A Touch of Venice on the St. Croix
John Kerschbaum’s Gondola Romantica offers the ultimate Venice experience on the St. Croix River. Photo courtesy of John Kerschbaum
When you think of Stillwater, chances are you’re not picturing authentic Venetian gondolas making their way gently down the St. Croix River. But maybe you should.
Couples have enjoyed the romantic sway of the boats at Gondola Romantica for 20 years, and founder John Kerschbaum has seen everything from proposals and first dates to bachelorette parties and 50th wedding anniversaries.
“The boat has a way of slowing you down to the pace of the river,” he says. “It’s a magic ride.”
After spending summers in his 20s trimming trees and guiding people along the boundary waters in canoes, Kerschbaum was inspired by an image of a gondola in a magazine to bring the Venetian tradition to Stillwater.
“These boats were built in Venice, Italy—they’re the real thing,” he says, describing the craftsmanship that’s passed on from generation to generation. “The hard part to really duplicate is the asymmetric design. The port side is longer and rounder; the starboard side is shorter and straighter. So, the boat leans to the right. That does two things: it makes it easier for me to steer and makes it so it won’t tip over like a canoe.”
According to Kerschbaum, trying to imitate 1,000 years of craftsmanship results in a boat that doesn’t handle the same—and that’s important. “You feel everything the gondolier does with that oar,” he continues. “It represents the beauty and romance of old Venice.”
Part of that allure of Venice has transferred to Stillwater. Traditionally, when you’re in a gondola and go under a bridge, you’re supposed to kiss. That originated in a time when it wasn’t appropriate to show affection in public, but under a bridge was considered a private area where you could sneak a kiss.
“When you took your sweetie on a gondola ride, you’d pick a route with as many bridges as possible,” Kerschbaum laughs. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but rumor has it that if you kiss under the Stillwater bridge on a gondola, it’s true love forever. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but hey!”
Ultimately, your Gondola Romantica experience is whatever you make it. You have your choice of packages ranging from a simple 45-minute cruise down the river to the “Gondola Elegante” package that includes a five-course meal at Stillwater’s riverside Dock Cafe, a red carpet, roses, and a gondolier in traditional 16th century garb. Plus, custom packages are available for special occasions.
Offering cruises from May to the end of October, Kerschbaum says there is no bad time of year—just different experiences. In the spring, when the leaves are just starting to bud and the water is high, there’s not as much traffic on the river, resulting in a quieter ride. The fall brings crisp air and autumn colors that are perfect for snuggling under blankets on a cool October night.
“I tend to like the later night rides when the wind is down,” Kerschbaum shares. “Sometimes you have the river to yourself and the water is like glass. The night lights of Stillwater reflecting off the river is stunning.”
While you’re in Stillwater, Kerschbaum suggests making a day (or weekend) of it. A lot of his gondola riders spend the night in one of the beautiful bed and breakfasts the town has to offer. Others enjoy browsing the antique shops or renting a bike and exploring the trails.
But Kerschbaum’s must-do is a Stillwater icon. “I tell everybody that comes to town, if you’re interested in history at all, do the trolley tour,” he says. “You can see all the historical sites, hear about the booms and the busts, and ask any questions you might have about Stillwater.”
However you spend your time in Stillwater, Kerschbaum will make sure you enjoy your time on the river. Whether it’s singing a song or two, helping coordinate a proposal, or just fading into the background while you enjoy your time on the gondola, Kerschbaum has seen and done it all. “You get a lot of sweet moments with people as a gondolier,” he says. “It’s my job to facilitate an experience.”