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Friday, October 19, 2012

The Belle sails again

After navigating some rough waters, the cruise boat is up and running.

AnneMarie Albergo (left) and Diane Brzeski on the roof of the Southern Belle.

Photos by SHERESE GORE | Laker Weekly

AnneMarie Albergo (left) and Diane Brzeski on the roof of the Southern Belle.

Inside the dining cabin of the Southern Belle, which can seat 35 passengers.

Inside the dining cabin of the Southern Belle, which can seat 35 passengers.

For two years she was shunned and cast aside, but the Southern Belle has picked herself up and brushed off her steel petticoats, according to owners Diane Brzeski and AnneMarie Albergo.

The vessel that once hosted book signings, business lunches and Red Hat Society parties once again is gracing the waters of Smith Mountain Lake.

Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Brzeski and Albergo have led very "water-centered" lifestyles during their more than 30 years of friendship. When a close friend and former Belle crewmate, Lori Ghiringhelli, moved to Virginia in 2000, Brzeski and Albergo soon followed. The trio became regulars at the former Camper's Paradise, and later purchased the 55-foot Skipperliner from the marina's owner in 2005.

The vessel once named Angelique was re-christened the Southern Belle.

"We figured it wouldn't get a lot of business if we called it the Yankee Clipper," said Brzeski.

For four years, the business flourished.

The yacht hosted weddings, cocktail parties and church groups. On two occasions, a local radio station rented the Southern Belle to stage a live production event.

"Between all of us, we really set the lake on fire," said Albergo. "Every year that we were out, we were more successful."

In 2007, the boat's home port of Camper's Paradise was sold to an investment group and renamed Sunset Cay. When that business declared bankruptcy in 2009, a period of limbo ensued for the Southern Belle.

Deprived of electricity, the crew had no means to charge the vessel's batteries. In addition, the foreclosing bank had installed a locked and sentried gate to the entrance to the property.

Respite for the Belle would manifest itself in the form of Todd Holcomb, then-owner of Smith Mountain Dock and Lodge. In 2011, the boat was towed to that marina; but salvation was threatened anew when Smith Mountain Dock and Lodge was sold at auction in 2012.

"We were worried, obviously," said Brzeski. "We were worried whether our newly found home was going to pull out from under us."

With Smith Mountain Dock and Lodge under new owners and stability on the horizon, the women are ready to return the boat to its glory days.

Brzeski is the Belle's captain, navigating the vessel through the lake's waters when not in port, and Albergo acts as the resident chef, bartender and event planner. Ghiringhelli is no longer affiliated with the Southern Belle.

The vessel features seating for 35 guests, as well as an onboard kitchen and rooftop accommodations. The boat can be rented out for sightseeing tours with meals provided during the voyage, or can be retained for dockside parties or private charters.

"We like to sit down with our customers and say, 'Alright, don't ask us ... tell us what you'd like us to do, and let's see how much of it we can," said Brzeski.

Sightseeing tours are priced at $20 per person with discounts for children and senior citizens. Autumn leaf-viewing tours are in the planning stages, and Albergo and Brzeski are preparing for the Southern Belle's upcoming Halloween celebration.

The crew is optimistic about the future.

"You know, timing makes champions, right?" said Albergo.

Southern Belle, 352-0873, southernbelleonsml.com

Southern Belle Halloween Celebration

What: Costume party. Prizes for best costume. Food.

When: Saturday, Oct. 27 from 7 p.m. to midnight

Where: Southern Belle, Smith Mountain Dock and Lodge, 300 Locust Lane, Penhook, Va. 24137

Cost: $20 in advance; $25 at door. Must be at least 21 years old with proof of identification.

Information: Southern Belle, 352-0873