09/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
The white gondola glides through the picturesque canal ferrying newlyweds to their waterside wedding reception. But the muscular young men manning the oars and dressed in traditional Venetian straw hats and striped shirts are not waterborne merchants of Venice. They're two entrepreneurs cruising the canals of Naples Island, Calif. as junior captains of commerce.
Pals Mike O'Toole and David Black, both 24, started their homegrown tourist concern, The Gondola Getaway, three years ago after O'Toole researched a college paper on Naples, which is part of Long Beach, and discovered gondolas had once been used there. (The seaside community—inspired by the Italian city—was built in the 1920s by a California developer.) The Gondola Getaway has since grown from a creaky, one-ship operation into a seaworthy fleet of four replicas of the Venetian boats powered by 20 local gondoliers.
This summer Mike and David shipped out to the Italian Venice to study the real thing. Although the boatmen there keep their shipbuilding methods a mystery, they were so impressed by the Californians' pluck that they let them in on some of their secrets. The American boats are shorter than the originals (25' compared to 38') and are steered with two oars, not one. "It would take us years to train our gondoliers to row with one oar," says O'Toole, suggesting that such a demanding job would make his boatmen oars de combat.
For $40, a couple can enjoy The Gondola Getaway one-hour cruise while nibbling on salami and cheese. The romantic atmosphere is enhanced by taped serenades from the likes of Luciano Pavarotti. To date there have been 12 shipboard marriage proposals—and as many acceptances. Sort of like The Love Boat with oars.