In Venice for the annual Architecture Biennale earlier this summer, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of nights at two of my favorite hotels, going all out grand on the Grand Canal. After long days spent taking in the show, which this year is styled “FREESPACE”— 71 international participants presenting everything from the highbrow and avant-garde to the nonsensical and downright unintelligible — what a pleasure it was to return to the air-conditioned comfort of my hotel room each evening, there to muse on the shock of the new along with the enduring appeal of theatrical Baroque.
The grandest hotel in Venice by a mile has the least assuming front door of any hotel I know, and that is almost reason enough to love the Gritti Palace. On the day of my arrival, in a small salon behind the jewel-like entrance lobby, a young Italian receptionist, whose sleeveless yellow dress seemed entirely made for the first few days of summer, smiled warmly and welcomed me. “So lovely to have you back,” she said, without a hint of irony, even though the last time I had stayed at The Gritti, Marco Polo was still in primary school. When I instinctively reached for my credit card and placed it on the desk, it was abruptly waved away. “Not at all, Mr. Wayne, not at all,” said the young lady, as if I had suggested something quite absurd, or even not quite decent. “Please feel free simply to settle your account on departure.” The innate elegance of the Italians is legendary of course, but Venetians can outclass even the classiest of their fellow Italians.
My suite at the Gritti was small and perfectly formed, with sumptuous Murano chandeliers and wall sconces, heavy brocades and Rubelli fabrics so rich and glorious I almost wanted to wrap myself up in the drapes and roll around. From the small bar complete with glorious Murano highball and martini glasses and an exquisite glass ice-bucket full of clear ice cubes the size of shoeboxes, I poured myself a Campari soda and opened the French doors to the miniature stone terrace, on which two people can stand at a pinch. There, below me, in all its glory, was the oh-so-Grand Canal, with its ceaseless procession of water traffic, its cacophony of sounds echoing off the water and the insanely beautiful Baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute as a backdrop, directly opposite. Talk about “in your face.” You could stand here all day, all night, all vacation, drinking Campari sodas, drinking in the view and never ever once get bored.
Back indoors, the bathrobes in the closet had such a line to them — such pizzazz ¬— you could go to a Venetian ball dressed in one of them and get away with it. Even the clothes hangers at The Gritti are things of beauty, the sculpted, burnished oak mimicking the gentle slope of the shoulders, the hangers so heavy you could wield them as clubs and conquer an army. In the veined-white-marble bathroom, delicious Acqua di Parma products are scattered around with almost profligate abandon.
At the cocktail hour, which comes early in Venice, I headed downstairs to the hotel’s Longhi bar — that “divine terrace,” as Somerset Maugham called it, right on the Grand Canal, where Maugham would sit for hours on end attending to his needlework, admiring the view of the Canal and the Salute church, doubtless passing mordant comment on the occupants of every passing gondola, motoscafo or vaporetto.
After one more negroni than was probably good for one, I drifted across the terrace to dine outside at Club del Doge, the Gritti’s famed restaurant, situated on the adjoining deck, which is a mirror image to the bar and which also overlooks the Grand Canal. Here, we feasted on vitello tonnato, bigoli pasta with ribbons of cuttlefish and classic liver alla Veneziana, the pinkest of pink’s calf’s liver prepared with caramelized onions. The food of the gods and a starlit, velvety Venetian night to remember.
On the far side of San Marco, The Gritti’s equally renowned sibling, Hotel Danieli (both are now Marriott Luxury Collection properties), is a horse of a very different color. For one thing there is its location, a stone’s throw from bustling Piazza and the so-called Bridge of Sighs, right opposite the enormously busy San Zaccaria vaporetto stop. For another, where The Gritti is intimate, exquisite, small of scale, almost diffident — more akin to a private residence than a “grande dame” city hotel — Hotel Danieli, itself a former Doge’s residence, is big and bustling, with 204 rooms and suites compared with the Gritti’s 82.
Composed of three houses connected by a mezzanine, the Danieli’s pride and joy are its three signature suites, the Grace, the Garbo and the Callas, known affectionately as the Princess, the Diva and the Soprano respectively (all one-time guests of the hotel. Maria Callas actually met Aristotle Onassis at a ball at the Danieli in 1957.) Another suite to mention, my personal fave, is the Peggy Guggenheim, decorated with great panache, while the royal suite, the Doge Dandolo, on the first piano nobile surely takes the biscuit for excess. It boasts rich gold decorations, period gilt furniture, 18th-century paintings, Venetian blackamoors, Murano glass galore and ceilings painted by the late-Baroque artist Jacopo Guarana while the marble bathroom with its gold taps and monogrammed towels is the size of a tennis court.
If you love history, if a touch of drama is up your alley, if you enjoy a hotel lobby which hums day and night and if you have a weakness for grand — and I do mean very grand staircases — then the Danieli is definitely for you. For me, I can never tire of Vodka Rogers (vodka and peach juice, the thinking man’s or woman’s answer to the Bellini, if you will) in the hotel’s Bar Dandolo, where a pianist tinkles the ivories every evening of the year. Nor can I get enough of the lavish buffet breakfast served in fine weather on the Danieli’s magnificent rooftop terrace, where the jaw-dropping view of the Venetian lagoon and the bacino (basin) of San Marco, at the entrance to the Grand Canal — a view essentially unchanged in 500 years — will melt even a heart of stone.
If you’re headed to the Biennale, by the way, the Danieli is within walking distance of the show’s two sites, the Arsenale and the Giardini. From Mexico’s cleverly conceived and witty “Transmuting a Barrier into a Territory” exhibit, where the main wall has been tellingly torn down, to Switzerland’s award-winning quirky, perspective-altering “House Tour,” this is widely considered to be one of the best Architecture Biennales in years. The Biennale runs through Nov. 25, with fall being a period when Venice hotel rates are at their lowest. So what better time to go grand on the Grand Canal?