You don't have to go to Venice, Italy, for a romantic ride in a gondola. A fleet of the man-powered boats plies the waterways of Naples, an attractive enclave on Alamitos Bay in Long Beach.
You may even be serenaded by an opera-singing gondolier as he sculls past handsome homes and pleasure craft that line the circular route of the Rivo Alto and Naples canals. If your boatman's voice isn't up to par, Luciano Pavarotti and other opera stars provide the mood music from a cassette tape recorder.
Gondolas came to Naples in 1983, the idea of resident Michael O'Toole who refloated an abandoned boat and, dressed in striped shirt and straw hat, offered a tour of the canals. Rather than manpower, a small electric motor provided the impetus.
When his gondola tour prospered, O'Toole flew to Venice to see the real thing.
Now he has a fleet of seven gondolas, two of them imported from Italy and the others designed to a shorter 25 feet and built here. Also, they are all powered in the traditional manner by paddles and muscle, not motors.
To accommodate the requests for gondola rides, O'Toole's fleet operates every day between 10 a.m. and midnight, with about 30 young gondoliers on call.
A few of his gondoliers are students in opera school who practice as they paddle. Another had heard the boat's operatic tapes so often that he memorized the lyrics and one day turned off the recorder and burst into song. Today, he gives passengers solo performances.
O'Toole offers one-hour gondola rides for $45 per couple. You can sail with up to six in the party for $10 for each extra person over two.
Larger groups of 8 to 14 passengers pay $17 each to book a wider, 32-foot caorlina powered by two gondoliers.
All cruises include cheese, sausage and bread, plus a silver wine bucket, ice and glasses, so you can take your own champagne or other drinks for toasts during the leisurely ride.
Sunset outings are especially popular, but 24-hour reservations are required for all excursions. Call Gondola Getaway at (213) 433-9595, any day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Depart From Pier
The boats leave from the pier at the Long Beach Sailing Center, 5437 E. Ocean Blvd., in Belmont Shore. You'll be paddled through a bay full of sailboats and windsurfers before entering the quiet canals of Naples.
To reach Gondola Getaway's departure pier from the Los Angeles Civic Center, drive south on Interstate 5 and the 710 (Long Beach) Freeway to the Shoreline Park exit and follow Shoreline Drive to Ocean Boulevard. Turn right (east) and go a few miles to No. 5437. Park in front and walk around the Sailing Center building to the pier.
You can stretch the fun of this close-to-home getaway in a gondola by spending the night at the Seal Beach Inn and Gardens, a European-style bed and breakfast in neighboring Seal Beach.
The entrance to Alamitos Bay and the mouth of the San Gabriel River block the beach-front road, so you'll have to circle in your car to reach Seal Beach.
Head back west on Ocean Boulevard, turn right where permitted (the first street, Bayshore Avenue, is closed to traffic during the day in summer) to 2nd Street, go right to Pacific Coast Highway and right again to Main Street. It leads to the historic Seal Beach pier.
Stroll the Planks
Opened at the turn of the century as one of the longest pleasure piers in California, it was wrecked by winter storms in 1983. Donations from Seal Beach citizens helped rebuild it, and fishermen once again drop lines over its railings while sightseers stroll the wooden planks. Visitors can ride a tram for 25 cents.
The pier stretches a third of a mile into the sea, offering a panoramic view of the shoreline and refreshments at its outer end. Amid late 1940s decor, young waitresses in pink uniforms serve hamburgers, french fries and ice cream sodas in a cute cafe called Ruby's. Breakfast is also on the menu.
On the street corners opposite the pier entrance are two popular Main Street eating spots, the Kinda Lahaina Broiler and Grandma's Ice Cream and Candy. Other favorites include Hennesseys Tavern (for burgers and beer) and the Seal Beach Smorgasbord, with buffet dinners for the bargain price of $7.95, senior citizens $6.95 and children 50 cents times their age (open Wednesday through Sunday).
Huge Oyster Bar
In the next block of Main Street is the place for seafood in Seal Beach, Walt's Wharf, which also has an oyster bar.
Guests at the Seal Beach Inn rave about the breakfast that comes with the price of their room. By reservation, dinners also will be prepared by the inn's cook.
Bordered by bright flowers at its quiet location four blocks west of Main Street, the Seal Beach Inn was turned from a decades-old auto court into a B&B by Marjorie and Jack Bettenhausen. Only a towering hotel sign at the corner of Central Avenue and Fifth Street is a reminder of its past.
These days the attractive 23-room property is a member of the Romantik Hotels group of West Germany, and draws visitors from overseas. Staff members speak English, French, German, Spanish and Swedish.
With its antique-decorated guest rooms and luxuriant landscaping, the inn is a homey place to escape the summer crowds. You'll also be well-nourished at the start of the day with a big buffet of quiche or another egg dish, homemade granola, yogurt, cheese, breads, juices, fruit and freshly ground coffee.
Rooms vary in size and features. Some have kitchens, others a refrigerator, while a few boast sunken tubs for two and one features a fireplace. Rates for one or two persons are $88 to $155, including breakfast. Reservations: (213) 493-2416.
Ask about special packages, especially one that includes the gondola ride around Naples and a suite at the inn.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Naples and Seal Beach is about 60 miles.