What is A Houseboat?
A houseboat (different from a boathouse, which is a shed for storing boats — although I wouldn’t mind staying in that either) is a boat that has been designed or modified to be used primarily as a home.
In India, houseboats have become a popular form of accommodation for tourists, particularly in Kashmir and Kerala. Unlike in Kerala, where houseboats can take you on overnight cruises in the backwaters and out to sea, houseboats in Kashmir are stationary.
The tourist houseboats in Kashmir are usually attached by wooden planks to the owners’ family houseboats. This allows them to easily attend to the guests, do the housekeeping and deliver food.
Some of these houseboats have been around for over 100 years. They are made of very durable woods and usually have intricately carved wood panelings.
How to Get There
Most of the houseboats in Kashmir are located on Dal Lake in a city called Srinagar. A common way to get there is by taking the train or bus to Jammu, followed by a taxi to Srinagar and the lake. There are also direct buses from Delhi to Srinagar, if you don’t mind a journey that takes almost 24 hours.
If you prefer traveling by air, Srinagar Airport (Sheikh ul Alam Airport) is served by several domestic and international airlines including IndiGo, SpiceJet, Go Air, and Air India. There are frequent flights from Delhi and Mumbai, which may include a stopover in Jammu. From Srinagar Airport, you can take a taxi to the lake, costing around Rs 550.
Please note that due to security issues, foreign travelers are required to register upon arrival at the airport or at their accommodation.
How Much is It?
There are hundreds of houseboats on Dal Lake — some are backpacker-friendly while some boast 5-star facilities. And they are priced accordingly. The rate could range anywhere from Rs 200 to Rs 6,000 per room per night, and for Rs 6,000 and above, you could also rent the whole houseboat.
Some of the houseboats are individually owned, but most of them are part of a bigger group, owned or co-owned by companies that handle the bookings, marketing, etc. In August 2018, I visited Srinagar with my partner and we stayed for three nights with the Snowgoose Group of Houseboats for Rs 1,710.
How to Book?
During off-peak seasons, it’s possible to just turn up at Dal Lake without any booking. There will be touts cum shikara rowers who will take you to the houseboats that they are affiliated with, from which they will get a commission for every guest they bring.
Of course, this will also mean that you will be at their mercy. You might get overcharged, or taken to a really crummy houseboat that couldn’t get any customer. Unfortunately, you can’t really shop around for the best houseboat on your own unless you swim.
So, the better way is to book a houseboat in advance through booking apps like Booking.com. You will only pay the advertised rate, and on top of that, you can see pictures of the room and read reviews from previous guests.
Snowgoose Group of Houseboats
The Snowgoose Group of Houseboats is in charge of several houseboats in the area. The manager, whom we had been communicating with prior to our arrival, wasn’t around during our visit, so instead, we were entertained by a man named Jaz.
He took us to our houseboat, which was owned and manned by his father. It had four rooms (each one with an en-suite bathroom), a kitchen, and a living room. Every bathroom had a Western-style toilet, a bathtub, a sink, and hot water. This was a pleasant surprise for me. I was expecting something more primitive, like a squat toilet and maybe just a bucket of water from the lake for showering.
Because we were their only guests at the time, we got the biggest room — with two beds. For the price we were paying, I think it was good enough. My only complaint, if any, was that there were frequent power outages, although of course, this was not their fault. But it was horrible during the day because it could get really hot and stuffy in the room without a fan.
An Unpleasant Experience
The owner of the houseboat, whom we called Baba, was the one who ran the place, but we dealt mostly with his son, Jaz. Jaz was a gregarious 30-year-old man (married, with one kid), who lived in Delhi but came to visit every few months.
He offered us a package that — he said — would include:
- A 3-night stay on the houseboat, inclusive of meals
- Free shikara rides throughout our stay
- A full-day tour around Srinagar
- A visit to a carpet factory
- A 3d2n camping trip in Naranag (inclusive of meals and transportation)
- Bus tickets from Srinagar to Delhi
- A full-day tour in Delhi
- An airport transfer in Delhi
The price he offered was reasonable. It wasn’t too expensive and wasn’t ridiculously cheap either, otherwise we would have seen it as a red flag.
Behind his father’s back, Jaz smoked one joint after another, sharing it with our driver, Mansoor. My partner and I don’t smoke but we generally tolerate people who do. However, Jaz thought it was fun to blow the smoke in our faces and laugh at our ‘cute reaction’. When we didn’t find it as amusing as he did, he simply did it again, and again, saying, “Sorry, it’s my habit”.
As it turned out, our “full-day” Srinagar tour lasted only a few hours because the weather was ‘too hot’ for him. We also ended up going to an expensive restaurant that he insisted on and having to pay for his lunch (which he said he would pay back later but never did). Now I don’t have a problem with buying someone lunch, but don’t tell me you’re going to pay me back if you never intended to.
The Camping Trip
The day before our camping trip, Jaz told us he was going to the market to buy our food supply (chicken and beef for barbecue, eggs, bread, biscuits, large bottles of water and soft drinks, and lots of fruits).
However, when the day came, the only meat we had was chicken, which was just enough for one meal. For the remainder of the trip, our meals only consisted of rice with potatoes, onion, and dhal, which in itself wouldn’t have been a problem (we’re not picky eaters), but we felt cheated by all of his empty promises.
There was no beef or bread or biscuits or large bottles of soft drinks as promised. The only things he brought were chicken, eggs, some banana, and a small bottle of Mountain Dew that he already drank half of. Later in the night, he bought another small bottle of Coke, half of which he offered to us, and the other half he used as a mixer for his rum.
We found out that the rest of the money had been spent on his cigarettes, hash, and alcoholic drinks to try to get me drunk enough to sleep with him. He himself got drunk and kept trying to touch me even after being repeatedly told no.
He did apologize for this the next morning, saying it was a one-off thing, that he had never got drunk on the job before, that he didn’t know what got into him last night, that he lost control because I was so beautiful and he was having problems with his wife, blah blah blah — all the typical stuff men like him would say — and then did the exact same thing the next night.
He even confessed to buying a box of condoms to bring on the trip.
The Journey Back to Delhi
Despite the annoyances I experienced with Jaz, I still wrote a good review for the houseboat, solely because of the father, the kindly old man who treated us like his own children, and who was unaware of what his son was up to.
So, if you want to stay at Snowgoose, I wouldn’t advise against it (as I don’t know if the other houseboat companies are any better) but please DO NOT take any tour package from Jaz and do not get in the car if Mansoor is driving. He was always high and/or drunk. It’s only a matter of time before he drives his car off a cliff.
Staying on a houseboat is definitely a unique way to experience Kashmir. The only downside is that you can’t come and go as easily as you’d like. You need to call a shikara to take you to dry land. Your houseboat owner might have a small shikara of their own that you can rent or borrow, but this may not always be available, especially if there are other guests on that houseboat.
Alternatively, you can get a houseboat that is moored right by the banks, where you can get on land as soon as you step out of your door — although I think that kind of defeats the purpose of staying on a houseboat.