Few experiences are as romantic as lounging on an exquisitely carved houseboat, watching kingfishers diving for their dinner between the floating lilies or gazing at the moon reflected in the dark waters. These floating hotels of one to four rooms have existed for generations; many originated at the peak of the British Raj, when Victorian families would spend the entire hot season here. They originally chose to stay on boats to get around laws that forbade them from owning land. Ironically, in recent years the houseboats themselves have been under threat from the authorities due to a government mandate that they should install expensive sewage treatment units in order to prevent further water pollution. The allegedly corrupt Department of Lakes and Waterways has yet to enforce any regulations, though.
Choosing a houseboat
Srinagar has no fewer than 1200 houseboats lining the shores of the two main lakes, Dal and Nageen, and the banks of the Jhelum River. And that’s just the official ones. Consequently, it can seem like a bewildering business to know where to start looking. One approach is to organize your stay through the Houseboat Owners Association, whose office is opposite the Tourist Reception Centre on Residency Road. They produce a clear price list of the different categories of boat from Deluxe Class (₹7400 for a double with full board) down to D Class (₹1600 for the same). In practice, these official prices are never charged, even in peak season, and the association can help arrange accommodation at reasonable discounts, which will be a fraction of the published price at slack times.
Undoubtedly the best way to find a houseboat, however, is to hole up in a town hotel for the first night or two and then hire a shikara to embark on a scouting mission. This way you can stop and look at a number of boats to compare prices, amenities and location. Note that quite a number of houseboats on the far side of Dal Lake and most on Nageen are accessible by road or footpath. Those on Nageen are generally a little cheaper.
- The golden rule is to ignore touts in town (or further afield) who try to get you to commit yourself with all sorts of promises. Never prebook in Delhi or Jammu.
- Check with other travellers and on forums to see which houseboats have been offering positive experiences or are doing special deals at the time.
- Always view the houseboat in person before agreeing to stay there, checking things like bedding, plumbing and security issues.
- Be sure to agree exactly what is included in the price, such as the number of meals, drinks or whether a daily shikara ride to the shore is part of the deal.
- Make it clear that you do not want to be pestered by floating salesmen and that there should be no deterioration in houseboat service if you do turn them away.
- Do not be pressured into accepting other services the owner might offer you, such as shikara rides round the lake or trekking trips.
- Do not leave valuables such as your passport unattended or even with the houseboat owner for safekeeping.