The San Clemente Palace Kempinski offers everything you’d expect from a stylish European retreat. There is a mega-spa specializing in aromatherapy massages, a cabana-fringed pool and a sprawling sculpture garden. The rooms, situated in a renovated dusky rose palazzo, are all Murano chandeliers and creamy marble.
But there is one added amenity, by far the property’s most impressive. Although the San Clemente sits on its own private island, it isn’t floating far out to sea. Ten minutes away by boat shuttle is nothing less than Europe’s most sustained masterwork. Step off the boat, and you’re in La Serenissima, which is pretty much Italian for Venice.
The enticing double act — a state-of-the-art resort hanging off a venerable city — is part of a fairly recent boon that adds the one thing that Venice had been missing: island hotels that serve as tranquil refuges. Sure, the city is an overflowing treasure box. But it has also become a cruise-ship dump, clogged with tourists by day and boozy bachelorette parties by night. The unlikely mix of selfie sticks and gilded elegance can ultimately prove overwhelming if you can’t catch your breath. Now you can.
The classic Cipriani (opened in 1958, with exorbitant nightly rates) was one of the first properties lying safely off in the Venetian Lagoon. Recently, it has been joined by a new wave of island hotels that allow the best of both universes: the busy grandeur of Venice by day, and the lulling detox of a resort that lets you relax by night. Call it the best of the Old World and the new.
When I checked into the San Clemente for a fall weekend stay, I wasn’t yet ready to navigate Venice’s singular magic. Jet lag necessitates its own kind of detox, so I wandered through the sprawling garden, downed a Bellini, and slept off the red-eye flight.
I was fully alert the next morning for my big entrance into the whirl of Venice. And you need to be prepared. Approaching Italy’s jewelbox means accepting a kind of fever dream of unapologetic, defiantly baroque opulence. Though there’s another seam at work, as well. A city famous for the courage of its half-cracked convictions — even if that means planting itself on water — Venice offers more than old-school posturing. Imbued with a sense of theatricality, it also knows how to put on a flamboyant show, and just about every water-licked corner offers a performance designed to dazzle. Musicians bang away on grand pianos in the middle of the piazza. Waiters glide by in tuxedo jackets, ducking pigeons. Gondoliers artfully lounge against marble arcades like masters of chic, ribbons hanging from their straw boaters.
Piazza San Marco, the main square and one epic stage set, is the city’s most impressive first act, but then it’s best to shake the mobs and just wander. Because the city is really one running artwork, it’s hard to make a wrong turn; you’re never going to bump into some brutalist building that deflates the fantasy. But I like to map a route that follows some of the best Venetian masterworks, and that usually entails starting with a church because even the spiritual becomes a theatrical display of beauty in Venice.
This trip I stopped first at the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, a 17th-century showpiece built in somewhat begrudging gratitude for the fact that the plague had decimated only a third of the city’s population. The running puzzle in Venice is how many angels you can fit on a cathedral rooftop, though it’s easy to lose count at Santa Maria, where the facade is crusted with nymphs, seraphs and cherubs, plus plenty of saints for good measure. Inside there is one High Baroque gilded high altar and a Titian mural, depicting the descent of the Holy Ghost.
Inspired by that artistic appetizer, I headed on to the Gallerie dell’Accademia, where the halls are hung with an Italian Renaissance A-list of Tiepolo and Tintoretto canvases. It is Canaletto’s paintings of the Grand Canal, though, that echo almost perfectly the views outside, where the palazzos’ handsome bones are reflected in the brackish water.
All that beauty can lead to another aesthetic itch; you may want to take a chip of the gilded opulence back home with you. And that’s where Venice’s seductive display can turn pricey.
