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Gondola Getaway Is Romantic, Authentic--and Freeway Close

October 18, 1986|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

The bride and bridegroom, game but giddy, are something less than steady on their feet.

The minister, sensing imminent debacle, instinctively hurries his words. He makes it by six yards.

" . . . Husband and wife," the minister says with sufficient body English to throw an oncoming sail-surfer completely off kilter.

Goggle-eyed, the surfer goes down in a many-splendored tangle of striped sail and dotted swim trunks. His last known words are " Mazel tov! "

Thus, Marjolign van der Veen of Holland and Edward Keyzer, by way of Indonesia, are united in holy matrimony:

--In the middle of Alamitos Bay, Calif.;

--In a ceremony performed by Paul Joseph Harries, an Australian with a $3 ordination in the American Fellowship Church;

--Aboard a Venetian gondola.

"Perfect," says Pauline Hobiera, the bride's sister, popping a Champagne cork high into the stiff breeze. "Now that's the way to get married."

"You name it, we'll row it," says Mike O'Toole, 27, founder and co-owner of the Gondola Getaway, operating in and around the canals of the cluster of Long Beach islands known as Naples.

"Weddings? Sure. And engagements, anniversaries, parties, proposals. . . . We'll row it and you'll love it."

" We love it, that's for sure," says co-owner David Black, also 27. "Sure, it's a business, but for us it's more a life style, a romance ."

From a one-boat putt-putt operation five years ago--formerly a crumbling garden planter, if the truth were known--Gondola Getaway has grown to a sleek and sassy fleet of five: four 25-foot Venetian gondolas and a 32-foot "caorlina." Each of the smaller boats is powered by a home-grown, sun-streaked gondolier attired in traditional striped shirt, beribboned boater, red-and-gold sash, spontaneous smile. The boat is perfect for a couple, though up to four more interlopers can easily be accommodated.

The caorlina holds up to 16 and is rowed by two boatmen, fore and aft.

Bottom line is $17 per person per hour on the big boat; $40 per couple per hour on the gondolas--$10 extra per intruder.

The fleet operates from sunrise ("A beautiful time," O'Toole says; "mist rising, birds calling . . . ") to midnight, every day of the year, and the price includes a basket of bread, cheese and salami. Potables and passion are supplied by the client, at his own risk. Gondola Getaway throws in an ice bucket but does not guarantee sentiment. It doesn't have to.

"There's just something about a gondola cruise," Black says. "It's a throwback to the days of chivalry, to the time when a man would throw his cape over a puddle for his lady to walk on.

"How many (marriage) proposals have we had? Actually, I lost count at 300. Maybe we ought to put up a sign: '2 Billion Served.' We've had some wild ones, though.

"I remember this couple from Texas. He'd hired a biplane to fly over at 150 feet. Just when we'd rowed them to the middle of the bay, this banner pops out: 'Will You Please Be Mine?' She lets out a scream you could hear to Seal Beach.

"Hey, I choked up myself. We got phone calls all night: 'Did she do it? Did she do it?' She did."

"Wild," O'Toole says. "There aren't too many jobs where you're privy to a proposal. Sure, we know it's coming: The guy's a little nervous and he calls ahead to make certain everything's going to be set up just right.

"Out in the canals, where it's real quiet, the gondolier sees the guy all antsy and twitchy and he knows . He's saying under his breath, 'C'mon, man, you can do it!' "

The Rivo Alto Canal, which whispers around Little Naples Island for a mile or so, is the place to do it, especially after sunset.

The prow of the gondola slices noiselessly, hypnotically through water as smooth as polished black marble. The boat glides under bridges, past handsome houses and moored yachts and along lanes illuminated by the soft tangerine glow of Naples' street lights.

As a rule, the gondoliers don't sing ("For $5 an hour plus tips you want Pavarotti?" one unrepentant rower asks), but taped music is played on request. "Italian opera," a gondolier promises, then pops in a Mozart concerto.

Va bene . The effect, echoing softly off the canal walls, is nothing short of enchanting, a palpably sensuous setting in which crotchety old married men have been known to hold hands--with their wives .

In such intimate interludes, the gondolier will keep his counsel. If asked, though, he'll point out the old Hershey Hotel, the "haunted house," the place where the old duck-hunting lodge used to be. (A good part of Naples once was bog land, underwater at high tide, before developers began to dredge at the turn of the century.)

Too soon, the gondola is back in the bay for the return trip, passing outward-bound sister ships. Most gondoliers and passengers exchange a simple "Hi," though one young man, caught up in the spirit of the moment, shouts, "What news on the Rialto?"--a magic moment somewhat diminished by the reply: "Damned if I know."

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