Venice’s romantic labyrinth of shimmering canals, gliding gondolas and opulent palaces is a must on most people’s bucket lists. But this fragile floating city in Italy suffers today from a serious surplus of tourists, meaning long lines to visit museums, waterbuses packed to bursting, hotels and B&Bs overbooked and overpriced. Earlier this month, it only narrowly escaped being placed on Unesco's World Heritage in Danger list.
Creative travellers, though, can still discover alternative ways to visit that are both sustainable and responsible. The solution is simply not to stay in Venice itself.
I decided to check out three options, beginning with a fashionably renovated fisherman’s cottage on the colourful lagoon island of Burano. Then over on the coastline that separates Venice from the Adriatic, lies the perfect budget, eco-friendly camping site. While out in the countryside, across from the bridge linking Venice to the mainland, an ancient farmhouse has been transformed into a luxurious glamping hideaway.
Making this responsible choice brings the best of both worlds as these under-the-radar locations have a host of surprising, offbeat attractions to discover, while the magic of Venice is easily accessible using public boat or train transport for a low carbon-footprint journey.
After Venice, Burano is the most-visited island in the lagoon, a magnet for day-trippers seduced by its tiny waterways lined with multicoloured houses that are irresistibly Instagrammable. Female artisans practise the ancient tradition of lace-making and foodie trattorie specialise in freshly caught fish and seafood. Until recently, there was little overnight accommodation, but I checked into Casa Burano, one of several canalside fishermen’s homes that have been transformed into designer bed and breakfasts.
Staying overnight here is an unforgettable experience as the island magically empties of tourists by late afternoon, leaving me almost alone to watch the fishing boats chug off from the quayside, the sun brilliantly setting in myriad colours over the still lagoon waters. The bed and breakfasts are owned by the Bisol family, a renowned producer of Prosecco who also created Venissa, their own vineyard resort on the tiny adjoining island of Mazzorbo, linked to Burano by a wooden bridge.
The 15-minute walk there for dinner takes me through Venissa’s garden, which is filled with artichokes, peas and asparagus, with their gourmet Michelin-starred restaurant overlooking the neatly criss-crossed lines of vines. It also has a Michelin Green star, awarded for efforts in sustainability, as chefs Chiara Pavan and Francesco Brutto produce a nine-course tasting menu using almost exclusively locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.
In the mornings, Burano’s public ferry is always ready to take me over to Venice in just 40 minutes with the chance to stop off to visit glassblowing workshops on Murano, or Torcello island, where the original founders of La Serenissima, or the Republic of Venice, first settled more than 1,500 years ago.
Venice’s slim littoral separates its lagoon from the sea, stretching some 40 kilometres along the Lido, rural Cavallino, Treporti and Ca’Savio, up to the seaside resort of Jesolo. My destination is Ca’Savio, a contrasting mix of bucolic vegetable gardens, and one of Europe’s oldest and largest family camping locations.
While most of these 30 sites predominantly offer family-orientated tourism at its most nostalgic, I stay the night at the eponymous Camping Ca’Savio, which has been inventively reborn as an ecologically responsible resort. Founded by a local family back in 1960, this tranquil, back-to-nature spot under the guidance of visionary third-generation Nicoletta Vianello now attracts a new generation of clients who are looking for an alternative to spending their Venice holiday in the historical centre.
The camp practises a host of sustainable initiatives such as water and energy-saving, dune protection and flora restoration, with comfy new eco-lodge tents and cool, minimalist Scandinavian-style chalets nestled beneath shady pine trees. But I cannot resist the chance to stay in their hip Airstream Park, hidden away among the dunes and a two-minute walk from the beach and sea. These sleek silver metallic caravans are actually modern replicas of the vintage American version, and in Ca’Savio, the roomy, luxury interiors feature air-conditioning, fridge, freezer, cooker, oven, shower and toilet, plus a very comfortable bed.
From there, it's a 10-minute drive on the local bus to Punta Sabbioni ferry stop, which then takes just 35 minutes to drop sightseers off right outside St Mark's Square. I prefer to totally avoid the crowds by renting a bike for the day to explore the narrow paths traversing the lagoon’s barene, a fragile ecosystem of wetlands forever shifting with the tide, alive with swooping flocks of birds, colourful vegetation and fishermen digging in the mud for precious razor clams and vongole.
A very different experience awaits discerning travellers choosing to base themselves at the Canonici di San Marco, Italy’s first luxury glamping resort. Located in the Veneto countryside near the grandiose frescoed Palladian villas along the Brenta Canal, six sumptuous safari-style tents sit in the lush, secluded grounds of a 17th-century barchessa mansion.
Each one seems more lavishly decorated than the next: Glittering crystal chandeliers; wood-carved four-poster beds; plush velvet and silk throws; antique bathtubs; but also air-conditioning and heating that allows year-round stays. There is a regular artist-in-residence programme, yoga and shiatsu massage, cooking courses and a tempting lap pool.
It is all too easy to spend the whole day spoiling yourself here, though a taxi is always ready to whisk guests off to the Dolo train station, a 25-minute ride to Venice either for sightseeing, drinks at Harry’s Bar or dinner at the historic Quadri restaurant overlooking St Mark's Basilica.