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Luxurious Venice Hotels

Dredging the lagoon of Venice for gold--hotel gold--is serious business. That's because there's a lot at stake: Venice is one of those mythically romantic destinations many people spend their whole lives dreaming about, and when they get there they don't want to screw up where they lay their heads. Consider these classics, and you never will.

Hotel Cipriani
Arriving in the Venetian archipelago is no hardship - especially if you're staying at the Cipriani. A mahogany launch greets you at Marco Polo airport on the mainland for the 40-minute glide across the most famous lagoon in the world. The pilot looks like Montgomery Clift as imagined by Caravaggio, with a beauty mark that makes Elizabeth Taylor's seem insipid. Among your fellow passengers is a silky Omar Sharif type and his bodacious girlfriend, who's 19 if she's a day. The cabin has white frills at the windows and buttoned banquettes in that wonderfully bilious shade of green beloved by the doges. "Murano on your left," the pilot says casually, as if he were pointing out nothing more extraordinary than the Long Island Expressway, and your heart beats faster.

Does it get any better than this?Nobody thinks so. The Cipriani's throwaway talent as an enabler of once-in-a-lifetime entrances is married to an utterly unique location, one that will always make every other hotel on the lagoon an also-ran. The Orient-Express flagship is snuggled on the sleepy island of Giudecca, a five-minute boat ride from Venice's Piazza San Marco. As overheard on the free 24/7 shuttle between the hotel and the piazza, guests love having the city at their fingertips-and the assurance that they can avenge themselves on the throngs by escaping them. In a place that welcomes more than 10 million visitors every year, this is no small consideration. Guests retreat to the Cipriani's voluptuously scented gardens and Olympic-sized saltwater pool, as well as three restaurants and as many bars, features that make it more of a resort than a hotel. If Venice drowned tomorrow, I am quite sure people would still go to the Cipriani. Indeed, the Cipriani was a "destination resort"-reason enough for crossing the globe-long before the term was coined.

Though some find a number of the 106 guest rooms démodé, there are armies who would return for them alone. My own room in the original, 1956 building was done in a not-unpleasant style that resists classification: peach wall-to-wall carpeting, coppery mirrors, an eccentric seven-sided peach sofa, bamboo furniture, and walls upholstered in peach watered silk. (If I didn't like peach, I would've been in trouble.) The Ravolta Carmignani linen sheets were cuddly from years of laundering, though having the bed face away from the water is one of the great missed opportunities in the annals of hotel design. The bathroom, in red Verona marble, was filled with goodies that, for once, you could really use: nailbrush, toothpaste, volumizing hair gel! But I will never be able to get my head around rectangular toilet seats. Is there something I don't know?Are other people built differently than I am?

For those who require a bit of architectural distinction, two 15th-century annexes, the Palazzo Vendramin and Palazzetto Barbaro, have Byzantine windows, not to mention butler service. In T+L's World's Best Awards, this year the Cipriani placed sixth among European hotels.

Did somebody say "gold standard"?

HOTEL CIPRIANI, Giudecca 10, Fondamenta San Giovanni; 800/223-6800, fax 39-041/520-930; doubles from $535.

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