Elizabeth Finney discovers how a cocktail of competitive sailing, sumptuous Italian cuisine and spa treatments makes for an idyllic long weekend getaway
Steely waters whip past just within touching distance as the 24 metre maxi sailing yacht Way Of Life dips sideways. “Three, two, one – l’altra parte, l’altra parte!” shouts skipper Gaspar Vinčec and both crew and guests scramble upward to starboard, which is now almost perpendicular to the waves below. Vinčec weaves her expertly through the Giudecca Canal, artfully dodging around the other vessels dotted around the course. After an hour of sprinting around the yacht as she slants over left and right, I discover a whole new meaning to the term “hiking”.
Sweating profusely on the side of a boat with my hair entangled around my face was not what I had pictured when I imagined my first weekend escape to Venice, staying at the iconic Gritti Palace hotel. Located on the Grand Canal, it was originally built by the Pisani family in 1475 and its palatial and gothic architecture has long represented status in Venice. In 1525, it became the private dwellings of the then Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti, who was followed by numerous noble families before it became a hotel in 1895. Hours earlier my Venetian dream had been complete as I sat drinking crisp white wine and devouring marinated salmon tartare, watching the gondola traffic from its terrace restaurant (where the service is still worthy of nobility). However, this weekend is deigned to not just be about the laid-back regality of this city, but also speed and competition.
Twelve maxi yachts are competing in the 2018 Venice Hospitality Challenge (October 20, 2018), each representing a different Venetian hotel – Way of Life is racing for The Gritti Palace, in the event’s fifth edition of the competition. “The basin is very beautiful and Venice is a wonderful city. In 2016, we won with Way of Life, last year we came second,” explains Paolo Lorenzoni, general manager of The Gritti Palace; “Our yacht is very good in light wind, as the other boats are too heavy.”
The excitement at the Magazzini del Sale is palpable before the race as people sip champagne and ready themselves to either watch or partake. It’s a significant spot for sailors – Raul Gardini developed the Moro di Venezia team here, who won the 1992 Louis Vuitton Cup and competed in the 28th America’s Cup. The various race teams walk out onto the Fondamenta delle Zattere to meet their boats and soon I’m speeding on a tender over the Giudecca towards Way of Life. Designed by Slovenian nautical architect Andrej Justin, the carbon fibre yacht boasts a maximum speed of 30 knots.
Even though the wind is light, the crew career around the yacht ensuring we make the most of what we have, at the same time dodging other vessels on the busy canal. In the latter half of the race – after we’ve passed the third buoy, which is topped with a navy Audi Q8 Mild Hybrid – I hear shouts as Spirit of Portopiccolo soars towards us, her hull looming towards our foredeck ominously. Vinčec turns and we avoid a collision by what feels like centimetres. Despite this setback, we fly across the finish line in second place and I feel exhilarated as I’m handed an open bottle of champagne. “It was a little bit uncourteous, but this is sailing,” says Vinčec afterwards, smiling as I ask him about the Spirit of Portopiccolo’s move. Vinčec co-owns Way of Life with fellow crew member Robert Sterpin, and they race together. “This is the third time I’ve sailed in Venice. It can be a little frustrating, there is not a lot of wind and a buff can come out of nowhere. You’ve just got to keep calm and sail. It is a narrow channel so it can be quite a scary place to sail – there are a lot of small vessels so it can get a little crazy.”
The Hotel Excelsior hosts a glamourous post-race dinner, where I spend the night mingling with Italy’s charming elite in its grand ballroom. I enjoy perfectly poached northern cod with potato and truffle foam in a Luxurious Valpolicella sauce while I watch string musicians in traditional ballgowns and wigs perform. I meet the crew and concierges from the other hotel teams as well as their distinguished guests and drink Champagne Pommery, polishing off the evening with a delicate chocolate mousse and almond waffle. A sleek wooden water taxi delivers me back to The Gritti’s water entrance, a welcoming light on the dark canal.
I’m advised by numerous guests at the dinner that the best way to get the feel of Venice during a short stay is to simply walk, so I save a morning to run through the narrow streets. I head over numerous bridges and along the shore of the Grand Canal, to the verdant I Giardini della Biennale. I stop for an espresso at the Serra dei Giardini glasshouse and peruse the numerous leaf-laden statues.
Feeling like I’ve worked off at least the desert from the post-race supper, I head to the spa for a Sisley Paris Expert Phyto-Aromatic Facial. It’s the perfect way to unwind after yesterday’s sailing escapades. I settle down on the heated bed bathed in a gentle purple light as sumptuous scrubs, tonics and creams loaded with essential oils and plant extracts are applied to my wind-whipped skin. Lotion au pamplemousse, phyto-pate moussante, masque purifiant profond and numerous others are massaged on. The whole experience is so relaxing that I promptly fall asleep and by the time I wake up my face is gleaming, the dark circles under my eyes noticeably reduced.
Situated to one side of the hotel’s water entrance lies the recently refurbished Riva Lounge. The terrace is a stylish celebration of the classic Riva perched on the canal’s edge, boasting numerous familiar design features and a dedicated cocktail, featuring white rum, grapefruit, orgeat syrup and orange bitters. I savor mine, watching the sun sink behind the Palazzo Da Mula Morosini, casting the Dorsoduro and the famous Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute into a warm pink light.
It’s not news that Venice is a fabulous place for a superyacht stop-off. Steeped in history and luxury, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a slower pace and soak up the culture. But for those who need an adrenaline injection between all of the city strolls, a race around the canal aboard a nippy regatta yacht is the perfect addition to the itinerary. I have to agree with Vinčec’s words: “Venice is Venice, it’s special and I love it.”
Stay: The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Campo Santa Maria del Giglio 2467, 30124 Venice. thegrittipalace.com_,_ clubdeldoge.com
Venice Hospitality Challenge: venicehospitalitychallenge.it