Unlike many historic lodgings that try to keep up with the times by taking the hip hotel route, Belmond Hotel Cipriani doesn't cater to whims. This Venice favorite was founded on tradition, and to tradition it remains loyal. It closes for the winter season and reopens in the spring, usually to reveal some great new enhancement. Dining at Oro Restaurant means donning a jacket, gentlemen; it also means being treated like a gentleman (or lady) in this fast food era of pandering to the casual lifestyle at the expense of elegance and grace. As for fine wines, the hotel does more than simply serve them. It grows its own grapes right on the grounds.
If this makes the Cip — as it's known to its devotees — sound stodgy, and perhaps even a bit full of itself, rest assured. It's not. From the moment you board the hotel's launch (it runs round the clock) at its private landing stage at San Marco Square, you'll understand why this property is considered one of the finest in the world. Firstly, there's its location. When Giuseppe Cipriani, co-founder of the renowned Harry's Bar, told his well-to-do friends and patrons about his dream to build the ultimate luxury hotel on a three-acre estate on the tip of Guidecca Island, they recognized a good thing and invested.
In the 18th century, Giudecca served as a retreat for both nobles and common city dwellers, who came to take advantage of the fresh air. By the late 1950s, when Cipriani built his hotel, it was still a secluded destination, reachable only by water. The new building was constructed to blend in with the Renaissance structures that surrounded it, and it immediately attracted celebrities and royalty, in much the same way that Harry's Bar drew luminaries such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. One thing was certainly clear: Cipriani had the magic touch.
Today, the Belmond Hotel Cipriani is a small, exclusive complex that includes the main hotel, two "palaces" — the Palazzo Vendramin and Palazzetto Nani Barbaro — and lavish gardens. When the property was purchased by James B. Sherwood, founder of Orient Express Hotels Ltd., from the Guinness family (of the Guinness brewing empire) changes were made, including the addition of luscious new suites. Overall, though, Sherwood's renovations followed the philosophy that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In style, the hotel is much as it was when Cipriani opened it: opulent and luxuriously livable. These days, it welcomes guests under the Belmond hotels banner.
The 80 guest rooms (including 53 suites and junior suites) overlook either the gardens, the lagoon or St. Mark's Square. Each accommodation has been individually designed, and those in the palazzos are the most desirable, especially since many feature floor-to-ceiling windows gazing over the water to the Doge's Palace. The coveted, much-loved Palladio Suite (with a secluded private plunge pool) competes in the pursuit of decadence with the newer Dogaressa Suite, extravagantly graced with antique Chinese lamps, Coromandel screens, Fortuny and Rubelli fabrics and the largest sitting room in the 15th century Palazzo Vendramin. All rooms are generously equipped with basic amenities (including Wi-Fi), and depending on where you stay, you may find a few little extras, such as a kitchenette, a button to summon a private butler or a TV that rises out of a glass-topped table.
While its accommodations are beyond reproach, the Belmond Hotel Cipriani would not enjoy its stellar reputation without its Casanova Gardens. Named for the lascivious lothario who used these very grounds to carry on his affair with Caterina Capretta and lay in wait for ladies from the nearby Old Maid's College, they once belonged to the wife of the Doge. With their cypress, pomegranate, hanging maple and lavender, they are as romantic today as they were during Renaissance times. One of our favorite aspects of the hotel is its small production of wine using grapes from the remaining vineyards of Giudecca Island, Isola di San Michele and San Erasmo Island; this wine is produced for the Laguna nel Bicchiere (lagoon in a glass) association, in an effort to preserve local traditions and resources.
Given the culinary standing established by Giuseppe Cipriani with the foundation of Harry's Bar, it's no wonder the Belmond Hotel Cipriani has a fabulous dining scene. Oro Restaurant (designed by Adam Tihany and adorned with Murano chandeliers), Enoteca (serving small plates and fine wines) and Cip's Club (a casual waterfront terrace), are all guided by executive chef Davide Bisetto. Of note are the hotel's cooking classes, which are offered as packages throughout the year. Greats such as the late Julia Child have participated.
Belmond Hotel Cipriani is home to the Casanova Wellness Centre, whose collection of treatment areas includes a Couple Massage cabin and a fitness center with a steam bath and sauna. In addition, a spacious heated swimming pool (the only one of its kind in Venice), red clay tennis court and docking facilities give the property a resort atmosphere. But despite being handcrafted for leisure, the hotel is also well-equipped for business, with meeting and event spaces throughout the grounds, including garden areas and a pair of historic granary buildings.
In these ways, the hotel is prepared to meet the needs of 21st-century travelers. Yet it does so without sacrificing the qualities that made it great from the start. Under the gracious direction of Maurizio Saccani, the Belmond Hotel Cipriani is a place where old-fashioned rules of etiquette reign. Whether you're here (along with the 1,500 boats that gather in the lagoon) to watch the midnight fireworks of the annual Redentore Feast or simply to retreat from the pressures of daily life, you'll find yourself embraced by traditions that are sure to remain strong for centuries to come.
Check out GAYOT's 72-Hour Travel Guide to Venice