Of course, you can sample the feeling of exploring Italy by boat with a ticket aboard one of the countless day cruises that are offered throughout the country. If you're staying in Venice, for instance, there are afternoon tours of the Grand Canal that start at less than $100 per person. You can hop into a traditional day boat in Portofino — often with no reservation required — and enjoy a sunset cruise on Italy's western coast. Sailboats based on Sardinia will take you out for a few hours or even overnight, letting you help with the steering and sails along the way. Countless day boats are available for tours along the Amalfi Coast, as well.
Often, your best bet for a great day cruise is simply happening upon one. Most of the ports that regularly welcome tourists have a steady little industry of local boat owners who are more than happy to take you around for the fee advertised on their chalkboard or handout flyer. This is ideal for those “if-the-mood-strikes” moments, say after a romantic waterfront stroll when you still have an hour or two to wait before your dinner reservation in a nearby ristorante.
Beware of “great day cruises” that cab drivers or trattoria waiters suggest to you, unsolicited. Yes, if you ask, these local folks can often recommend a good boat trip that's a few hours long, but if they bring up the topic before you do, then they're probably getting a kickback from a local boat owner.
Venice Canal Tours
The obvious day cruise that most people want to enjoy in Italy is a ride along the Grand Canal in Venice. Expect to pay at least 40 per person for a pre-arranged tour on a decently maintained boat that's semi-private — say, limited to no more than eight people at a time (and not necessarily a gondola). The price of course goes up substantially if you want a boat all to yourself, even if you're only onboard for an hour or so, which is the general length of Grand Canal tours.
Gondola operators on the Grand Canal in Venice know they have a captive audience in tourists, just like the drivers of horse-drawn carriages around New York City's Central Park. A private gondola ride can cost at least twice as much as a semi-private boat tour — and the price goes up at sunset, the most romantic time of the day, often to more than 100 per hour.
Also keep in mind that not all gondola tour guides speak English. That may be all right with you if you simply want to look around and enjoy the ambience, but be sure to ask in advance if you want an actual tour, with descriptions of what you're seeing, in a language that you can understand. Many English-speaking tourists visit Venice each year, so a good number of fluent gondola operators are available. Booking in advance through your hotel or travel agent is the best way to ensure that you'll get one of the better English-speaking guides.
How many gondolas are there in Venice? Estimates put the number at several hundred, down from a peak of several thousand during the 1700s, when they were a key form of public transportation. A few people still have private gondolas for transit purposes, just like motorbikes or cars in other Italian cities.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Some of the best boat “tours” are actually half- and full-day trips aboard scuba diving or snorkeling boats. Many operators will let observers, including spouses, go along at a deep discount to take in the sights above the waterline while you interact with the fishes below. Financially speaking, these types of day cruises can be a good alternative to “regular” tours, getting you a bit farther away from the hubbub of the primary tourist-boat routes.
There is good snorkeling and scuba diving around the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, of course, but true aficionados tend to head for the Cilento peninsula, which is southwest of Naples. There, you'll see towering cliffs in addition to blue grottoes, making for excellent memories whether you're going underwater or staying dry on the boat.