There are many ways to spend an evening in the Tacoma area. You can go out to dinner, take a stroll along the water, or even enjoy some nightlife. But perhaps the most unique way to spend an evening in Tacoma is hopping aboard an authentic Venetian gondola and cruising the waters of Gig Harbor.
Gig Harbor Gondola opened in downtown Gig Harbor in 2015 and is headed up by gondolier and business owner, John “Cinque” Synco. John took a round-about path to rowing a gondola and likens himself to a jack of all trades, master of none. His passion for rowing began in 2002 after driving a big rig for three months. At that point, he didn’t have a job and a friend in Southern California told him that the company he worked for was looking for more gondoliers.
What started as a job application became a passion. Years of delving into Venetian rowing, two trips to Venice, and a move to the Northwest led John to open his small business in Gig Harbor.
“I searched for three years trying to find the best spot for this business,” John says, “but more importantly, my wife and I wanted a beautiful area to raise our daughter. Gig Harbor was perfect.”
Since Gig Harbor Gondola opened, business has boomed, as this is the only gondola you’ll find anywhere in the area. In fact, this gondola — named Nelly — is one of only a few actual Venetian gondolas in the United States. It was shipped over from Venice by one of John’s friends in 2008. There are just about 25 of these authentic boats in the country, and some of them aren’t even on the water.
Just as unique as each gondola is, riding in one is an equally unique experience. Old world details from the metal horses on each side to the lean of the boat are real (and that lean is intentional — it’s there to balance out the gondolier standing on the back of the boat), creating an authentic experience unlike anything else.
Nelly has also plied the waters of Venice, and there’s something special about that. While there are tons of ways to get out on the water in the Tacoma area, few offer the romantic silence of a gondola. There’s no motor. There’s barely any sound from the single oar as John rows. And John doesn’t mind at all if you simply sit and absorb your surroundings in silence — but he’s also a lot of fun to chat with and trade travel stories with.
“My guests have a great time. The feedback has been positive. People seem to really appreciate having something so unique in their town, and I feel extremely lucky to have that kind of support,” says John.
John cruises all year round. If there’s a gentle rain, bring an umbrella, as he says the rain can add a little something extra to the mood. He says his most popular times are often right before dinner, but one of the most amazing times to go is on his very last cruise of the day at 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. Time it right and you can enjoy the sunset in style. You can even have dinner on the boat, if you’d like. John provides a light snack from the Gig Harbor General Store, but also allows you to bring along your own food or drink (and that includes a bottle of wine).
“I think the gondola ride adds an extremely unique addition to other date night options. It’s perfect before or after dinner or a movie. It’s simply romantic,” he adds. But at the same time, gondolas aren’t just for couples. Getting out on the water can be great for families too. “I’ve had quite a few families on board, and the kids all seem to enjoy themselves too, especially when we have a lot of wildlife around.”
Tours last for either an hour or an hour and a half and mostly stay within the Harbor, where you’ll enjoy views of Mount Rainier, the Gig Harbor Lighthouse, sailboats and marinas, multimillion dollar homes, and — often — wildlife as well. If there are kids on the boat, John makes a special effort to point out any seals, jellyfish, herons or other animals he spots along the way.
One of the first things that comes to mind when people think of gondoliers is an image of a gondolier in a red and white striped shirt singing “O Sole Mio” on the back of the boat —and, yes, John will sing to you if you request it. Originally, he did not sing, but one day he took an older couple out on the water. The couple reminisced to him about a time long ago when they took a gondola ride in Venice and how the gondolier sang to them. The woman asked John if he would sing, but he didn’t know the words to any songs. He felt bad and realized that, for some, singing could be a quintessential part of the experience. He’s learned several songs since, including “O Sole Mio.”
And if you go during the evening, you might have a few people joining in the fun — people passing by on sailboats or on docks often sing back to him.
“I find I bring out the Italian in everyone doing this,” John says.
The past year has seen John and Nelly grow from a brand new business on the block, to something just about everyone has heard of as he’s been featured in all kinds of publications. While winter slowed down for him, this year he feels like this winter will be steadier now that people know he’s there. For the holiday season, he likes to deck the boat out with lights and décor. For Halloween, he’s thought about donning a full carnival costume.
Down the line, if business continues to grow, he’s hoping to get a second gondola and possibly hire some other gondoliers. But for now, the business remains just him and Nelly.
The Gig Harbor Gondola leaves from the Gig Harbor Marina and Boatyard, but he’s also picked people up at some some Gig Harbor restaurants, such as Anthony’s, which has its own dock. You can book one hour for two people for $85 and $20 for each additional person. Or you can book a 90-minute cruise for $115 for two people or $20 for each additional passenger. Up to six people can fit on the gondola at a time.
Gig Harbor Gondola
Gig Harbor Marina and Boatyard
3117 Harborview Drive
Gig Harbor, WA 98335