An old-world style of transportation has returned to Napa: gondola rides.

Visitors and locals alike can enjoy outings on the Napa River on a Venetian-style touring boat service called Gondola Servizio.

“It’s a way to get out on the water and relax and do something really different,” said April Quinn, co-owner of Gondola Servizio.

Quinn owns the Oakland-based business with her former husband, Angelino Sandri.

Quinn and Sandri began providing authentic Venetian gondola rides piloted by a trained gondolier at Lake Merritt in Oakland in 1999.

Later, the two expanded Gondola Servizio to Napa, offering rides on the Napa River from a downtown dock. That dock was removed in 2006 to make room for flood-control improvements, and the gondola rides ended.

Now that a public dock has reopened at the Riverfront complex, the rides can resume.

“We’re really excited about returning,” said Quinn. “We were always successful” in Napa, she said.

“It feels great,” to start up again in Napa, said Sandri. “It’s been in the works for a long time.”

“The feedback we got was that they were excited to find something in downtown to do” – something romantic and a way to get out on the water, Quinn said.

“This is our break from wine tasting today” was another common comment, she said.

“For me, it’s a portal to history” and showcasing that history, said Sandri, adding that the gondolas of the past were like private limousines.

For the wealthy, “It was how people went to school, to work. For me, it was an entrance into an old world which I find really fascinating.”

Plus, “It’s not a typical date of a film and a restaurant,” he said.

This isn’t a “Disney” version of a gondola ride. The boats are authentic, made in Venice by trained craftsman. Each boat takes about nine months to build and then ship to the U.S.

The gondolas weigh about 1,500 pounds and are 38.5 feet long. The boats are flat bottomed, so they are stable, “and very safe,” she said.

Many different kinds of wood, including oak, cherrywood, mahogany, larch, limewood, black walnut and beech are used to make the boats, said Sandri.

“Under the water line, elm (is used) because it doesn’t warp as much as oak might,” he said.

The inside of Gondola Servizio boats is left the natural wood color, while the outside is painted the traditional black.

“It’s a very elegant boat,” said Quinn.

Gondola Servizio has three gondolas and a smaller boat called a sandolo. A sandolo seats only two passengers, while a gondola can seat up to six.

Quinn declined to say how much the boats cost. “Trust me, it’s a lot,” she said.

One gondola from Gondola Servizio will be stationed in Napa.

Quinn and Sandri both have other day jobs. Quinn works at the Fairmont hotel. Sandri, who lived in Italy for more than 15 years, works as an Italian wine importer.

Their new boat recently arrived in a shipping container at the port of Oakland, said Quinn. Since then, the couple has been training their Napa gondolier, said Quinn.

“He’s someone who is a boater and very enthusiastic,” said Quinn. “He’s really excited to run the operation.”

Quinn cleared up a few common misconceptions about gondola rides.

First, historically, gondoliers don’t sing, she said. And they certainly don’t sing “O Sole Mio.” That’s not a Venetian song, she said – it’s a song from southern Italy.

Second, the boats aren’t tippy, she said. They have flat bottoms, which make for a smooth ride.

In addition, the boats are not pushed with poles, they are rowed with a sculling motion.

The boat rides will go up the Napa River, toward the CIA at Copia and then return, she said.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.