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.
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.
Hotel Gritti Palace
The Gritti has the most seductive breakfast terrace in Venice-I know because I've tried them all. Tables are set on a handsome deck built over the Grand Canal at an ideal distance from Piazza San Marco: close enough for a spontaneous promenade around the square, but not so close that you're sucked into the vortex created by the inevitable crowds.
As you sit on the Gritti's deck, the only thing that comes between you and the lapping water is a phalanx of flower boxes with white geraniums. Crisply striped chair pads match the awning, and finches skitter up to your bread basket, though the croissants, filled with apricot jam, are too good to share even a crumb. Two nearby vaporetto stops ensure just the right measure of animation. And the views of the church of Santa Maria della Salute are heart-stopping. If Baldassare Longhena had given eyelashes to the Virgin that crowns his Baroque masterpiece, a guest enjoying uova strapazzate on the Gritti terrace would be able to make them out.
Named for the 77th doge of Venice, whose home it was in the 16th century, the Gritti is the most purely Venetian hotel in town, with a va-va-va-voom opulence that leaves you slightly woozy. You like damask?The Gritti's got damask. You like brocade?The Gritti's got brocade. Gilt, marble, ancestral portraits?Right this way. Confectionery Murano glass, with rosettes like translucent buttercream?Certo. In spades. La dolce vita, it seems, means never having to say basta.
Opulence as practiced at the Gritti is the real thing. It's not interpreted, it's not digested, and heaven knows it's not watered down. The style of the 99 guest rooms reflects the beauty-for-beauty's-sake way in which the doges lived. Dozens of hotels in Venice offer vulgarized assembly-line versions of the look. At more than $500 a night in high season, the Gritti isn't giving anything away. But you get what you pay for.
Service is precisely what you'd expect from such a pedigreed institution. You know the way some concierges treat guests like idiots, shielding them from the place they have traveled thousands of miles to experience?Well, not the Gritti. How could I ever forget Maurizio, who talked me out of taking a water taxi to dinner, explaining that the restaurant could be reached easily (and for a tenth of the cost) by vaporetto and on foot?As a dividend, I saw a pocket of the city I would otherwise have missed.
At every other hotel I stayed at in Venice, it was the Gritti's subtlety I missed. When serving fruit, the kitchen goes to the exquisite trouble of arranging a knife between the tines of a fork. And there's a dedicated check-out desk, where you can study your bill in privacy. How civilized.
The Gritti let me down just once, when my shutters jammed against the stone sill, obscuring what I could see of the Grand Canal. As any hotelier will tell you, there are only three things that count in a guest room here: the view, the view, and the view. How does the saying go again-nothing's perfect? Hotel Gritti Palace, San Marco 2467, Campo Santa Maria del Giglio; 800/325-3589, fax 39-041/5200-0942; doubles from $522.
La signora from Texas was not amused. "Did you hear that crash this morning?" she asked. "I thought the whole building was coming down."
La signora wasn't kidding. At sunrise a boat had shouldered up to the Danieli, which occupies a hectic stretch of Grand Canal real estate east of Piazza San Marco, to collect what sounded like thousands of empty Prosecco bottles. They seemed to fall from a great height.
You don't have to be clairvoyant to imagine the foibles of living in Venice, which is not just an island, but an island with an irrational web of waterways. The Danieli has asked municipal authorities to wait until, say, 8:30, when most guests are awake, for glass to be taken away. But it's a losing battle.
The front-office manager explained that one way Venetians survive their city is by focusing on the trade-offs: the canal that brought the garbage boat also carried serenading gondoliers, who could have been singing just for me, and someone else had to pay for one of La Serenissima's most famous treats.
With glancing views of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Danieli is long on treats. Like the Gritti, it's folded into a (14th-century) doge's residence. And yet the two hotels could not be more different. Where the Gritti is intimate, the Danieli is sprawling. Where the Gritti has a residential feel, the Danieli is baronial. Where the Gritti is twinkling, the Danieli is moody.
The Danieli's 233 rooms speak to customers with an appreciation for high, coved ceilings, trompe l'oeil marble panels, and walls painted blush pink. Though there are plenty of regulars for whom only the original Gothic palazzo will do, its annexes have their fans, even if the Casa Nuova is only 19th-century (not Venice's greatest architectural moment) and the later Danielino has a dour faÁade. Americans are said to prefer the additions, which are linked to the main building by covered bridges, because the rooms are generally larger. And only the Danielino offers proper terraces.
It's the thought of how fabulous the Danieli could be, but isn't quite, that produces a sigh. Breakfast is a feeding frenzy, and the atrium lobby has the atmosphere of a train station. With up to 445 people under its roof, this is one hotel that is not in control of its numbers. Still, there's hope. At 12:03 p.m. I gave a still-wet-behind-the-ears concierge a map and a list of 17 shops and restaurants to be pinpointed; at 12:06 I had my map back, duly marked. Hotel Danieli, Castello 4196, Riva degli Schiavoni; 800/325-3509, fax 39-041/520-0208; doubles from $350.
Four more in venice . . .
Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal
San Marco 1325, Calle Valleresso; 800/457-4000, fax 39-041/520-0501; doubles from $334. English art historians and American gallery owners love this 50-room gem for its unforced Venetian vibe, old-world understatement, location across the calle from Harry's Bar, value (a five-star establishment, almost, at four-star prices), and no-groups policy. The restaurant doesn't just serve the best hotel food in Venice; it serves some of the best food in the city.
Grand Hotel dei Dogi
Fondamenta Madonna dell'Orto 3500; 39-041/220-8111, fax 39-041/722-278; doubles from $281. Before this blissfully removed palazzo opened in 1998, travelers were out of luck if they wanted luxury accommodations away from the percolating atmosphere around Piazza San Marco. The Dogi is tucked in the northern part of the city and - unlike every other Venetian hotel of note - looks across the lagoon to the mainland. Home to the French embassy in the 18th century, the hotel also has a landmark garden. The 68 guest rooms are a bit over the top, but then, why not?
II Palazzo at the Bauer
San Marco 1459, Campo San Moisé; 800/223-6800, fax 39-041/520-7557; doubles from $557. Visionary Francesca Bortolotto Possati altered the hotel landscape in Venice last year after spending $38 million to create a separate boutique property within the workaday Bauer. A church-and-state policy gives the two hotels separate entrances, reception areas, and concierges. Planted on the Grand Canal, Il Palazzo was coaxed out of an 18th-century residence with a dazzling Gothic faÁade. But while certainly comfortable, the underaccessorized guest rooms fall just short of the mark. Pensione Accademia "Villa Maravege" Dorsoduro 1058, Fondamenta Bolliani; 39-041/521-0188, fax 39-041/523-9152; doubles from $150. If every pensione in Venice was as beautiful and well-run as this, there'd be no need for hotels. How do you improve on a 17th-century palazzo (which once housed the Russian embassy), 30 spick-and-span rooms, a right-on-the-Grand Canal location, and a vast garden?At these prices, you can't afford not to see Venice.