Staying on a houseboat in Srinagar is a unique, must-do experience. However, choosing a boat can be a challenge. There are around 1,000 of them on interconnected Dal and Nigeen lakes. Which one do you pick? Here's what you should consider when making your decision.
Location, Location, Location!
Whether you want peace and serenity, or would prefer to be close to the action, is the most important thing to think about when choosing where to stay.
Dal Lake is famous and is where the majority of the houseboats are located. However, it's also crowded and commercial (others would call it vibrant). In some areas of Dal Lake, the houseboats are unattractively lined up bumper to bumper along a canal. The lake is huge, so do check which part of it the boat is situated in. On the other hand, Nigeen Lake is much smaller, quieter, and more picturesque. Some people may feel isolated staying there though. It all depends on what you like!
Another important thing to consider when choosing a houseboat is how mobile you want to be. Many boats can only be accessed by shikara (smaller row boats) while others have road access too. If you're someone who likes a lot of freedom to come and go as you please, it's a good idea to choose the latter.
The houseboats offer varying rates depending on whether you take a room only or have meals included.
If you're staying on a boat in a more isolated area, it's a good idea to have breakfast and dinner there for the sake of convenience. The quality of food does vary aboard the boats, so do check what you'll be offered including whether it's vegetarian or non-vegetarian.
Size and Type of Houseboat
The houseboats come in various sizes and are graded by the government tourism department.
The categories range from Deluxe (most boats are in this category) to D Grade. Set rates for each category are available on the Srinagar Houseboat Owner's Association website. The largest houseboats have four or five bedrooms, and are great for large groups traveling together.
If you're a couple, you'll be better off choosing to stay in a smaller boat as you'll have more privacy and less disruption. The houseboats are very popular with Indian families and unfortunately, they tend to be very noisy with little consideration for the serenity. The walls of the houseboats are not sound proof either, so you may be kept awake by their noise.
Common Areas of the Houseboat
The houseboats generally have separate dining and lounge rooms, as well as a balcony at the front facing the lake. Quite a few houseboats have rooftops that are accessible. Some have gardens. These additional areas are appealing as they provide more space for guests.
Positioning of the Houseboat
Unlike houseboats in Kerala, these houseboats don't move. They're permanently docked on the lake. Houseboats docked lengthways along the lake will usually offer lake views from their bedrooms. Otherwise bedrooms will have a view of the neighboring houseboat but their balconies will be fronting the lake.
The power supply does go off frequently. If this is a concern, do take note of whether the houseboat operates a generator. Other things to consider (depending on importance to you) are whether the houseboat provides wireless Internet, 24 hour hot water, and televisions. Also check whether the cost of shikara rides to and from the boat are included in the rate.
The houseboats are usually family owned and operated. Being on a houseboat is like a cross between a hotel and a homestay. While the accommodations are independent, many houseboat owners give their guests personalized attention. This can be very valuable during your stay as you'll be privy to plenty of local knowledge. Beware that not all owners are honest though. Read reviews and check the Internet for information before booking to verify that the owner has a good reputation.
Houseboat owners commonly arrange tours for guests. Some are quite instant upon guests taking their tours, so do be careful. Again, do proper research, especially in regards to costs.
Other Things to Consider
If you are on a budget, travel guides often recommend hiring a shikara and touring the lake until you find a houseboat you like. However, the shikaras are commonly affiliated with certain houseboat owners, and will take you towards the ones where they get commissions. Rates drop substantially (by over 50%) during the winter low season, so bargain hard. While some houseboats are listed on hotel booking websites, you should contact the owners directly for the best rates. Alternatively, during the April to June high season, availability is scarce especially on Nigeen Lake.
While in Srinagar, I stayed aboard Fantasia houseboats on Nigeen Lake and had a great experience. I particularly liked the fact that it has its own garden area.