A Venetian Gondola Ride…In New Orleans?

Lisa Fritscher April 14, 2011 2 Comments

New Orleans' City Park Gondola

New Orleans' City Park is a natural home for a gondola ride

New Orleans is known for many things, from world-class cuisine to a constant backdrop of jazz and blues music. But when Dad and I saw an authentic Venetian gondola plying the waters of City Park, it was a bit of a shock even for us jaded locals. We had the pleasure of a private sunset cruise on the NOLA Gondola last month.

About NOLA Gondola

New Orleans Bella Mae Gondola

The elegant Bella Mae

NOLA Gondola is currently a one-man operation that is doing a booming business. Gondolier Robert Dula became fascinated by gondolas as a child thanks to the James Bond film Moonraker. He told his mother at a very early age that his goal was to own one. In 2003, Robert finally got his chance. He commissioned a gondola from a company in Venice, naming it the Bella Mae after his mother.

Robert set up shop in Pensacola, Florida in March 2004, providing gondola rides to the public. But a hurricane named Ivan had other ideas. Shortly before Ivan made landfall in the early morning hours of September 16, 2004, Robert did the only thing he could–he actually sank the gondola, allowing it to ride out the storm underwater. While the Bella Mae survived beautifully, Robert’s home was not so fortunate. Faced with the utter loss of his home and the destruction of the tourism that fed his company, Robert relocated to New Orleans.

City Park Waterways

City Park provides a lovely backdrop

Filled with waterways and massive live oak trees, New Orleans’ City Park offers a stunning backdrop for a romantic boat ride. Robert reinvented his business as NOLA Gondola and began offering rides through City Park in early 2005.

In August 2005, Robert found himself reliving the horrors of the previous year. As a monster storm named Katrina set its sights on New Orleans, Robert again sank his beloved Bella Mae, this time near the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. Like many New Orleans residents, Robert decided to stay and ride out the hurricane. It was a decision that would turn him into a local hero. Although Robert downplays his role in the aftermath of Katrina, the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes on record, the entry he wrote for The Gondola Blog cannot be denied.

Robert Dula New Orleans

Robert Dula became a hometown hero during Katrina

Like everyone else who rode out the fateful storm, Robert believed that the city had been spared by the storm’s last-minute wobble to the east. After a day spent clearing downed trees with a chainsaw, he went to bed early on August 29, 2005. Awakening at 3 a.m., he realized that his home was starting to fill with water. After moving what possessions he could salvage to his second floor balcony, Robert set out to see what he could do to help.

Over the course of the next six days, Robert participated in the rescue effort with his brand-new kayak, and used the walkie-talkie feature on his cell phone to stay in touch with a gondolier contact in Boston. The phone link became a lifeline for friends and strangers who were unable to get in touch with loved ones outside the city. Robert faithfully collected phone numbers and relayed them to his Boston friend, who in turn made a seemingly endless chain of calls to update family members on their loved ones’ status. Robert’s rescue efforts culminated in the evacuation of his neighbors and their two large dogs. A helicopter swooped down to plunk everyone off the roof, but it was Robert who slung the dogs over his shoulder and carried them up a ladder through the attic and onto the roof.

Robert left with the group and ended up taking the last seat on a random flight. He did not know until he was on the plane that the destination was Denver, Colorado. He spent two weeks in the barracks at Lowry Air Force Base, and has only glowing praise and rave reviews for his hosts and the people of Denver. But as soon as New Orleans was ready for residents to return, Robert came home. His beloved Bella Mae had weathered the storm admirably, and he was ready to get back to work.

The NOLA Gondola Experience

Bella Mae Gondola

The Bella Mae was commissioned from Venice

The Bella Mae seats up to six guests. A fabric-draped loveseat is perfect for two, while elegant chairs are available for the rest of the group. Robert provides cheese triangles, crackers and chocolates for all guests. You are welcome to bring your own alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages, and an ice bucket is available on request. Blankets are provided when the weather is chilly.

New Orleans Gondola Safety

Robert keeps life jackets for infants as well as adults

Safety is taken very seriously, and Robert keeps the gondola stocked with life jackets in a range of sizes from infant through adult. He provides a steadying hand during boarding and disembarking, and carefully loads the boat to provide an even distribution of weight.

Classical music offers a romantic backdrop on cruises for two, but Robert is happy to play whatever CDs your family provides. He also has a small lineup of specialty music, including a version of “Happy Birthday” featuring dogs barking the song, so be sure to ask!

At 1300 acres, City Park is nearly twice the size of New York’s Central Park. The waterways are quite extensive, spreading out in multiple directions and snaking through the Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Bring your camera, as the views are nearly unparalleled, even in a city that is well-known for its natural beauty. The local wildlife is familiar with the gondola and often comes quite close. Robert knows a great deal about the animals and their daily habits, and is happy to point out various creatures.

Tips for Parents

Sculpture Garden City Park

Travel through the Sculpture Garden on your ride

NOLA Gondola has become popular for birthday parties and other kids’ events. Robert is good-natured and happy to work with any particular theme or experience that you can dream up. He told us that pirate parties go over well with many kids, while others prefer to dress up and have an “elegant” experience. You know your kids best, so don’t hesitate to involve Robert in your plans.

Make sure that your kids are comfortable in and around the water before your ride. The gondola rides low, and you can definitely feel the motion of the boat. Although Robert is an excellent gondolier, excess moving around and playing could cause the boat to capsize. Remind your kids to stay seated throughout the cruise.

If anyone in your group is disabled, let Robert know when you make the reservation. The normal dock requires two steep steps down, first onto a chair and then into the boat itself. An alternate dock is available with a smaller step into the boat. Robert is happy to assist with boarding in any way possible, but it is best to bring an able-bodied companion that can help with transferring into the gondola.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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2 Comments to “A Venetian Gondola Ride…In New Orleans?”
  1. avatar New Orleans Museum of Art - A Favorite with School Groups says:

    [...] Park’s noted waterways. We actually saw the bulk of the Sculpture Garden during our cruise on NOLA Gondola, but all sculptures are accessible by foot as well. A small donation is requested, but not [...]

  2. avatar bhupendra pratap singh says:

    “…I was about to take the first test shot when I heard a voice “Gondola ride, sir?” I turned and saw a young man, mid 30s, wearing the traditional gondolier’s red striped shirt and straw hat…”