HOTEL

Italian Luxury At St. Regis Venice

Venice is a truly magical destination, and one of the things I love most about travel is going somewhere with a real sense of place, a distinctive feel that lets you know exactly where you are from morning to night. Venice has that in spades, there is just no other place like it, and I’m so glad I just got to return after an absence of several years. I’m also glad that this time I stayed at the St. Regis Venice, which like the city it is in, is totally one-of-a-kind, featuring a distinctive charm and atmosphere.

The one caveat here is that Venice has also become one of the more overcrowded and over touristed destinations on earth, at least in high summer season. That’s why I went in January, and why I highly recommend visiting off season, when it is still just as charming, fully open, has better weather than many places here at home, like New York, and is dramatically less busy. You can actually stroll the narrow passageways without fighting endless tour groups or queuing up to cross the many bridges, museum and attraction tours can be done spur of the moment, you can book the best restaurants in town with much shorter notice, and walk into cafes on a whim.

It is also much less expensive. In summer it has one of the priciest hotel scenes you can imagine, but in winter it has 5-Star palatial luxury properties for less than you will find in just about any other major European or U.S city. I recently wrote here at Forbes in detail about the amazing values Italy offers in the off-season – despite being the number one most desired international destination for American tourists. Venice in turn is atop the list of the hottest spots in the hottest country, yet off-season is shockingly affordable, with hotel rates that can drop by 75%-85% from high season, making even the most luxurious properties an attainable luxury. When I visited last month, rates at the St. Regis were hovering around $500 a night, less than you would pay for a hotel of this stature in most of the world at any time of year.

But while I like Venice in the winter, the St. Regis is an amazing hotel any time of year, and its fabulous location defies crowds even in the busiest weeks. Venice has a very impressive assortment of top tier luxury hotels, and I’ve previously stayed at some of the very best, including the Gritti Palace, Cipriani, and St. Regis predecessor Regina and Europa, and while they were all great, the St. Regis holds its own in terms of food and service while adding a very distinctive flavor. Off season it’s a great deal for a hotel of this caliber, and in season it’s a great way to splurge on your Marriot Bonvoy points.

Many of the city’s top luxury hotels are in old palaces, and the former Westin Europa and Regina was a grand hotel that combined no less than five of these, dating back to the 1700s, into one gorgeous jigsaw puzzle structure. It was always one of the city’s finest, but a bit staid, with an 18th century color palette and overly opulent period materials and fabrics – typical “Grand Venetian style.” I like Westin, but frankly the hotel was far too high-end for the brand, arguably the best Westin anywhere, and in 2017 it closed for a 2-year, complete top to bottom renovation/reimaging, with parent Marriott giving the rebirth a rebrand to its top tier global brand, St. Regis, in 2019 (Marriott’s ultra-luxury portfolio also includes tiny Bulgari Hotels, the handful of Ritz-Carlton Reserves and a sprinkling of the best members of its Luxury Collection, but St. Regis is the highest end of the major labels). Then came the pandemic, so even today, four years later, the St. Regis is essentially Venice’s newest elite option, a brand-new take on a timeless classic.

I stayed at the Westin, and I loved it, but the new incarnation is even more impressive. The most obvious change is a reduction from 187 rooms and suites to just 169 (including 39 suites), with the 15-plus percent decline in units used to increase the size of the current rooms – and they were already generous. But because of the way the palaces are connected, it is still a surprisingly large number – from the outside you might guess the hotel had 50 rooms.

Most of the other major changes are in the look and feel of the place. The historic original St. Regis in New York City, a longtime Forbes 5-Star property, was the passion project of John Jacob Astor IV, who saw it as home away from home, a residential feeling alternative to the mega-lobbies and marble clad excess of the era’s “grand hotels.” When the St. Regis concept was turned into a brand, it kept several key elements of this vison, and today every St. Regis includes a library, a public space with a living room feel for convivial relaxing, an element that was added to this Venetian property with great success – once you enter and sit down on the comfortable couches surrounded by collectible artwork and books, it’s hard to get going again.

Other prerequisite St. Regis elements found worldwide include butler service, an evening champagne sabering ceremony with complimentary pours, and signature Bloody Mary’s. In terms of the former, so many staffers offered to help us unpack that I nearly took them up on it, despite not needing any assistance. The sabering is done in the hotel’s main bar, while the Bloody Mary’s are available pretty much anywhere you want one, including a delightful, large outdoor canal-side private garden patio, an amenity few competitors offer. As an homage to the original Bloody Mary, invented at the King Cole Bar in New York, every location worldwide (except alcohol free Kuwait) has its own local spin. Here in Venice, the Bloody features clarified tomato juice, resulting in a nearly clear take on the classic cocktail, honoring the Veneto region’s all-important white wine grapes. While I preferred the classic New York original recipe, also grandly offered here (and at every St. Regis), it is always fun to try a unique riff, and this is one of the most distinctive (I recently wrote about all the cocktail’s history and very varied Bloody Mary versions here at Forbes).

