Connie and Monte Christman stood on the third-story deck of a huge houseboat, examining an outdoor kitchen and dreaming of the future.
"When we retire, we'd like a houseboat" to keep on Lake Cumberland, Connie Christman said. "Right now we're just looking."She and her husband were among the 6,000 boating fans, from buyers to dreamers, who spent the weekend at the Kentucky Exposition Center touring houseboats - mostly higher-end ones, crammed with plasma flat-screen TVs, granite-laden kitchens, electric fireplaces, wood floors and leather sofas.
The 12th annual National Houseboat Expo, sponsored by Houseboat Magazine, featured vessels ranging in price from a $60,000 trailerable boat to those costing nearly $1 million. Vendors sold related gear ranging from engine parts and personal watercraft to Jimmy Buffett beer holders and pirate flags.
"It's an unbeatable lifestyle," said Greg Larsen, the publisher of Houseboat Magazine. "People put them in marinas where there are always cookouts, poker nights and music. And when you need it, you can pull away and find a quiet little cove."
Southern Kentucky - particularly the area surrounding Lake Cumberland - is a center for houseboat manufacturing, and Kentucky and Cumberland lakes are popular for houseboating.
But the sour economy has led to some lean years for houseboat sales and manufacturing, with several Kentucky plants having had to shut down, Larsen said. That has translated into fewer boat-show sales, boats and vendors than in years past.
Shawn Heinen, president of the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Houseboats, said despite a rough few years, there are signs that people are gaining more confidence in the economy, including a customer who purchased a $600,000 boat this weekend.
"The financing is there, but they want a larger down payment," Heinen said.
Among those browsing were Kevin and Kathy Cafferky, of Cincinnati. They already own a 75-foot houseboat they keep on Lake Cumberland they enjoy with friends and family, but on Sunday, like many other enthusiasts, they were touring the latest in designs and amenities.
Their favorite: A 98-foot Stardust cruiser, featuring everything from tiled showers and a topside grill bar to master suites with 32-inch flat-panel TVs and a waterfall feature in one hallway.
"I like this one with a big top deck," Kevin Cafferky said. "That's where I spend all my time. Maybe someday we'll upgrade."
Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at (502) 582-4697.