Great painters, writers, and photographers have tried to capture the magic of Venice and its lagoon – and some have come pretty close. But it's only when you see it with your own eyes that you realize there really is nothing like it in the world. Not just for its magnificent architecture, art, nature, and unique lifestyle, but because all of this is literally floating on water.
Venice, however, is not just a city. It is also a hundred and eighteen islands (many uninhabited) and a vast inland sea (the lagoon) which is two-thirds the size of New York, and holds as many wonders as the Serenissima, as it was once called, itself.
When you're through rubbernecking, hopping on and off the chugging vaporetto water buses that are the city's subway, and are so weary you feel you have crossed every last one of its 400 bridges, it's time to explore the lagoon.
By my book, the best way by far is on Eolo, a refurbished traditional bragozzo skippered by owner Mauro Stoppa, a lagoon specialist and world-class chef. Named for the mythological Greek keeper of the winds, the old 56-foot fishing barge hosts up to twelve for one-day and longer cruises.
Mauro spirits his visitors away to hotspots like brightly coloured Burano; Torcello, with a Byzantine cathedral built in 639; to forgotten islands far from the churned-up waters around the city; and to communities with local curiosities and hidden treasures.
You "live" the lagoon through its nature, art, and religion, like the San Lazzaro Armenian monastery with a Tiepolo masterpiece and a 3,500-year-old Egyptian mummy. And, of course, its incredible cuisine and wines.
This season, Mauro is partnered by L.A.-Swiss artist and lagoon-connoisseur Allison Zurfluh for new "Art in the Lagoon" expeditions. Guests are given travel journals and watercolor kits, and those with a creative hankering are invited to join Allison to be inspired by the lagoon and let loose their artistic fire.
What is there to paint? The continuously changing light on the water, gondolas and monasteries, salt marshes, swans, and bricole, the distinctive chunky wooden posts sunk into the seabed to mark out the lagoon's navigable routes. As a farewell gift, Allison gives everyone a charming signed acquarello, perfectly packaged to put into a suitcase.
Mauro and Allison are fierce defenders of the lagoon's delicate ecosystem, and itineraries contribute to the sustainability of the environment. Guests meet locals who carry on authentic customs and activities, like fishermen who hand harvest soft-shell crabs, called moeche, that are one of the lagoon's most prized delicacies.
Burano is famous for its handmade lace, and the island's vibrantly rainbow-hued fishermen's houses make for awesome selfies. From the top of the bell tower on nearby Torcello there are sensational views over the lagoon to the sea on one side, and the famous belfry in St. Mark's Square on the other.
In Italy, food is an art form, and Mauro drops anchor in famed beauty spots and on quiet waterways, taking over the tiny galley as his visitors get down to explore. His artfully plated dishes are served at handsome table settings, using only local produce (lagoon and sea fish, game, and vegetarian) and recipes handed down by his mother and nonna. One popular wine on board is the white Orto, matured for twelve months in a sunken gondola at the bottom of the lagoon.
From May to October the weather is sunny and warm – July and August can be really hot – and perfect for relaxing on the upper deck under Eolo's fabled russet sails. For cooler days – on the water the weather can turn on a dime – there is a long table below deck, and on private, bespoke cruises Mauro tailors menus and itineraries to accommodate special requests.
Three and six-day cruises include overnights at bijoux hotels, timeworn taverns, and swanky pads. Like Casa Burano, which has cutting-edge rooms in old fishermen's houses; the cozy heritage inn Locanda alle Porte 1632 (built 389 years ago); and the exclusive Venissa Wine Resort on Mazzorbo, a short walk across a wooden bridge from Burano.
Each night you dine in a new restaurant, world-renowned for its cuisine. In Saor, a traditional fishing hut beside the Locanda 1632, the chef whips up dazzling renditions of the day's catch. Il Gatto Nero, on Burano, is a high point for fish lovers. Founders chef Ruggero Bovo and his wife Lucia rule the kitchen, while son Massimiliano charms customers – many of them aficionados from all over the world – at the tables that spill out to a tiny canal. Another chart-topper is Locanda Cipriani on Torcello, having wined and dined immortals from Hemingway to Spielberg and Princess Diana to Julia Roberts.
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