Venice: Luxury . . . on a grand scale
Nick Trend arrives by boat at the new Aman hotel in Venice
One of the great lost experiences of Venice is the grand arrival. In a city that was, perhaps more than any other in history, built to display the immense wealth of its inhabitants, virtually all the palazzi and elite buildings were designed with their formal entrance, the porta d'acqua, opening directly on to the water. For the smartest of all, of course, this meant the Grand Canal.
If you were a privileged guest – whether a 15th-Century medieval merchant or an 18th-Century Grand Tourist – your gondola would glide between the gilt-capped mooring poles and you would step directly on to the water-lapped steps and the pink-and-white chequered marble floor of the entrance hall. Then you would progress up the main staircase to the piano nobile and the central reception hall, lined with silk wall hangings and lit by a glittering Murano chandelier, before strolling over the terrazzo floor to the balcony to see who would be next to arrive.
It was all about ease, elegance and the display of enormous wealth.
Today, we have almost lost our sense of how these spectacular pleasure palaces were designed to be used. We see them only from the deck of a vaporetto or the crowded quays of the Rialto.
Meanwhile, the back streets echo with the rumble of wheeled suitcases as tourists seek out the alleys and side entrances designed for the tradesmen and serving classes. Even if you are lucky enough to arrive by water taxi, only a tiny number of hotels still use the original porta d'acqua.
So, it was hard not to be deeply impressed by the experience of arriving in exactly this way at the new Aman hotel in Venice last week.
It's not surprising, though, that Aman should seek to take a different approach to the competition. This small chain of luxury beach resorts has a highly distinctive style of relaxed, discreet personal service combined with contemporary surroundings and obsessive attention to detail.
So how would it reinvent a 16th-Century palazzo in Venice – the first time it has opened a hotel in a European city?
The critical difference from the guest's point of view is that at every opportunity Aman plays down the sense of being a hotel. It feels rather as though you are staying in a private palazzo. There is no reception desk, no signs to the bar or the lavatories; instead, helpful staff seem to materialise when you need them.
There are no swipe cards for the rooms (you use the original 19th-Century locks on the ornate walnut doors), nor is there even a sign over the entrance, while the street gate at the back (you won't want to go everywhere by water taxi) has only a discreet lettering on the intercom button.
Even more importantly, the integrity of the building has been preserved. Unlike most of the other hotels in Venice, it has not been divided up to maximise the amount of accommodation available.
It still feels like a palace. Virtually the entire three principal floors and double-height grand salons of the main building form the reception rooms and dining areas, while most of the 24 bedrooms (together with the three spa treatment rooms) are in the 19th-Century wing attached to one side.
Here, too, the rooms have been left intact, meaning you get a huge amount of space for your money (a rarity in Venice), with bathrooms so big that in some cases they double as sitting rooms.
For the most part, Aman's clean, simple, contemporary furnishings blend extremely well with historic detail, and there are deft decorative touches, such as fresh white amaryllis flowers scattered throughout the reception rooms.
True, when you have 18th-Century frescoed ceilings, cornices dripping with gilded stucco, rococo mirrors, and a library with elaborate walnut bookcases, a more restrained approach is probably a wise move.
Just occasionally, however, form wins out at the expense of function.
The low-slung chairs and tables in the restaurant look great, but it's a novel position from which to enjoy a formal meal, and I fear for the health of the waiting staff, who have to dip their knees awkwardly to serve to the table top.
That won't trouble you if you choose to eat in the Japanese restaurant which is about to open in the palazzo garden – it has higher seats.
This wonderful green space, fronting directly on to the water, is unique among Grand Canal hotels and is a huge bonus in a city that can, on hot, crowded days, feel claustrophobic. And up on the fifth floor is a traditional altana – a rooftop platform where you can sit high above the pantiled roofs among the belfries and chimney pots of the city and enjoy one of the best views of Venice I have ever seen.
Need to know
Book the Aman Canal Grande Venice at 0039 041 2707333; amanresorts.com. Rooms are not cheap at €1,100 a night, but luxury in Venice never comes cheap. Booked at the airport quay, a water taxi transfer costs €110.