Robert Dula has it down: the jaunty striped shirt, the flat-brimmed hat with its trailing ribbon, the long wooden oar used for navigating the traditional flat-bottom boat with its ornate decoration. But what the heck is a nice Cajun boy like Dula doing in a Venetian gondola in City Park in New Orleans?
First enamored by the romance of the gondola when he was a kid and watched the Bond flick Moonraker, which features plenty of Venetian action, Dula shelved his Italian fantasy for almost 30 years. His interest piqued again when he discovered Gondola di Venezia, an authentic Italian-trained gondola service on the Charles River in Boston.
After training in Boston, Dula, who's from Lafayette, traveled to Venice. There, he commissioned the building of his very own gondola. The 1,400-pound boat, hand-built in Italy, took six months to create, with its gingerbread of wooden carving and hundreds of feet of shiny brass trim.
Nola Gondola offers a romantic gondola tour in City Park — Photo courtesy of David Blaikie
Named Bella Mae after Dula's late mother, the boat was christened in Venice and shipped to America to get down to business. After Hurricane Ivan washed Dula out of Pensacola in 2004, he launched Nola Gondola in March 2005. Katrina and the flood happened, once again running the plucky Cajun's hopes aground.
Although he restored his gondola, it took almost five years after Katrina for the parks and recreation department in City Park to give him the green light to come back, and Nola Gondola was back in business in July 2010.
Although unnoticed by most park-goers, Bella Mae isn't just a floating prop. Dula offers 50-minute tours year-round, except in the heat of summer.
The private ride – which starts at $90, depending on the number of passengers – has a recorded Italian music soundtrack, or you can add live music for a little extra. There's also cheese, crackers and chocolate to nibble on, along with an ice bucket to chill bubbly or vino.
While up to six people can cruise, Dula most often captains for just two, with some 300 marriage proposals onboard to date.
And, really, what's not romantic about gliding in an honest-to-goodness gondola under the moss-draped live oaks and cypress groves of Bayou Metairie?