La Gondola in La Prov: Like Venice, but with fewer pigeons

Photo by Jen Bonin

Ah, Providence in the summer. The silhouette of the Superman building against the skyline, the cedar smoke from WaterFire dancing through the city, and the gondoliers gracefully rowing their boats across the Providence river, singing and guiding their passengers down its waterways.

Cue record scratch. Wait, what? Yeah, you don’t expect that last one — but seeing the beautiful boats from La Gondola on the water have become a pivotal part of our summers that not a lot of locals have tried — and you don’t even have to travel to Italy for the experience.

According to now-owner Matthew “Marcello” Haynes, La Gondola almost never happened in Providence. In the late 1990s a husband and wife duo were planning on taking their lives to Florida full-time, with a gondola that would float on the canals of Marco Island. But when their daughter came along, they were stuck full-time in Providence — with a gondola and a new baby. Unsure of what to do, they took to City Hall and met with then-mayor Buddy CIanci. (Come on, can you really have a story in Providence that doesn’t involve him?) Buddy loved the idea and asked the two what they needed — and when they told him that they needed a dock — he said that it was done. The rest, as they say, is history. Marcello came on in 1999 as a gondolier and never looked back.

The operation has grown to three gondolas and a single sondolo, which is basically the sports car of the gondola world. All of the boats were handmade in Venice, Italy, and imported to the United States. They are serviced regularly, and they are astoundingly beautiful up close.

A gondola ride with La Gondola is one of the most memorable things that you can do in Providence. Marcello stresses that each ride is different and customized to what its riders are looking for. A gondola ride is typically 45-minutes long and private to the party that books it. Each gondola can accommodate up to six people, with the sondolo accommodating two. The gondolier provides a bucket of ice for BYOB, Italian cookies and a deeply moving song, sung privately to the riders on the boat. There are currently 13 gondoliers in rotation.

The gondolas are there for every occasion. “We might have a family of five from Arkansas who are on a whirlwind tour of New England and only in Rhode Island for a few hours.” They also see date nights, family outings and give tours of this city that we all love. A few months ago, Marcello and one of his gondoliers even saw a double proposal, with each of the riders pulling out a ring to propose to the other at the same time. Having ridden on a gondola myself, it truly is a stunning experience, one that should be on every Rhode Islander’s bucket list.

La Gondola operates seven days a week, and not just on WaterFire nights, which is when most people see the gondolas. He wants every person who rides on the gondolas to have a unique and memorable experience. “We take very seriously that we’re ambassadors for the city and its people. This may be someone’s only experience in Providence, the only time they ride a gondola.”

As for Marcello and his goal for La Gondola? “[It’s] having someone say that they’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives… I mean think about it, we’re interacting for maybe an hour and we want to create a memory that they may have for their lifetime.”

A gondola ride can be booked by going to gondolari.com or by calling 401-421-8877, or you can always try your luck and just walk up, but booking ahead will guarantee a moment you’ll never forget.

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