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Bridge Week at the Cipirani, Venice

More rain, day two. Augie boehm, wearing a needlepoint belt adorned with card iconography (kings and queens, hearts and clubs), is standing at the front of the room, as he does for the first 45 minutes of every morning, running through hands from the day before and fielding the occasional question. Raffaela Schirmer, the highly cultured widow of the classical music publisher, wants to know whether a certain play would be wrongheaded; Augie tells her no.

Melissa Hubner, Augie’s new bride (and maker of his marvelous belt), describes a killer play she’d made the day before. I naïvely ask if it was luck. "Luck?" she asks, removing her red sunglasses. "Hell, no. A zillion dollars’ worth of lessons, marrying your instructor—that’s not luck. That’s a lot to do for bridge."

The players resume their playing. The Hiegel table instantly falls quiet. A notably hard gust of rain lures Richard out of his brown study. "I didn’t know it rained like this in Venice," he says, staring out of the tent. "I thought everything was gentle. Gentle rain, gentle sunshine."

If you’re going to be trapped in Venice in the rain, though, you could do far worse than to stay at the Cipriani. The place is a rare combination of sprawling and manageable, relaxed and luxe; over the last half-century, everyone from Richard Nixon to Jennifer Lopez has contrived to swing through. It sits on the Giudecca island, across the lagoon from Piazza San Marco, and nearly all of the rooms face the water in some way (room No. 401, the favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, might possibly have the most exquisite view, a 360-degree wraparound—at $1,550 per night). Its grounds are fun to wander, even in the rain and the chill, encompassing a private vineyard, granaries, and several first-class restaurants (including Cip’s Club, which sits flush against the water). The gym and spa are state-of-the-art. On an especially nasty day, I opt for a treatment in which I’m slathered in oil, wrapped in towels, and propped aloft on a "zero gravity" bed. Perhaps most unusually, the hotel boasts the only Olympic pool in Venice; it also happens to be heated, meaning one can swim in it, as I did, no matter how uncooperative the elements.

Rusconi, an elegant man of 80 and a third-generation hotelier (during World War II, his father was arrested by the SS for harboring an antifascist poet in his hotel), joins us for dinner, regaling us with stories about famous clients, long deceased. "Diana Vreeland," he says at one point, referring to the fabled editor of Vogue, "got very angry when she wasn’t admitted into the dining room of the Grand Hotel in Rome."

What was the problem?

"Her dining companion, a young male model. He wasn’t dressed formally enough. His shirt had ruffles of some kind. A fluffy situation."

And Venice, it goes without saying, beguiles no matter what time of year and no matter how alta the acqua. The added benefit of seeing the city with this crowd, though, is that Bob Guthrie, the head of Save Venice, dedicates one of the afternoons to giving the group a tour of the structures and paintings his organization has helped to restore. The day he takes us around, it’s pouring rain, naturally, but he breezes right along, reeling off facts and figures. We wind things up at the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli; the group spent around $3 million to desalinate its limestone walls. Pool instructs us all to take one final step back and admire it, then breaks into applause. It’s harder for the rest of us to do the same—we are holding umbrellas. But not her. She has spent the entire afternoon in a chic navy blue hooded slicker. Never once has she reached for her umbrella, no matter how hard the rain.

Thursday night, our final evening. We have our gala dinner at I Granai della Repubblica, a warm and soaring space with mirrors and candles marching along the walls—a Venetian version of Hogwarts. At each of our place settings, a Carnivale mask awaits; the bouquets are rose and anthurium, a native Hawaiian plant that looks, appropriately enough, like a cluster of aces.

After a four-course meal, Augie stands up and announces the winners of the tournament: the Guthries. Rusconi’s son presents them with a vase of Murano glass. They accept it graciously, happily, though one imagines that their house must already be cluttered with dozens. Then a traditional quartet of Venetian musicians, all dressed as gondoliers, serenade individual members of the group—particularly Augie and Melissa, who’ve just been blessed in a wedding ceremony by a prominent local priest. We finish up the evening at the bar adjoining Fortuny restaurant, with Augie at the piano, singing a medley of bridge-themed parodies from Bridge to Broadway, which he produced and directed two years ago at the summer nationals of the American Contract Bridge League. (The finest number: "Overbidder," sung to the tune of "Old Man River.")

As we leave, I chat with the Hiegels. Though they finished second, they seem in fine spirits. "We were just in the museum—which was it?" Chris asks.

"Ca’ Rezzonico," Richard says.

"Yes, yes. And there was a painting of a very voluptuous woman about to drive a spike through—"

"—a man’s ear," Richard finishes.


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