Travel Review: Venice will float your boat

Opening a five-star luxury hotel in 2021, when the world was still living in lockdown, may have been a very brave decision.

But that was Italian hospitality brand VRetreats’ vote of confidence in Venice and its unique offering when it opened the five-star Ca’ di Dio waterfront hotel.

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After a stay in June, it was easy to understand why this oasis was such a success in its first year of opening under the guidance of its amazing manager, Christophe Mercier.

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He’s someone you need to talk to if you want to know the best places in Venice. When we asked for local insider tips on where to eat, he pointed us to a wonderful French restaurant (Salvmeria) nearby.

The 66-room hotel’s name is short for Casa di Dio, which means house of God. This is a nod to the history of the property, as this waterfront building has been an inn for pilgrims, an old people’s home and a women’s shelter since the 13th century.

Now it’s a mecca for tourists seeking 5-star luxury in Venice and an escape from the hustle and bustle of the busy narrow streets of this water town.

As one of the most romantic destinations in Europe and the world, couples flock to the floating city, but it also has so much to offer families.

Venice is divided into six districts, or sestieri, and is made up of 118 islands. The main part is divided by the Grand Canal and to get around everyone uses a vaporetto water bus. We flew Ryanair from Venice Treviso Airport, a journey that required a 45 minute waterbus ride to the bus station and then a 1 hour bus ride to the airport. However, Marco Polo Airport is much closer.

Ca’ di Dio has a water bus stop literally in front of the hotel so it couldn’t be more convenient for travelers. For those who prefer to travel by gondola, the hotel also has its own private dock.

High on every tourist’s tick-list are the major visitor attractions such as St. Mark’s Basilica and the Gothic Doge’s Palace (formerly the Doge’s residence and seat of the Venetian government), as well as a gondola ride through the Grand Canal and its waterways.

A gondola ride is of course a unique experience, but be prepared to set yourself back €80 during the day and €100 at night. However, the journey takes about an hour and the price is per gondola, making it cheaper for groups and families. The best way to see the city was on foot as you discover so much more, from churches and monuments to quirky bars and restaurants and great gelaterias to enjoy a wonderful Italian gelato.

From social media, you’ll recognize the 16th-century stone Rialto Bridge that towers over the Grand Canal. This is a particularly popular spot for selfies and the nearby market is well worth a visit.

Most tourists gather in St. Mark’s Square (a 10-minute walk from Ca’ di Dio), the city’s main and largest square. Napoleon reportedly called St. Mark’s Square “the drawing room of Europe”. St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most beautiful churches you will ever enter. Expect to see a multitude of mosaics as well as relics of Saint Mark himself. You can also climb the 323 steps to the top of St. Mark’s Tower (Campanile) for fantastic views of the city. They are so impressive that in 1609 Galileo used the tower to show the Doge his telescope.

As you might expect, food and drink prices can be more expensive in St. Mark’s Square than a few blocks away. However, coffee lovers reliably tell me that an overpriced espresso at Caffè Florian on the square is worth it. This will cost you €7. Known for its history, culture and baroque interior, the café has appeared in films such as The Talented Mr Ripley. Famous clients have included Clark Gable, Andy Warhol, Charles Dickens, Goethe, Lord Byron and even Casanova.

One thing you will notice in Venice is that the shops are full of glassware and masks – in fact, it seemed to me that many of them were selling the exact same things.

We ventured into a truffle shop on our travels that sold all kinds of truffle sauces, pastes and oils. La Bottega del Tartufo also offers a range of great gift sets with a selection of their different truffle products. We took some home and have been enjoying it ever since.

If glassware is your thing, head to Murano Island (an 18-minute ferry ride away). The craftsmanship of the glass there is said to be unparalleled, with chandeliers selling for up to €50,000.

And if you love fine furniture and Murano glass, you will feel at home in the elegant and majestic Ca’ di Dio Hotel, which presents all this with its contemporary design. With Venetian charm in abundance, the characteristics of the city and its heritage, as well as lagoon themes, are evident in the room design. Rooms feature lamps made from locally crafted Murano glass, and reception features a stunning 14,000-crystal chandelier.

A rich color palette, refined fabrics, Murano glass and precious marble are used throughout the hotel. This was evident in our room, which had the most beautiful view of the lagoon and San Giorgio Island, which was dominated by the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore with its distinctive pointed bell tower. We were just happy to lie on the sumptuous bed and admire the view across the canal. The sounds of the water will easily put you to sleep.

Ca’ di Dio is also great when it comes to eating and drinking. Great emphasis is placed on home-made food, from bread made with natural yeast and stone-ground organic flour from the Veneto region to fresh pasta, cheese, fine meats from the Montello and Alpago regions, vegetables from Sant’Erasmo and fish from the lagoon from Venice.

We dined at the upscale restaurant Vero (short for Venetian roots), headed by chef Raimondo Squeo, which offers a sophisticated menu inspired by authentic Venetian dishes. The quality of the ingredients and the way they are married together on the plates reflect the restaurant’s philosophy of using flavors that have been passed down through the ages and reinterpreting them with a modern twist.

Dishes we sampled included slow-cooked pork with peppers and ginger, capers and Moscato sweet wine powder, charred endive and black truffle, and for me the star of the show was homemade casarecce pasta made from lentil flour with duck ragout and superb smoked ricotta. It was just divine.

The hotel’s Alchemia Bar has to be one of the coolest bars in Venice. The expert mixologists have created a fabulous cocktail menu, featuring the hotel’s signature gins – pink, blue tea and sál, made from lagoon waters.

I particularly enjoyed the Blue Tea Cocktail spiced with notes of grapefruit and cinnamon and the Rodrigo with tequila, triple sec, lime, cinnamon, chilli syrup and Tabasco. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, the bar, like the restaurant, should definitely be on your to-do list when visiting Venice.

There is a homely atmosphere throughout the hotel, and the intention when planning it was that this version of a palatial Venetian home would make guests feel just like that. The service was exceptional with the core customer experience. Everything from the ingredients used in the food to the decor is locally sourced, so it’s no surprise that many locals eat and drink there.

There’s also a spa at the hotel that uses products developed by Venetian fragrance and skincare brand The Merchant of Venice, which channel the former sea power’s trade links with Constantinople and East Asia, including Chinese tea and spice blends.

Ca’ di Dio may have been a haven for centuries past, but today it still feels like a haven from the outside world.

“Ca’ di Dio is an experience that has to be experienced”, promises the manager Christophe to the guests and after spending two days there I know exactly what he means.

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