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Anyone for Venice?

Valentine's is looming and one city springs to mind when it comes to love -- the Queen of the Adriatic, Venice. But lumping it in with Valentine's is probably doing it a disservice. For while it's a chocolate box of sights and sensations for the romantics out there, it's a must-see destination at any time of the year.

But beauty comes at a price -- and accommodation is usually a headache. If you don't pay top-end rates, it's hard to come by a hotel that will leave you with pleasant, lasting memories. And for the cost of a decent hotel stay in other cities, you could end up in a shoebox in an establishment that looks like it hasn't seen a lick of paint or a duster since medieval times.

Trendy boutique hotels are as rare as cars on its streets -- until now. The Palace Bonvecchiati has brought some funkiness to the grand old dame of a city, with a scene that'll make your loved one feel like a catwalk model on a photo-shoot.

The rooms are gargantuan, the styling is modern, but the welcome is warm. Unusually for a hotel in the heart of the ancient city, it boasts a full fitness centre, complete with sauna, steam bath, whirlpool for up to eight people and gym with massages and beauty treatments available upon request.

It's also set to open up a sunbathing terrace, complete with jaw-dropping views across the skyline of the city.

Our room had elegant timber floors, an enormous bathroom and large-screen cable TV with movie channels available -- a far cry from the cupboards with floral wallpaper I've experienced in the past.

The beds are enormous, and I found nothing better than falling into the duvet after a day of foot slogging around this walking city par excellence.

If you're feeling flush, and maybe in the mood to pop the question (Venice can do that to you), it's sheer luxury to pull up at the front door in a taxi.

Doesn't sound too exciting? Well it is if it's a water taxi. The door to the reception is via its own quay entrance on a romantically tranquil canal, whose air of calm is only disturbed by the sounds of the odd gondolier's oars skimming the water.

The big draw here is location. Want to be at the heart of the action? You couldn't be any closer with the haunting St Mark's Basilica, Doge's Palace and Campanile tower just three minutes' walk to the right from the hotel's front door.

The other city landmark -- the Rialto Bridge-- is just a minute more away if you hang a left from the hotel.

The hotel staff are knowledgable and friendly -- which is vital if you want to find your way around and not, like me , find yourself hitting dead-end streets and looking like a bewildered Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now.

Venice was built for princes and merchants, not backpackers and holidaymakers lugging huge suitcases around. If you're arriving by bus from Treviso Aiport (the well-heeled Medieval town is worth a day trip in itself) with Ryanair or from Venice's Marco Polo Airport with Aer Lingus, you'll be dropped off at Piazzale Roma, the last point in the city where wheeled transport is allowed.

From there, take any Vaporetto (water bus to you and I) to Rialto Bridge, and from there it's a bridge-free stroll to the hotel. You can always cross just one bridge -- across to the train station -- and walk to the hotel in 20 minutes if you want to take in the sights along the way. It doesn't sound much, but I've stayed elsewhere and broken suitcase wheels on the unforgiving steps of bridges.

The immediate area around the hotel is stuffed with cafes and restaurants, from the chic to the cheap -- the rule of thumb being don't eat or drink in St Mark's Square unless you're on an expense account.

If you must (or just have kids in tow), there's a Burger King around the corner. For something more upmarket, there's a Hard Rock in the neighbourhood.

If you're here for a special occasion, almost directly across the narrow street (Calle dei Fabbri) from the hotel is the classic Bistrot de Venise. It has won a multitude of awards and admirers with its blend of ancient Venetian and modern cuisine. A la carte is going to cost you, but if you're a committed foodie, menus start at €45+12pc VAT for three courses.

Further up the street, you'll reach a major shopping area with department stores and cute little shops.

Here you'll find a Henry Street meets Grafton Street vibe, only a lot classier, with some great bargains, especially for women's fashions.

Also in the area is my favourite find in Venice-- the Bacaro Jazz bar and restaurant. It's a must-stop in the city, a really friendly place where locals and tourists from across the globe mingle over a beer or a glass of wine. It's filled with drawings from happy punters who've been here in the past -- and it's easy to see why. The happy-hour half-price drinks help, but the owners are friendly and knowledgeable about the city, too.

One regaled us with stories about his trips to Ireland, and insists it's true that he knows Ireland assistant boss Marco Tardelli well, met Liam Brady ("a gentleman") and that the family of Giovanni Trapattoni's wife once owned a souvenir shop in Venice. It's also a great place for cheap and filling snacks and more substantial meals. See www.bacarojazz.com.

If you've got a sweet tooth, Gelato Fantasy has been voted one of the world's best places for ice cream -- visit its address at Calle Fiubera, San Marco, 929, or try a glass of vino at the lovely named Vino Vino.

Details: If you go off season, you can live in luxury for a snip for this city, with rates at the Palace Bonvecchiati starting at around €140 per night low season for a superior room, with luxury upgrades and suites also available. Hotel Palace Bonvecchiati, San Marco Calle dei Fabbri, 4680, www.palacebonvecchiati.it


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