But while these are the elements common to all St. Regis properties, there is far more that is completely unique to this one. Just as Venice is a wildly distinctive destination, this is a singular hotel.

For starters, it has a fantastic location, even by the lofty standards of those few properties along the Grand Canal. Arrival by boat, as in from the airport, is dramatically right to its lobby-side dock, the ultimate Venetian convenience. The land entrance is hidden in a tiny square that you would never stumble upon by chance, yet sits just off one of the city’s most important (and widest) shopping streets, Larga XXII Marzo, lined with boutiques. It is about a three-minute walk from St. Mark’s Square, the “Drawing Room of Europe” and heart of the city, close enough to be ultra-convenient, but far enough to avoid even peak season maddening crowds. In the opposite direction it is also very convenient to the Accademia Bridge, one of just four spanning the Grand Canal, leading to a quieter part of the city. The location is perfect, with unreal views from any rooms overlooking the canal, including the iconic and imposing 17th century Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Suites on the higher floors tower above neighbors with grand city views and you can see all the way to the far-flung peaks of the Dolomite Mountains.

The design is still opulent, with a lot of Venetian touches, like walls covered in locally made artisanal wallpaper, but its more contemporary and fun than the old frozen in time Westin style.

The hotel is very art-focused, which makes a lot of sense in a city famous for its private collections, galleries, museums, glasswork, annual high-profile film festival and famous Biennale art festival. There are funky sculptures, paintings and installations all throughout, and many artworks were commissioned expressly for the St. Regis, including a huge and ornate glass chandelier in the sitting room where traditional afternoon tea is served daily. There are also statues and display cases full of art on loan from local galleries (available for purchase). It’s Venice, so there is tons of glasswork, and the unique Arts Bar, a highly creative spin on a cocktail lounge. This is the hotel’s smaller second bar, open only from late afternoon onwards, with a menu of “liquid art” cocktails based on specific works of art, such as Salvador Dali’s Birth of Liquid Desire. Each is elaborately described in the cocktail menu, comes with a card featuring the original image on which it is based, and is served in its own custom-made Murano glass vessel designed to fit the artwork.

This theme continues to the best room in the house, the Monet Suite, named for the artist who was a hotel guest here with his wife (in an earlier incarnation as the Grand Hotel Britannia) for three months in 1908, during which he painted a canal view from his window. It is the largest suite and has a mirror image room adjacent that it can be combined with to form an even larger Presidential Suite. It is one of 14 rooms and suites that have large terraces, with chairs and tables and greenery overlooking the canal, while many other rooms have Juliet balconies.

Because the rooms are all just redone, they have all the desired modern conveniences such as thermostats that actually work and light switches that make sense, both rarities in Europe. There are plentiful outlets and USB ports perfectly located alongside the end tables on either side of the bed, plenty of connections for charging everything the modern traveler carries. There is ample storage including large closets stocked with Frette robes and slippers, The first thing I look at when I check into a hotel room is the bathroom, and these are fabulous, with sperate jumbo soaking tubs and very large walk-in marble showers featuring both wall-mounted heads and rain showers. All the suites have double showers, with two sets of these fixtures at either ends, very romantic, and the hotel uses upgraded Aqua di Parma blue, not the luxury hotel standard yellow found widely throughout Italy. It’s not the liquid that’s important, it’s the significance of the way the St. Regis makes a painstaking effort to differentiate itself in every little detail. This goes from the turndown treats to the Assouline art books in the rooms to the top shelf Technogym hardware in the fitness center.

Finally, there is the food. The new signature Gio’s restaurant was excellent, and they brought in a chef from Puglia in Southern Italy, whose focus is combining traditional specialized regional cooking techniques from all across Italy with the best local ingredients, especially the plentiful seafood Venice is known for, resulting in a modern, highly creative sort of Italian fusion that fuses Italy with itself. An outstanding example was an obscure regional drum shaped stuffed pasta (bottoni) filled with a slow stewed reduction of local favorite cuttlefish, something I have never seen anywhere in Italy and will likely never see again. Red tuna sashimi is adorned with a Sicilian fennel and orange salad, while local crab salad atop Sardinian fregola was another scrumptious regional mash up. Fresh pastas are also showcased, and the long wine list is heavy on the Veneto, while Italian collectibles, Super Tuscans, Barolos and such are well represented.

Dinner and bar service was excellent, and as in the Arts Bar, there is an extreme attention to artistic detail, with an enormous array of custom-made service and glassware, carefully chosen to provide a wow factor with every course and every drink. It was the rare occasion where I enjoyed the wine glass as much as the fabulous wine inside it. While equally eye catching in presentation, the included breakfast service was not as impressive, especially for a hotel of this stature and price, and the could stand to add a broader array of choices, but the free flowing champagne, mimosas and bellinis do a lot to offset that.

When I get to a place like Venice, the first thing I am itching to do is get out, hit the streets and explore. Often when traveling I spend surprisingly little time at my hotel, so when I stay somewhere that returning to is as much fun as being outside of, I am impressed, and at the “new” St. Regis Venice, I was quite impressed.

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