In the crescent-shaped Venetian lagoon, which stretches nearly 32 miles across, are dozens of spectral islands unknown to most tourists. Some are abandoned, others sparsely inhabited, and the majority are largely ignored by travelers who get lost in the thick and folly of Venice proper.
But looking beyond Giudecca, a wide snaky mass south of the main city—itself a network of 118 small islands sewn together by bridges and canals—there are two islands hogging all the attention: San Clemente and Isola delle Rosa. Both will see luxury resorts open this summer.
San Clemente Island
Throughout San Clemente's long and checkered history, it has always been a respite.
During the 12th century Crusades, a church and hospice acted as way station for pilgrims and soldiers on their way to and from the Holy Land. Centuries since, the island has variously housed a Lateran monastery (14th and 15th centuries), a quarantine/hotel of sorts for distinguished guests of the Venetian Republic (due to the island’s protective isolation), and, in the 17th century, a plague hospital. After Napoleon’s invasion of Venice, the monastery was shut for good and the island abandoned. That was 1810.
Now, 205 years and €25 million ($27 million) in investments later, the 15-acre island has reopened as the St. Regis Venice San Clemente Palace Hotel. Cloisters and institutional buildings house spas and gardens, plus 189 guest suites that peer across the lagoon with inspiring panoramas of distant Venice, like hazy Turner paintings. Inside, it’s palatial: Wide, high-ceilinged hallways ring with the echo of footfall, and staircases are lit with enormous sparkling chandeliers, hand-blown in Murano (naturally). The St. Regis has tried its best to make it an inviting and sumptuous hotel, its original bones conveying grandeur and history.
But for some, that’s beside the point. Merely being here is reason enough.
“We are finally repopulating the lagoon,” says St. Regis employee, Pietro Rusconi, the ghosts of the Venetian Empire, once the most powerful maritime city-state in medieval Europe, no doubt echoing his excitement. “There used to be many realities in the lagoon, islands of religious importance, of clinical importance, of cultural importance, but over the centuries all of these, at one point or another, were abandoned.”
Isola delle Rosa
Neighboring Isola delle Rosa is another island that seeks to regain its place in history via luxury tourism. Built on grounds where a Mussolini-era hospital sat moldering amid formal gardens of palms, flowering bushes, and olive trees, the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa is in soft open now, with a grand opening June 24.
Marriott imagined the island’s fascist campus differently than the San Clemente cloisters. Instead of offering a single large luxury hotel experience, the company decided to create four separate accommodation types. The former pulmonary hospital—a large white building with boxy windows and Roman-inspired rooftop arches—has become the 191-room “The Hotel” with contemporary interiors reflecting its rationalist architecture. There’s a cooking school and several dining options on the ground floor and rooftops, where you’ll also find an infinity pool. The experience is contained, and the price point is reasonable (from €395).
The island’s remaining 20 buildings—large waterfront storage sheds, an unconsecrated church, the workers union Dopolavoro (“after work”) social house—contain the other three accommodation types. The 20-room La Maisonette will have two-story lofts, private gardens, and much higher price points, for instance. More restaurants, spas, and entertainment venues fill in the 40-acre campus-like resort. A villa that belonged to the hospital’s director, now tricked out with modern amenities and interior design, will rent for €12,000 per night.
“What we wanted to do here is have more than one option for travelers, many of whom we believe will be coming here for extended stays and are looking for more of a retreat rather than going into the city each day to walk around,” says Cristiano Cabutti, one of Marriott’s general directors in Venice.
The side effect of these two new hotel proposals—which also happens to be the expectations of both the St. Regis and JW Marriott—is that guests will, by dint of their isolation, be forced to chill out. Sure, Venice is a free, 20-minute speedboat away, but ultimately it’s so peaceful in the lagoon, away from the crowds, and with every amenity and service possible, why leave at all? Both hotels are pushing to become not just places to rest your head between jaunts in the city, but destinations in themselves. That both islands are beautiful and fascinating is not a small detail.
One of the first to lead the push for this lagoon renaissance is Gianluca Bisol, a prosecco magnate who reclaimed a centuries-old vineyard on Mazzorbo Island, which is about seven miles north of San Clemente as the fish swims. Bisol came to the island more than a decade ago to study the ancient vineyard’s soil and reintroduce the Dorono grape, a Venetian varietal that hadn’t been cultivated in the lagoon for more than 600 years.
He has since become passionate about lifting up the economies and excellence of what he calls "Native Venice," referring to the islands that were settled first in the northern part of the lagoon: Torcello, Mazzorbo, and Burano, the latter famous for its brightly colored fisherman houses and lace-weaving ladies. His priority is to spotlight and preserve lagoon traditions. To wit, he opened Venissa, a Michelin-starred restaurant with six boutique guest rooms open during the summer season. Last year his son, Matteo Bisol, opened a second restaurant on the site, the small Osteria Contemporanea, open year-round.
Both restaurants grow their own vegetables and source local fish, and guests can organize cooking classes with women from Burano. They can also experience the rich history of rowing with local boatmen on sightseeing excursions as well as fishing trips through the tall reeds of the northern lagoon. The Bisols recently bought four buildings to turn into a new 16-room guesthouse.
Foreign artisans and creative vintners have also taken it on themselves to cultivate a small piece of their adopted islands' potential.
American glass artist Judi Harvest, whose work focuses on the decimation of bee populations, is keeping bee hives and making honey near her glass-blowing studio on Murano. A former television executive from France, Michel Thoulouze, has been cultivating an award-winning wine, Orto, on a speck of Sant’ Erasmo Island, which used to be the garden of Venetian noblemen in the 16th and 17th centuries.
These endeavors are a quieter counterpoint to the heaving tourists of Venice proper, the powerhouse of the lagoon economy. Piazza San Marco can have its pigeons. The islands here, especially in "Native Venice," are content with creating excellence.
“There is such an incredible potential now to develop these abandoned places,” says Bisol. “And not just for tourism.”