A man and woman are jogging on a path along Big Lake in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. The guy pulls up short at the sight of Robert Dula’s 36-inch-long sleek black gondola moored to the boat rental dock and bobbing ever so gently in the water.
“That’s a real life, honest-to-goodness Venetian gondola,” the woman says, proud of being able to bring her man up to date. “I’ve talked to the gentleman who offers rides in it. He had it made in Venice.”
“I’ll be damned,” the guy says.
Robert Dula is the owner of Nola Gondola. He decks himself out in gondolier garb most days and paddles clients around the lagoons as Dean Martin or Andrea Bocelli warble Italian love songs from an onboard CD player. “At first I tried singing, but the passengers wanted to throw me overboard,” Dula says. To keep things authentic, the enterprising gondolier offers cheese and crackers to his riders, suggests they bring a bottle of vino aboard and has added an “O” to the name on his jacket. “Roberto, Roberto,” Dula says several times. He lets the name roll off his tongue for effect. “It’s easy to sound like you’re an Italian with a name like Robert. Just add an ‘O.’ It’s a great business! I couldn’t think of doing anything else!”
So how does a Lafayette native, trained in the fine art of welding, wind up making like a Venetian gondolier, paddling lovers and the just plain curious around the City Park lagoons in a sleek, handmade gondola for a living?
“When I was a kid, I saw the movie Moonraker with James Bond zipping through those canals in Venice in a souped-up gondola,” Dula says. “I told my mother right there that one day I was going to get a boat just like the one James Bond had. Don’t you know that stuck in my mind and, over the years, it became an obsession with me. Well, I have to admit, in time I kind of forgot about it. Then, about 10 years ago, I bought my first computer and for some reason, one of the first things I Googled was ‘gondolas.’ I was turned on to a man named Joseph Gibbons who has a gondola concession up in Boston. He offers rides on the Charles River up there. Joe saw my passion for this so he invited me up to see his operation. I was hooked.”
Dula struck up a friendship with Gibbons. That friendship grew into a partnership and, in 2003, the gondolier wannabe from Lafayette commissioned the building of his Bella Mae, named after his mother. In fact, his first business was named La Bella Gondola.
Dula began the business in Huntsville, Ala., but ran afoul of one important factor of business: Location! Location!
Location! The folks there just didn’t line up at the dock for rides in Bella Mae.
What Huntsville couldn’t appreciate, Dula thought, Pensacola would surely fall in love with. After all, the Florida city seemed like a perfect spot for a gondola: lots of water, sunshine and mature folks yearning for remembrances of that honeymoon trip to Venice 30 years ago, right?
Yes – except for one thing: Hurricane Ivan, which devastated a big chunk of Florida and Robert Dula’s business in 2004.
“About five months after starting the business in Pensacola, Ivan hit,” Dula says. “My only thought was saving my gondola. I was anchored in a bayou in about 10 feet of water. So I took all the decorations out of the boat, filled it with concrete blocks and let her go to the bottom. Then I secured her to a big cedar tree on the bank and let her rest there on the bottom until the storm surge came through … the same storm surge that took my home and place of business. Twenty-four hours later, I dove down and got the blocks out of the gondola and up she floated. I bailed her out, cleaned her up and moved here to New Orleans in March 2005.”
Six months later, of course, Katrina came calling and it was “sink the gondola” time all over again.
“This time I sank her in a lagoon behind the museum over there,” Dula says, referring to the New Orleans Museum of Art. “She rested there for a month until I was able to finally get back into town. I was going to ride the storm out in my apartment over on Allard (Boulevard, across from City Park). When the water started rising, I moved upstairs to my landlord’s office, then finally on to the roof. I was able to survive for six days on ‘Meals Ready to Eat’ (MREs) left over from Ivan.”
Dula also shared the MREs and bottled water by kayaking from house to house in his neighborhood, handing out the boxed food to people stranded by the water.
After six days, a military helicopter whisked Dula off his roof and to a waiting jet where he and 200 other Katrina evacuees were flown to Denver. One month later, Dula and a buddy hacked their way through the fallen trees and foliage of City Park to the lagoon where they once again hauled the Bella Mae to the surface.
“I took her to Lafayette and spent three months restoring her,” 54-year-old Dula says. “Since then, the city of New Orleans has come back, City Park has come back … and hey, I’m back.”
And since he’s been back, Dula and the Bella Mae have more than held their own.
“Initially, I think there was some skepticism. But once they saw the boat and how nice it was, they welcomed me with open arms.”
And though nobody would mistake a lagoon at City Park for the Grande Canal in Venice, there’s something about two people in the Bella Mae as it quietly glides over the calm waters on a moonlit evening as Dean Martin sings “That’s Amore,” pressed lovingly onward by a jug of wine that brings people together.
“Since bringing the boat over from Venice, I’ve witnessed 153 guys get down on one knee and propose to their girls, right here in the Bella Mae,” Dula says. “All 153 women said ‘yes’. So I must be doing something right, wouldn’t ya say?”
Dula won’t take the Bella Mae out in inclement weather or if the winds pick up past 15 miles per hour. When this happens, as it does on this evening, Dula uses the downtime to return telephone calls from prospective riders.
“Yes ma’am,” he says to a woman caller who’s trying to set up a first anniversary trip on the boat. “Good thing you called when you did. I’m booked solid right up to then. But you and your husband will be on the Bella Mae on your anniversary. And I guarantee, you’ll have a great time. What’s that? Sure, bring along a bottle of your favorite wine.
It’ll only add to the evening.”
Meanwhile Cynthia Migliore, a Mid-City native, is sitting home counting her blessings and promising to “make a novena of thanks” for her good fortune.
Italian to the core, Migliore always had a hankering to visit her ancestral home of Italy. Long had she envisioned St. Peter’s, the Vatican, the Colosseum, the art of Milan and Florence … and in her mind it would all be capped off with a meandering romantic ride down the canals in Venice.
Alas, while stepping off a tour bus at the catacombs in Rome, Migliore fell and injured her leg, thus ending her tour and forcing her to say arriverderci Italia before flying home from Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome, never having made it to Venice and her ride in a gondola.
When she heard about the Bella Mae, the retired legal secretary could only assume it was a miracle, and a novena of thanks was not only appropriate but necessary.
“If you can’t bring Cynthia to Venice,” says a friend, “you bring Venice to Cynthia.”
Migliore was last seen in Martin Wine Cellar picking out a bottle of red wine designed to turn a simple boat ride into la dolce vita.