The Romatic Life of a Gondolier

Robert DulaCelebrating Life, Celebrating Love

Imagine this idyllic setting: floating around in a lagoon, enjoying the beautiful weather of the Emerald Coast, meeting new people, watching romantic couples, listening to lively music and relaxing. It’s a typical day at work for gondolier Robert Dula, owner of Gondolina Emeraldi, a gondola concession that operates in the lagoon of Sandestin’s The Village of Baytowne Wharf.

A native of Lafayette, La., Dula has had a lifelong fascination with boats of all types.

“One of my childhood dreams was to have a gondola after watching James Bond 007 Moonraker,” Dula said.

Dula learned the art of the gondola in Venice, and on his tours he wears the traditional attire – a striped shirt and straw hat. His handcrafted boat, Bella Mae, is made from eight different woods, and its simple, sleek shape and character invite romance and relaxation. Who wouldn’t want to be wined and dined, and genuinely charmed, by picturesque scenes while listening to relaxing music with that special someone?

Gondola rides last about 25 minutes. The price changes seasonally but generally is $10 per adult and $5 for children between the ages of 5 and 10. Children under the age of 5 and dogs ride free.

Dula recently spoke with Emerald Coast Magazine writer Erica Spivey about his rather unique profession.

EC: Where and when was your gondola built?

RD: Bella Mae was handcrafted in a Venetian boatyard owned by an American boat builder named Tom Price. She was completed in early 2004. She is a tribute to my mother. When she was being constructed, I had the craftsman carve my mom’s name in the woodwork on the top of the boat.

EC: How many original Venetian gondolas are there in the United States?

RD: There are about two dozen original gondolas currently in the United States and only about 400 still in operation in Venice.

EC: Apparently several people have gotten engaged on your boat. How many?

RD: Twenty-four couples have been engaged on Bella Mae and two couples here in The Village of Baytowne Wharf.

EC: You have said before that you have the best job in the world. Why?

RD: I am living out one of my childhood dreams. Also, I feel like I get to give something back to humanity by promoting one of the world’s most precious natural resources – love. In addition, the people I get to meet, the beautiful atmosphere I get to work in, and – most importantly – the fact that I don’t feel like I am pursuing a job. Instead, I feel it is a calling for me to be a gondolier.

EC: You have had quite an adventurous experience operating gondola concessions. What have you witnessed during your career as a gondolier?

RD: I started my first gondola concession in Pensacola, Gondola di Pensacola, in March 2004, and then Hurricane Ivan came in September and I had to find a new place to operate my boat. After searching, I came across New Orleans and City Park, so I set up “Nola Gondola” there in March of 2005. And then six months later Katrina came and I found myself going through the same ordeal I went through with Ivan . . . sinking the boat to save her and riding out the hurricane.

EC: Does it take a lot of work to learn how to propel the boat?

RD: A fair amount of training is required. I spent two months practicing in Boston with gondolier Joseph Gibbons, and he has been my backbone through this whole adventure and has trained me a great deal.