The images of Venice might be some of the most widely seen in the world, but every time I have stepped off the city’s airport pier and into a water taxi, I have found something new to marvel at here. Between the narrow waterways choc-a-bloc with gondolas, cruising speedboats, quaint houses off the canals, and majestic architecture, there is always something to discover. My first time here, much like every other tourist, I soaked in the grandeur of San Marco Square and everything it offered, from the imposing Basilica to the Doges Palace (not forgetting a trip or two in the gondola). The next time I came, I spent my days at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, my late afternoons drinking ristretto, and my evenings enjoying aperitivos. This time around, I stepped off my water taxi at the San Clemente Palace Kempinski Venice, a historic island hotel and a quiet world unto itself.
About 15 minutes away from the mad bustle of San Marco Square, the San Clemente Palace Kempinski Venice sits elegantly on its private island, sedate yet thriving under a lush bower of cypress, pine, and magnolia trees. When I visited, the hotel was an off-site venue for the Venice Biennale, so my walk up to the salmon coloured main building from the pier was peppered with art installations. In that sense, the hotel truly celebrates its Venetian-ness in every possible way. Its long, wide marble hallways are lined with glass showcases filled with Venetian design artefacts, there is a Merchant of Venice Spa, and of course the architecture itself harks back centuries.
The island itself traces its roots to 1131, when it was first settled – Venetian merchant Pietro Gattilesso funded the construction of a church and a hospice for pilgrims and soldiers destined for the Holy Land. This church is still very much a part of the property, and has a 12th-century sacristy, one of the oldest places of worship in Venice. I spent a good half hour exploring its alcoves and sculptures, everything preserved to perfection, and taking one down years of heritage. Over the centuries, the buildings here took on the roles of a monastery, a military garrison in the 19th century, and a mental hospital in 1873, which closed in 1992. They were renovated in 2003 and converted into a luxury hotel, and reopened as San Clemente Palace Kempinski in March 2016. It is today a part of the Leading Hotels of the World portfolio, a roster of the most luxurious properties around the world.
Staying at the hotel is like being disconnected from the rest of the world, even though Venice’s most touristy hubs are a mere 15 mins away. The vibe is languid, and views of lagoons and the cityscape at a distance further create a soporific feel. You can spend hours walking its manicured grounds, courtyards, and terraces, punctuating it with down times under trees where you can read a book. My personal favourite was a small, sheltered hillock near the entrance, on whose solitary bench I spent an evening admiring the nostalgic glow of the setting sun. There is also a tennis court and a golf pitching course if you want to shake off that tranquil feel or something more adrenalin filled.
As can be expected, San Clemente Palace Kempinski Venice is a sprawling property, and each of its 190 rooms and suites do not scrounge on space (like most hotels in the city). Its broad corridors and grand staircases hark back to Renaissance-era design traditions, and its rooms feature lofty ceilings, big windows, terrazzo flooring soft, Murano chandeliers, and a no-fuss classic décor, all overlooking either the lagoon or the centuries old park or central courtyard. And if you think that’s par for the course, its suites toe a different line.
The epitome of indulgence, the suites at San Clemente Palace Kempinski Venice take you on a heady sensorial journey. At the Marco Polo Suite, located directly by the water in the private ‘Navigante Wing’, a C-shaped living space welcomes you, with large windows looking out onto the lagoon and the bell tower of San Marco Square. The Tiepolo Suite is akin to a private retreat, looking out into gardens down to the lagoon – its private salon in green and gold, and marbled baths personify Italian decadence. But it’s the dark wooden ceiling-ed San Clemente Suite that stands out truly. The most spacious and offering a 360 degree panoramic views, it can be extended to include five more suites to create an eight-bedroom palazzo, making this wing a completely independent stay within the hotel (wedding parties can take note).
And what’s a stay at an Italian hotel without great food? Gourmands can rejoice in the choice of three restaurants and three bars, all ideal for different parts of the day. Amidst the rustic courtyard setting of Insieme Restaurant you can enjoy a lavish breakfast spread, while at the pool-facing (and aptly named) La Dolce Restaurant is where you can partake in quintessential pizzas. Head to Al Bacaro lounge in the evening, the ideal spot to sip aperitifs (I recommend a bellini or a prosecco) as you watch the sun set over the lagoon. For dinner, hop over to Acquerello, facing the lagoon and adjacent to the 12th century church, for Chef Schifferegger’s haute cuisine.
In need for a little bit of relaxation after all that dining. Head to the resident The Merchant of Venice Spa, which offers guests a curated menu of facials, massage, body treatments and aromatherapy, all inspired by the perfumery traditions of Venice – the spa employs refined essences based on ancient Oriental recipes imported over the centuries to Venice by its merchants. Think sandalwood, jojoba, and bergamot. Quaint, right? Like I said, every time, something new.
Video: Preetika Mathew and Pranav Bhasin
All images: Courtesy San Clemente Palace Kempinki Venice