Gondolier John Kerschbaum Brings a Touch of Venice to the St. Croix River

SCV local in the business of keeping romance afloat.
John Kerschbaum with passengers Patrick and Ashley Kurtz, practicing for the tradition of kissing under the bridge.

When John Kerschbaum paddles on the St. Croix River, the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy is never far from his mind. After all, that’s where the idea for his business, Gondola Romantica, all began.

Growing up in Afton, Kerschbaum always enjoyed camping and building forts along the river when he was young. On one of those summer nights, he noticed a falling star in the sky and made a wish for a canoe. Not long afterward, his wish came true.

“I went to the pond behind our house [with the family’s new canoe] and started going in circles for hours before I learned how to steer it,” Kerschbaum says. “I just loved being on the water. I spent a couple of summers just canoeing and it sure was a lot of fun.”

After graduating from Stillwater Area High School, Kerschbaum went on wilderness excursions, worked as a canoe trip guide in the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, and took a year to travel abroad. During that time, he also ran a small tree trimming operation to help support the cost of his travels.

Kerschbaum’s life changed when he saw a photograph of a Venetian gondola. The avid canoeist thought it would be the perfect boat to paddle on the St. Croix River. He considered building one of his own, but realized that it would be better to learn about the boat and the art of rowing the unique water craft by those who know best—Venetian gondoliers. He was off to Italy.

“I took lessons in Venice and ended up buying a gondola. I had it shipped back to New York, [transported] to Minneapolis, and then delivered by truck to Stillwater,” he says.

When Kerschbaum opened Gondola Romantica in 2001, word of mouth traveled quickly. “It was just one of those interesting stories that people liked to cover,” Kerschbaum says. “People saw us when they went over the Stillwater Bridge, talked about us, and KARE-11 News even ran a story on us.”

But the public’s reaction to seeing a gondola on the river has been priceless. “You see a lot of people running to take pictures,” Kerschbaum says. “The cutest thing I’ve heard, though, is when a kid said ‘Mom. Mom. Look! A pirate ship.’ And the people are touched when they see the boat because it represents the beauty and romance of old Venice and they’re touched again when they ride in the boat.”

Kerschbaum tries to offer packages that fits everyone’s needs. There are Full Moon and Sunset cruise specials, packages allowing customers to purchase picnics and dinners to enjoy before, during or after the ride, or cruises paired with a five-course meal from the Dock Café. But the true joy and fun for Kerschbaum is having the chance to celebrate and share in the memories that are made during the cruise.

“A good looking couple came down from the dock and I could tell the guy was a bit squirrelly,” Kerschbaum says. “I get them in the boat, take their picture and two minutes into the ride, this guy gets down on one knee and proposes. He was a nervous wreck. She said yes, and you could see him relax. It is days like that when you feel you have the best job in the world.”

And as for Kerschbaum, being able to give this experience to so many people is something he takes great pride in. “It’s not about me. It’s about the customers and the experience. We are creating memories that are bigger than life and it’s an honor to be a part of that.”

Gondola Romantica operates by appointment in the evenings (4 p.m.-1 a.m.
on weekends; 4 -11 p.m. on most other days), May through October,
weather permitting. Walk-up rides are available as the schedule allows.

Fun Facts

  • A gondola is 36 ft. x 4 ft.
  • It is made out of 8 different kinds of wood: larch, fir, oak, elm, cherry, mahogany, lime and walnut
  • These boats have evolved over 1,000 years
  • A gondola won’t flip over like a canoe—it will always right itself due to its asymmetrical design