten (made out of refurbished wood from Bavarian farms and buildings) of Willow Tree Cafe.

Every Thursday through Sunday Willow Tree has live music performances in the main dining hall and the biergarten is open on the roof. Tyler and I loved going to Willow Tree back when it was just a restaurant with great ambiance, friendly staff, and the best German food in town.

We love it so much more now with the addition of the deli, costume shop, and stunning biergarten. Sitting on the rooftop drinking Hefeweizens, eating Riesenbreze Aufschnitt, and hearing the sounds of the band playing below felt very authentic. It was such a treat to experience, and you won’t find anything like it in Central Florida.

We ended our night with dinner, music, and laughter down in the main hall. Tyler ordered the Vegetarian Spaetzle (his favorite) and I ordered the Cajun Wurst with heaven and earth potatoes and sweet red cabbage. We rode around downtown Sanford a bit before heading back for the evening, enjoying the warm spring air and the quiet hum of our golf cart. We really felt spoiled with how close everything was to our houseboat, and with the bikes and golf cart, we had everything we wanted within our reach.

We woke up early the following morning to enjoy sunrise from the dock of the houseboat, before getting on our bikes to find a breakfast cafe. Riding back along the waterfront and through the streets of downtown, we bookmarked little shops for our next Sanford adventure before returning to the houseboat to put the record player on and dance in our living room with the windows wide open. That little moment was so touching for us that we (not joking) bought a record player on the drive home. It’s so strange how we felt so disconnected and secluded when we were right at the edge of a very bustling downtown, but somehow that moment felt like there was no one else in the world but us. It was the perfect end to our time in the tiny houseboat.

We checked out and walked one pier over to catch our activity for the day, the Saint Johns River Ship Co relaxed lunch cruise. Note: boarding begins 30 minutes before departure time. I had never been on a steamboat before. Turns out that the Barbara Lee is not powered by steam but uses diesel engines to turn the twin paddlewheels.

After being greeted by the staff, we were shown our table. We were given a choice of items for lunch, Tyler went with the roasted vegetable lasagna and I went with the prime rib. Our meals came with coffee, an appetizer plate of fruits and veggies, bread, and dessert.

Shortly after we left the dock the captain came by our table to introduce himself and wish us a happy voyage. The ship has live music performance while you dine, and passengers are free to explore the various decks of the ship. We passed by numerous friendly boaters who all waved at us and enjoyed the lush scenery that can be found in Florida wilderness.

The boat was incredibly smooth. Not once were we worried about moving about the ship or spill our drinks as it truly was a relaxed cruise. We heard neat facts about the wildlife we passed and history of the development of the river. We particularly enjoyed the engineering facts about the procedures required to make the river safer to navigate. We learned about the flat grade of the river’s sloping and some of the civil engineering practices that went into place to design the river.  It was interesting to note that the Barbara-Lee is the only authentic sternwheeler that sails the river and is reminiscent of the elegance and ornate steam ships that once sailed the Saint Johns River during the 1800s from the Hudson River to right here in Sanford.

Our staycation in Sanford left us with major vacation vibes that stayed in our minds for days after we returned home. We can’t wait for our next opportunity to explore what hidden gems Seminole County has in store for us!