Carry-on Adventures Episode 4: Venice from the Canals

Getting to, and from, the City of Water, the less traveled way

Story by Jeff Moag
Photos by David Jackson

Presented by Expedia.com

As soon as the idea for Carry-on Adventures began to take shape — C&K editors and filmmakers traveling around the world with kayaks that double as their own suitcases — we knew we'd end up in Venice. The kayaks would allow us to see a side of Venice most tourist never see.

I’d been there once in college, when my brother and I biked from Switzerland to central Italy. Bicycles were the perfect way to see the Italian countryside, but on foot in Venice we felt landlocked and lost. We did everything you’re supposed to do—minus the gondola ride which in those days cost 40,000 lira—but all these years later my strongest memory isn’t of St Marks or the Rialto Market. It’s of looking down a narrow canal and wishing I could follow it wherever it led me.

This time, I’d bring my boat with me, and spend three full days exploring Venice’s maze of medieval canals and the surrounding lagoon. I set just one ground rule: No Lonely Planet guides or must-see itineraries. We'd just explore in our kayaks. Every stop would either be a happy accident or a recommendation from a local.

Actually, there was a second rule. We had to kayak straight from the airport, across the lagoon and into the city. That part of the plan was just a little bit crazy, which made it irresistible to C&K Contributing Photographer David Jackson.

He was on the lake in Northern Ontario when I reached him and sketched out the plan. I’d spotted what seemed like a perfect place to launch the Oru kayaks, a water taxi and ferry stop just a short walk from the terminal. I could see the covered walkway on Google Earth.

David took no convincing, but the water taxi drivers sure did. The docks that looked so inviting on Google Earth were strictly off-limits, as one driver told us over and over until he took pity on the jetlagged kayakers stammering in bad Italian.

Mi giro” — I’m turning around — he said finally, covering his eyes dramatically. That was our cue to hustle through an unlocked gate. We found a lonely beach at the end of the runway, assembled the kayaks and shoved off. It was tough going into a strong headwind and contrary tide. The motoscafi zipped by, one after another, trailing huge wakes and the laughter of tourists having a much better time than we were. Venice was three miles away, into a tough headwind and contrary tide.

I’d found the perfect spot to stay, an old gondola boatyard-turned-bed and breakfast. Of course, when I called just two weeks before we arrived all three rooms were booked. The owner recommended we stay with his friends Giovanni and Christina. Their apartment was in the heart of Venice, on a side canal so narrow we couldn't turn the kayaks around in it.

By some miracle of memory and dumb luck, we found Giovanni and Christina’s place on the first try. They were so tickled when we arrived in our kayaks that they asked us to share their dinner. Giovanni prepared a perfect risotto, served with a primer on Venetian language and traffic patterns. He grew up in Venice and spent his youth rowing the canals. If turning left, he said, you shout out 'Oi, Prestando!' — Venetian for ‘I’m pushing,’ which, with a single oar on the right side of the boat, causes the vessel to turn left. ‘Stagando,’ or pulling, means to go right.

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The next day we paddle all over the city, hollering stagando! prestando! like a couple of kooks. Real Venetian watermen are a stoic lot. Even with multiple boats of every type crowding the narrow waterways, they know exactly where the other boats will go, and when. There’s no need for spoken communication; if you’re so dense that they need to clarify their intentions, they’ll raise an eyebrow and point with the cigarette in their lips.

We wander through the city's six neighborhoods—hip Cannaregio, hard-working Dorsoduro, touristy San Marco with its forest of selfie-sticks. Its wonderful to get lost in a place with so much to see. We stop for dinner, then paddle into the small hours of morning. Empty of traffic, the canals are smooth as black marble.

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Next morning, we pack up the boats and take a ferry to Torcello, a quiet island about eight miles north. It's impossible to separate Venice from the lagoon that has sustained and defended it for more than 1,000 years. Its also the source of Venice's distinctive cuisine, and we decide to enjoy a long slow meal here, where the seafood is fresher and prices lower than they would be in the city. We start with prosciutto and melon, then seafood pasta and finally fritto misto, a mixed plate of exquisitely cooked fish and other critters from the lagoon.

As we pack up to leave, we trade compliments with the waiter and chef—they like our kayaks, and we haven't eaten so well in years.

We paddle past the 7th-Century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the guesthouse where Hemingway wrote his bad novel. It's already evening when we paddle across to Burano, a fishing village famous for its pastel-colored houses. The light is perfect, and David, the photographer, slips into a state of manic creativity for the next couple of hours. We start back at sunset, crossing miles of shallow grass-flats on the cresting tide and enter the city by dark of night. Somewhere we miss a turn, and spend the next hour paddling in circles, and squares, and polygons.

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The next day is our last, and we decide to take it easy—shopping for a picnic, followed by some hammock time. We know just the spot, B&B allo Squero, the old gondola boatyard turned bed-and-breakfast.

Christina guides us through the Rialto market—the fruit-stand that only sells locally grown produce, the best bakery and cheese store. We stick to the plan—buy whatever our local friends recommend, no questions asked. We come away with three amazing cheeses, meats, cherries and a perfectly ripe melon. Our last stop is the wine store where they fill our plastic bottle with a liter of pretty good red for 3 euros.

We sling the hammocks and get a little rest. Our flight out leaves at 7:30 the next morning, which—counting back two hours to paddle to the airport, half an hour to fold the kayaks and walk to the ticket counter, and check in two hours before departure means a 3:30 a.m. start. So much for planning.

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Plan your own Carry-on Adventure to Venice at Expedia.com

— Watch Carry-on Adventures Episode 1: Escape from Las Vegas.

— Watch Carry-on Adventures Episode 2: Lake Nicaragua’s Forgotten Islands.

– Watch Carry-on Adventures Episode 3: Bangkok’s Floating Markets.