Venice is about 9,700 miles from the Bay Area, but you can get a little taste of it – gondolier style – right here in Napa.
There are many reasons to spend a day or a weekend in Napa Valley, from its famous wineries and restaurants to its cozy taverns and vineyard hills. But the gondolas on the Napa River are a bit unpredictable.
My tour guide for this special afternoon excursion is Sean O’Malley, the ardent owner of the Napa Valley Gondola, which has offered atmospheric tours on this waterway since 2018. I arrive at Napa’s Main Street Boat Dock, which is just below the riverfront building. Fifth Streets, as O’Malley is ending an hour-long tour, his happy passengers are all smiles as they disembark and say goodbye.
The gondola—an impressive 1,300-pound, 36.5-foot craft—was handcrafted in Venice from a gorgeous mix of oak, walnut, and cherry wood. With all those Venetian vibes, the ride makes for a nice little romantic outing with that certain person. But it’s also great for family fun, with a life jacket on hand for little kids to wear.
It is also, O’Malley points out, one of the few things in Napa Valley that isn’t wine-centric. You can, of course, fix this by bringing a bottle of wine on your cruise—and a little salami or antipasti, too. O’Malley allows food onboard, as long as it’s not messy or greasy. (KFC and barbecue are strictly prohibited.) To do a little pre-gondola shopping before boarding, you can swing by Napa’s downtown tasting room, which is an easy walk from the dock.
Between the downtown wine scene and the tranquil river, it’s all very quiet. As O’Malley pushes us away from the dock, the pot gently bounces into the water.
“It’s about as rocky as it gets,” he says.
To my delight, O’Malley is wearing a striped shirt, just like one might see gondoliers making their way down the Grand Canal in Venice. I wonder if the Napa resident sings in, adding more to the whole Venetian thing.
Indeed, he says, it is a film thing – and an operatic thing. Most of the Venetian gondoliers do not sing, and they lash out at those who do. But O’Malley realized over time that most Americans actually expected their gondoliers to sing—and that adding some vocals to their tours could improve their tips.
“I sing,” he says. “Not well. I’ll give you a taste of it.”
With it, he unleashes his bold tenor, playing across the water in beautiful Italian as he sings the classic “Santa Lucia.” His vocals are great to begin with, but become even more captivating as we pass under the Third Street Bridge, and a lovely buzzing sound is heard. It’s an experience not to be missed, so my number 1 pro trip for others is to sing to O’Malley – or one of the other two guides in his employment – as the boat passes under 3rd or 1st Street bridges. passes.
Of course, no one is going to confuse O’Malley with Mario Lanza or Enrico Caruso. Nevertheless, his statement is enough to garner applause from the people on the banks of the river.
“Grazy! Grazzy!” O’Malley replies in praise.
Still with thunderous applause, O’Malley smiles as he steers and propels the boat, using the 13.5 ft. remo (Italian for oar) To guide us through the river and through the city, passing restaurants, shops, and other buildings along the river. His voice seems to be in sync with the waves in the water as he talks about his path to becoming a professional gondolier.
After a career in Silicon Valley tech and venture capital, O’Malley was semi-retired and living in Napa in 2018 when he decided to find a second act. He initially thought about visiting the winery, but he also enjoyed being out on the water, so he was surprised when he saw a job posting for a Napa River gondolier. He was soon hired and eventually took over the business functions.
It’s good for him. He’s a big man, at six feet, six inches tall and built like a former football player, so he’s ready for the great physical challenges that come with the job. He is also a natural tour guide and handy conversationalist who, with in-depth knowledge of Napa Valley and importantly the river, can talk freely on any topic one wants to take up. Need a recommendation for what to do after the trip is over? Other fun things to do on the river? O’Malley has you covered.
But the one-hour ride also holds moments of calm, when you can soak up the natural beauty and look for wildlife along this tidal river, where salinity rises and falls according to the seasons and tides. You see birds, of course, but you might also see fish jumping or spotting an otter or otter – or the rare dolphin or porpoise, which strayed from the ocean in 2007 and again in 2015.
Alas, no Flipper is seen on this particular day, as O’Malley brought the ship back to dock. Just a blissful afternoon in Venice-meets-Napa.
Description: O’Malley’s Napa Valley Gondola offers hour-long rides ($160) for up to six passengers. Tours depart daily from Napa’s Main Street Boat Dock during the summer season. Make a reservation and get more information https://napavalleygondola.com.