Italy can boast more great artists than you can point a paint brush at: Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bellini and Modigliani, to name a few.
Then there’s Tramontin, Ronaldo and Dei Rossi.
The unique works of these three (and a few others) may be as synonymous with Italy as the Vatican, for they are among the remaining families of artisans who craft Italy’s most moving of symbols: the gondola.
In the 1500s, an estimated 10,000 gondolas of varying configurations plied the waterways around Venice. By 1878, 4,000 still managed to clog the canals. Today, a mere 500 traditional craft navigate the narrow channels, whose cargo is primarily tourists from around the world.
On another world-famous stretch of water – Newport Harbor – a rather more modest fleet of gondolas (14 to be exact) provide the same emotional experiences that are so cherished in Italy, without the $2,500, 14-hour flight to Venice.
The Newport gondola experience is provided by Greg and Elisa Mohr, owners of Gondola Adventures, Inc., who have been “gondola-ing” here for 29 years. They also operate an 11-gondola fleet on a lake in Irving, TX. For 15 years, they operated in Las Vegas, and for two years, in Myrtle Beach, SC.
Of their gondolas bobbing and slipping quietly in Newport, eight were traditionally hand built in the old country. The others were crafted in California, Florida and Canada.
Recently the Mohrs took delivery of two new, all-black, gold-trimmed Italian- made gondolas, perhaps one of the two positive by-products of the Covid-19 pandemic — the first being the relatively rapid development of vaccines that the world truly needed, the second being the two Venetian watercraft that a custom gondola craftsman constructed during the global lockdown, having anticipated that the virus would be a short-lived phenomenon and that business would resume as normal.
When ordering new custom Italian oars for their fleet, Greg asked if the craftsman knew of any used boats being shipped to the U.S., so that they could ship their 14-foot sweeps in the same container and share the costs.
That’s when he learned that gondola builder Roberto Dei Rossi, one of only five gondola builders in Italy, had three boats that he couldn’t sell. “Just think about it,” the oar-maker counseled.
The Mohrs didn’t think long. They bought two brand new gondolas at the Covid-reduced price of between $50,000 to $70,000 each. Shipping costs added up to $20,000 for a container to secure both 1,000-pound boats.
Miraculously, said Greg, “There wasn’t the typical hangup at the Port of Los Angeles.” Apparently, the shipping angels residing in the Vatican were on their side.
In Venice, all gondolas are custom built, one at a time, often specifically for the gondolier who will be rowing her, Greg explained. To this day, “Ancient boat construction methods using the simultaneous application of fire and water on the woods to achieve desired shape are utilized.”
Over the centuries, each gondola was built out of eight diﬀerent woods, with more than 250 complex parts coming together like a jigsaw puzzle. Each wood type is selected for a particular part of the boat.
They are purposely built in an asymmetric design, because the gondolier rows with the sweep oar from the starboard side of the 36-foot craft. As the skipper pushes the boat to the left, the boat tracks to the right. This balancing act keeps the boat on a straight course.
Even the oars, consisting of six diﬀerent pieces of wood, are custom-built for each boat. They too are asymmetric. No computer assisted manufacture here. The craftsman’s eyes direct the finished product.
It’s probably easier to drive a 16-wheeler than to skipper a gondola.
“The basics can be learned in a few months; mastery can take years,” Greg apprised. Not only is he co-captain of the business, but Greg is the Numero Uno master of the sweep oar, having personally operated his boats for more than 29 years. In addition to steering, Greg also sings, tells jokes, informs on everything from Newport Bay factoids to gondola history, and navigates safely throughout the bay — all the while making sure his varied passengers leave with indelible and pleasurable memories.
There is no typical gondola client, says Elisa. “We have all types—young, old, families, businesspeople. Our guests are proposing, celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, holidays, honeymoons, date nights and just because.”
“Sometimes, during prom season, parents rent our gondolas so that their children won’t attend questionable parties, Elisa added. “A couple of our gondoliers are licensed, so we’ll conduct marriage ceremonies afloat.
One marriage was a complete surprise to the unsuspecting bride. Fortunately, she said yes, otherwise there might’ve been an emotional mutiny.
Gondola Adventures oﬀers a variety of programs. The “Amore” cruise is 60 minutes and includes non-alcoholic beverages and chocolates. There are a variety of expanded food cruises, too, including lunch cruises, dessert cruises, pizza cruises, appetizer (antipasto) cruises, and gourmet dinner cruises. You could say it’s the ultimate waterfront table.
The Mohrs provide a potpourri of other experience enhancements, such as gondola-shaped chocolates, photography or drone videography, and much more.
Almost from the harbor’s existence, there have been gondola services oﬀered. At one time, seven gondola companies vied for business. In fact, the origins of the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade date back to 1907 when John Scarpa, an Italian gondolier, took a group of visitors from Pasadena across the bay in a gondola decorated with Japanese lanterns.
Today, only Gondola Adventures plies our calm waters.
Newport may not be Venice, but there’s a chance that the gondola cruise will be as memorable as a trip down il grande canale en Venezia.
For information on Gondola Adventures, visit www.gondola.com.