Every other shop window glints with glass chandeliers, handcrafted on the tiny Venetian island of Murano, their branches letting loose with garlands of flowers. Fortuny fabrics, the artwork of yet another island, cram the boutiques, hanging in swaged folds. Jewelry boutiques sell the kind of door-knocker-size brooches only a doge could carry off. But the treasure trail of singular souvenirs doesn’t have to crash your credit. Traditional Venetian crafts include some cheaper options, including the masquerade masks that pop up all over the city. Unhappily, too many of the current mask stores sell cheesy, dumbed-down versions, coated in glitter. But a few genuine artisanal workshops still exist, and on my second day in town I stopped at a favorite, La Bottega dei Mascareri, where the entire Boldrin family still hand-make their creations.
“We mold the head in plaster and then lay on the paper piece by piece. And then we paint,” said Rita Perinello, the matriarch, as she went to work with a brush. I debated between a cyclops and a winking Casanova before deciding on a gorgon, its mouth stretched open in something between a smile and a grimace. Also affordable: the sheets of marbleized papers stocked at every souvenir stand and the annual calendars of neophyte priests, posing like high-minded beefcakes.
Other island hotels
After enduring the inevitable din of tour groups on the Rialto Bridge, I was ready for a break and opted to take it at the JW Marriott Venice. Another recent resort, just one island over from the San Clemente, the JW flaunts a different vibe. If the San Clemente takes its aesthetic lead from the elegance of its landmark palace, the JW is all contemporary gloss. The airy guest rooms are white-on-white serenity, and the complex spreads out over its entire Isola delle Rose like a capital of cool, complete with four restaurants, three bars, a cooking academy, two pools, a mammoth spa, a kids’ club, an olive grove and some trendy boutiques. I debated between the sauna and hammam but finally settled for a spritzer in the rooftop trattoria, overlooking the lagoon.
The next morning, relaxed again, I decided to take a big bite out of Venice. The city has never been known for its food but that doesn’t mean you can’t graze through the day. Some of the best local cuisine comes dished up at the city’s neighborhood wine bars, where the range of cicchetti — Venice’s version of tapas — is one seductive smorgasbord. At Catinone Gia Schiavi, near the Accademia, squares of crostini, spread out on silver trays, come topped with swordfish, whipped cod, anchovies, Brie and pear. At the neighboring Toletto snack bar, the tramezzino sandwiches — made with triangles of soft white bread — are stuffed with prosciutto and provolone, olive and radicchio, artichoke mousse and mushrooms.
All that should whet your appetite for dinner, but then the choices are more oblique. The cafes framing Piazza San Marco may look beguiling, but it is best to keep walking. Recent news of a group of Japanese tourists who called police after being presented with a $1,000 bill for their spartan lunch, reflects the area’s high markups, though the jewel-box Florian Café is still worth a stop. But then move on to one of the more traditional back-street restaurants that are plating authentic versions of Venetian classics.
My favorite, this trip, was the Osteria Alle Testiere, an intimate 12-table seafood restaurant where everything was catch-of-the-day fresh, from the sweetest prawns to a meaty tuna.
On the last night of my trip, looking for the most dynamic, updated take on regional food, I headed to yet another archipelago hotel getting a lot of buzz recently. More of a jaunt than the JW and San Clemente, requiring a ferry (or water taxi) instead of a shuttle, the Venissa is also lower-profile (and cheaper) than its archipelago sisters. Situated in a refurbished waterfront monastery on the island of Mazzorbo, the property features Scandi minimalist guest rooms and a tranquil walled garden. The real draw, though, is its restaurant, staffed with young chefs recruited from Michelin kitchens. The training shows.
My dinner of raw scampi and green apples followed by ravioli stuffed with guinea fowl, and finally quail paired with bitter orange, was all understated drama; I would have happily slept it off in one of the hotel’s rooms if I hadn’t already been booked at the San Clemente.
My late-night return to the palazzo brought things full-circle. The San Clemente itself was about to shut down for the season; like most of the island hotels it is closed from November to March. But no one was ready to end the party on the al fresco waterfront terrace next to the palace’s own private church. So I grabbed a last Bellini and toasted the lights of Venice, glinting like a faint halo just across the lagoon.
Raphael Kadushin is executive editor at the University of Wisconsin Press. His travel and food writing appears in many outlets, including National Geographic Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler and the Wall Street Journal. He is the editor of three travel anthologies.