Swerve The City of Bridges’ crowds with these water-tight options for your deserving high-achievers
Venice is sinking, so they say. Others, though, are more concerned with its suffocation. The vast and steadily increasing number of tourists arriving by cruise liner certainly makes San Marco island a busy place in the height of summer. A risky place to take a large incentive group with high expectations then?
Well, that depends on your timing. And your precise location. Booking accommodation on an island with a single hotel is a good place to start. This is what JW Marriott offers at its Venetian property on the island of Sacca Sessola. Once a hospital for those in need of improved respiration, the property is now a group-ready, five-star property 20 minutes (by boat) to the thick of things in San Marco.
On my first walk round, I’m told the island (one of the biggest in the lagoon) benefits from a clement microclimate and clean, cool breezes. ‘Breathing space’ seems to be more than just a historical metaphor. But what’s most noticeable is how quiet it is. Not quite the hectic Venice people bemoan then. Guests are prompted to borrow a bike and cycle round the island’s gravel-track perimeter to take in those Canaletto views. If you bump into anyone on the way, I’ll be surprised.
There’s enough to keep a group entertained without having to leave the island. The Sapori (‘flavours’) cookery school is where to start. We were entertained by the hotel’s exec chef during a light-touch cicchetti masterclass. Anyone who’s been to one of Russell Norman’s Polpo restaurants will know that I’m talking about large canapé-like things served either before a main meal or as a light bite with wine. They are quintessentially Venetian, delicious, and, more importantly, easy to make.
Our class started in civilised fashion with antipasti and a flute of franciacorta (much better than prosecco). From there, we went about the business of assembling 10 cicchetti, ranging from marinated salmon crostini through to a revelatory strawberry and basil gazpacho. But if you remember anything from the class, it’s how to eat cicchetti like a Venetian: pick it up, tip your head back, and drop it in. No two-take nonsense.
With all that hard work done, it might be an idea to book into the hotel’s diminutive but well-appointed spa. A spa is usually only as good as its treatments, but here I’d suggest eschewing an hour’s kneading for a more interesting spin around its hydrotherapy options, finishing things off with a Hammam-style scrub down.
Out and about
Chances are you’re probably going to want to leave the island at some point. But instead of risking a scrum on St Mark’s Square, consider taking a vaporetto or water taxi to Murano, where your group can take a tour one of the island’s glass factories. At the Fornace Cam (just outside the Colonna stop) you can sit and watch works of art being handmade by a glass master. I saw a vast set of chandeliers taking shape, destined for a Regent Street hotel. And the nearby Museo del Vetro is well worth walking over to; you can stop for an Aperol spritz (another Venetian invention) on the way.
We mustn’t neglect tourist-magnet San Marco altogether, though. You just have to know how to do it right. For the gadabouts, I’d suggest a leisurely bacari tour. These characterful wine bars are where locals go to eat cicchetti and sup on wine called ombra. My resounding memory of this boozy perambulation was sitting opposite a gondola-building yard, gorging on still-hot arancini balls, chasing them down with a young corvina from a thimble tumbler. Proper Venice – and minimal crowds.
To eat and drink
Speaking of food, there are two dining options of note at the hotel. The show-stopping, Michelin-star Dopolavoro is where to book when you need somewhere that’ll make your highest-achievers feel loved. Precocious head chef Federico Belluco ushers guests through an elegant summer tasting menu, with highlights such as smoked-potato ravioli and confit tomatoes reminding you how superlative ingredients make Italian food more than the sum of its seemingly simple parts. Accomplished stuff.
Pair each course with wine and you’ll have the pleasure of experiencing the wit and vim of resident sommelier Simone, who waxes on wines between making you laugh. It’s he, incidentally, who also hosts olive oil tastings in the restaurant’s courtyard by day. More quips accompany a guided slurp through oil made using the island’s own olives.
This beautiful building’s first floor is where you’ll find a 12-seat private dining room, which marries views of the vegetable garden with chandeliers from Murano. If organising a small conference or meeting is a must during the trip, this place is an option too. For something large, look first to the nearby deconsecrated chapel, whose romanesque-revival style should help inspire minds. Alternatively, you can take things outside and host an open-air meeting on the lawn, among the mature olive trees. Suffocating? Not so much.
Rooms at JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa start from 395 EUR (approx. £345) per night, based on two adults sharing a Deluxe Room on a B&B basis.