Sightseeing And Romance On The River – With A Napa Valley Gondolier

Sean O’Malley doesn’t have the most Italian-sounding name, but perhaps you haven’t heard his tenor interpretation of “O Sole Mio.”  It’s a charmer.

O’Malley is the owner of Napa Valley Gondola, Napa’s newest attraction. The business launched in spring 2019, and   he’s   been   entertaining and guiding passengers  ever  since.  He was eager to share the history of how the tours got started, where the gondola came from, where the  tours  go and when, as well as his Italian- language repertoire.

The Napa River flows through one of the most scenic landscapes in the Bay Area. “I have always been amazed by the beauty of the Napa River and consider it a hidden gem. Some visitors don’t even realize there is a river in the middle of Napa. Since the river is only accessible to kayakers, boaters, and people who live alongside the water, the gondola tour widens that audience considerably,” said O’Malley.

“Plus, I also have a passion for boats and rowing. So, when the opportunity arose to buy the gondola company that provided tours on this river, for me, it was a no brainer. I just had to practice and learn the art of feathering the oar while rowing.”

North America doesn’t manufacture gondolas. It’s a meticulous centuries- old art, which originated in Venice, Italy. The craft has been passed down through generations, practiced today by a dwindling number of boat maker families. Artisan production takes place primarily in Venice’s Dorsoduro neighborhood, with a handful of additional factories scattered across outlying lagoon islands. All Venetian bell gondolas are made to standard with 280 customized pieces, handmade using eight types of wood, specifically lime, oak, mahogany, walnut,  cherry,  fir, larch, and elm in a labor-intensive process that takes up to six months. O’Malley proudly confirms his gondolas are authentic, handmade by Venetian experts, and imported in 2018.

nv gondolier

And like the gondoliers who navigate that city’s canals, Sean O’Malley serenades his passengers as he maneuvers his prized boat. It’s a hallmark of the experience, of course.  O’Malley  tells us more about the traditional songs.

“Naturally, ‘O Sole Mio’ is the first one everybody expects. There are other favorites: ‘Santa Lucia’ and ‘Gondola Gondoli.’ It’s a very romantic setting. We had six successful proposals of marriage in 2019 alone, and that was our first year of gondola operations,” he said.

The gondola’s route along the Napa River can vary, covering up to two miles heading either upstream or down- stream, depending on customer preferences along with the weather and wind conditions. When going upriver, the boat glides toward the Oxbow Nature Preserve, a 13-acre riverside habitat, and passes by the CIA at Copia. Going downriver, the boat drifts from the main dock toward the slough tide pools. Along the scenic way,  the  river tour guide offers a basic history of the Napa River and its riverfront, the river restoration and habitat enhancement, including details about the 20-year-long effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge, straighten and fortify the river banks to mitigate perennial flooding. It’s a bold design, conceived in the mid- 1990s, that improves the environment and makes the river a focal point of downtown Napa. The ambitious  plan to dredge, straighten, and armor the banks of the Napa River  has  become an environmentally sensitive  model for cities looking to find a solution to similar flood issues.

Within close proximity of an urban environment, the award- winning Napa River Salt Marsh Restoration Project provides an exceptional habitat for fish, shorebirds, black-necked stilts, dabbling ducks and diving ducks. Native plants such as tules, alders and willows appear along the banks, and the river has become more hospitable for salmon and steelhead trout. In describing the wildlife observed along the way, O’Malley said, “We see a large variety of birds and we often spot wildlife, beavers, seals, sea lions and river otters. On some rare occasions, we even see dolphins.”

The Napa Gondola spring and summer tour schedule picks up its activity level beginning on April 1, with a daily 40-minute trip, “The Marco Polo,” departing every 70 minutes from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., bookable online in advance. Gondolas seat up to six passengers and board and disembark at the boat dock located at 680  Main  Street in Downtown Napa. While advance bookings for tours are encouraged, walk-ups to the launch dock are also welcome.

To make the most of a Napa Valley Gondola experience, O’Malley suggests, “Be sure to bring a bottle of wine and maybe a cheese plate or some snacks. We supply the glasses. We also have blankets for those chilly evenings.”

With his jaunty straw boater in place, sporting a de rigueur striped blue and white sailor shirt and oar in hand, the gondolier paddles, barely rippling the water. He glides peacefully along the scenic Napa River as he serenades his passengers in true Venetian style.


Napa Valley Gondola // 700 Main Street, Napa 707-373-2100 //


Article By: Laurie Jo Miller Farr