Sometimes you can’t just visit a place — you need to immerse yourself in it. We found this to be true in Venice, Italy.

Venice has been a destination on our bucket list, and we made the trip on our own charter boat. The city, as everyone knows, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for its more than 500 canals. There are no cars, no trucks, not even bicycles or scooters. There are only two methods to get around: by foot or by water.

We walked the entire length of the city in a day, twice. And, predictably, we were fascinated by the narrow streets, old buildings, and bustling activities.

Of course, we did a gondola ride. And, who wouldn’t when in Venice, even if it is 80 euros, or approximately $90, for a half hour?

But, we never really would have gotten the true flavor of the city had we not shown up on our own boat that we piloted ourselves. We really got to feel the vibe and see from the water just how the place functions. Deliveries of supplies to all the stores and restaurants are made by boat. Taxis are boats. UPS and DHL deliveries are via boat. The buses are boats. In fact, the only things you’ll find in Venice with wheels on them are delivery carts. This makes Venice a city like no other, unless you take into account the surrounding islands and their little cities.

Our itinerary included visiting Venice, Murano (famous for glass making), Burano (known for its lace making), and several barrier islands that form part of the coastline of the Adriatic Sea.

The first afternoon after our orientation and test drive, we slowly cruised from the yacht base through quiet waters filled with nature and interesting views into the Italian way of life along the coast. Harvesting the bounty of the sea is part of the lifestyle here, and there are many fishing villages and boats to see along the way. Clamming sites are staked out in the shallow areas of the lagoon.

We saw boaters plying the water using the same method of poling their boats gondoliers use. We followed along the inner side of the barrier islands, where little towns full of colorful buildings delighted the eye and the ties to their religion were made obvious by the many “Ave Maria” signs and ribbons hanging from buildings.

Throughout this part of Italy, there is a simplicity to the way of life, which we witnessed in Pellestrina, the first small town where we spent the night.

We were able to dock along the quay in front of the Catholic church and walked to a local restaurant that served a variety of fresh seafood harvested that day. Spaghetti served simply with fresh clams, olive oil, and fresh parsley, whole grilled fish, grilled sardines, and shrimp, with salad and polenta, were some of the delicious meals offered that night. The locals were very pleasant and used to catering to tourists, but the town was very quiet, even on a Saturday night. The locals were going about their usual activities, like walking their dogs. Boys were kicking around a soccer ball.

The next day, we set off for Venice, which is truly unique among European cities. It is filled with beautiful architecture, works of art, sculpture, museums, shopping, leather goods, and delicious food. It is a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds.

Insider tip: Plan to see Venice while you are young enough to walk a lot, since there are restrictions on the boats allowed to ply the canals.

We moored for two nights in a very quiet, clean, and safe marina situated in a lovely residential area in the southern part of Venice. Our yacht did not have air-conditioning, which enticed us to sleep beneath the stars on the top deck, where the sound of the gentle lapping of the water around us lulled us to sleep. The breeze kept us cool and also kept any mosquitos away. We will never forget those nights, and it is an experience you could not find through any other means.

After two days and nights of fully exploring Venice, with all of its boats, neighborhoods, shops, canals, and bridges over green-blue water, we sailed a short distance to Murano, famous for its glass. Colorful buildings and delicious pasta and seafood greeted us. We were absolutely amazed by the variety of the handmade glass items to be had: chandeliers, vases, jewelry, and kitchen and household goods. Everything under the sun was produced in colorful, dazzling glass by artisans who love this centuries-old craft.

Burano was next, with its handmade lace making, a nearly lost art, and even more brightly colored homes of fisherman and artisans. The row houses are decorated this way, the legend goes, because it allowed the fisherman to tell their houses apart.

Many other islands dot the lagoon, full of ancient history, waiting to be explored.


Do-it-yourself adventure

While it’s nice to live vicariously and enjoy the benefits of other people’s adventures, nothing beats doing it on your own.

No prior boating experience? Actually, that’s not a really big deal. If you have the cash or credit, and it really isn’t that much, you will be briefed in basic operation and basic navigation, and then placed on a boat designed for ease of use.

The boats only go about as fast as an average human can run, about 10 mph. They are surrounded by bumpers, almost like floating bumper cars, and everyone else with experience can see it’s a rental boat and pretty much stays clear. The trickiest part is parking, and you just take it slow.

The staff at the marina will spent a great amount of time training you, helping with your itinerary, and providing helpful tips. They truly custom build the plan for your trip and your comfort and skill level.

Our advice? Ask questions, repeatedly if necessary, to make sure you understand everything. Don’t just say yes to be polite. Have at least two people attend the briefing — one will likely remember what another may have forgotten. Take notes, too. Have one person drive, while another makes the navigation decisions. In other words, the captain makes sure that the ship doesn’t hit anything and is safely going on the correct trajectory while the navigator reads the maps and offers directions — “Head straight toward the lighthouse and bear left where that sailboat is right now,” for example.

Our boat was an 11.8-meter (about 40 feet) Penichette, equipped with three bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen with stove, oven, sink, refrigerator, and freezer, interior driving station, and a dining room table. On the upper deck, we had a sun cover, seating for about eight, and driving controls, as well as plentiful sun lounging area. It was just like a floating camper, allowing you the freedom to visit many different areas, with all of the conveniences you need, at the pace you desire.

This is great for having lots of time to bond as a family, sharing the experience of navigating the water, experiencing a new country and culture, and, at the end of a day of touring, relaxing on board your own private home-away-from-home. It is an amazing trip to take with another couple — or more, depending on the size of the boat you rent — allowing some cost sharing. All things considered, it can be a very economical holiday when all the costs of a hotel, food, and transportation (no need to take public or private water taxis to explore the Venice lagoon and surrounding islands) are tallied up and compared to renting a canal yacht for the week.

What to rent

There are multiple boat sizes from which to choose, with a variety of layouts. Most come with two to four bedrooms, each with its own bathroom (complete with a shower and plenty of hot water). We like the type that has a bridge on the top deck, as well as inside, where the fresh air and scenery can be enjoyed by captain and the crew alike.

In addition to Venice, there are a wide variety of locations in Europe that are available to explore by canal yacht. The time of year is also something to consider. Summertime is the most popular, and therefore the time with the highest fees, but we have found the spring and autumn to be very beautiful (and cooler) times of year to visit, as well as less expensive. The crowds fade away, the hustle and bustle diminishes, and people relax, enhancing the experience of meeting the locals.

Insider tip: Pack a small electric fan or two for summer trips.

For more information on a variety of countries, boats, and locations for your holiday, visit Bon voyage!

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