Hidden Venice: Isola Santa Cristina

Isola Santa Cristina, a private island with a nine-room villa, is home to peacocks and a vast range of wildlife.

When you say Venice, what springs to mind is a spectacular city floating on a shimmering lagoon with ornate palaces, romantic stone bridges, and dashing gondoliers. One of the world’s great art cities, it is made up of 118 small islands, but in its vast salt-water lagoon there are dozens of other islands, some of which, like Murano and Burano, are almost as famous as Venice itself. 

Many of these less visited, off-the-beaten-track islands, are places of unexpected and delightful discovery, like Isola Santa Cristina. This is the largest of the minor islands, a mere 25 minutes from St. Mark’s Square in the remote northern reaches of the lagoon. These 74 acres are a place of tranquility and beauty where time moves at a leisurely pace, when it does not quite simply stand still. 

Santa Cristina was purchased some 40 years ago by Gernot Langes-Swarovski, who used it as a family holiday home and transformed the 75 acres by adding a vineyard, an olive grove, majestic cypresses, exotic plants and trees and a swimming pool. Now it is lovingly tended by René Deutsch ([email protected]; 011-43-664-822-5080), the son of Gernot’s second wife who together with his wife Sandra, has turned it into an intimate luxury escape.

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Guests arriving from Venice or from the airport step off a comfortable, skippered speedboat at the jetty, or can land on the helipad behind the handsome pink façade of Villa Ammiana, named after the group of islands to which Santa Cristina belongs.  After René and Sandra’s magnificent renovation of the villa a couple years ago, the island opened for the exclusive use of up to 16 discerning guests. Good to know: For safety reasons the island’s boats do not operate after sunset, so arrivals and departures should be planned for the daylight hours.   

For those who like to travel with their own retinue there are staff quarters, and the old farmhouse across the island’s lake, which René and Sandra call home, has a large room for meditation and yoga retreats. The villa’s tiled traditional kitchen is equipped to professional standards that will delight any celebrity chef, and the handpicked staff, led by a maggiordomo and an executive chef, are top drawer and provide levels of discreet bespoke service on a par with the world’s glitziest resorts.

But glitzy Villa Ammiana is not. The nine bedrooms, of which two are junior suites and two singles, are luxuriously simple with pale woods and fabrics and have cutting-edge marble bathrooms. There are no TVs in the guestrooms — although there is one in the elegant sitting room which has artwork brought back from Tibet and Morocco by René and Sandra — but there is Wi-Fi throughout. 

René Deutsch and his wife Sandra have turned Santa Cristina into an intimate luxury escape.

As we fell under the spell of Santa Cristina we found ourselves not really caring about what was going on in the outside world, and only checked our smartphones when they reminded us with a ping or a buzz. René calls this Santa Cristina’s magic. “Being on an island, your energy is contained. Santa Cristina touches people inside, allowing them to savor beauty and peace. Even the most dynamic, high-energy people really chill out here, sharing quality time and enjoying simple pleasures.” Note: Minimum stays are three nights and the best months are from April to October, with temperatures soaring in July and August.

The pleasures of the table are among the highlights of a stay on Santa Cristina. Executive Chef Ivan Garlassi ([email protected]; 011-39-331-943-8991) who hails from the Italian region famous for its Parma hams, Parmesan cheese and Spaghetti Bolognese, decks the 16-seater tables on the outdoor terrace and in the dining room with gourmet specialties, many of which are cooked, often by the guests themselves, on the terrace’s monumental open fireplace.   

Local fish and produce take pride of place, and René told us guests love to meet the local fishermen who drop by in the mornings with their catch. “Guests get to choose the fresh fish, and for many of them this is a unique experience. They also love listening to the fishermen’s stories about the lagoon and the islands, and they often end up going out with them and catching their own fish.”

Chef Ivan can be contacted ahead to discuss menus and says he favors traditional Italian cuisine for its healthy and balanced ingredients. “Many guests are surprised at how delicious simple food can be. It is what we Italians do best, but as the guest is king we happily adapt to personal requirements and tastes,” Ivan says.  

Relaxing by the pool, strolling the island pathways with pheasants and peacocks down to the ancient little brickwork chapel and the orchards, joining in the grape and olive harvests, and drinking in the views of the island and the lagoon from the rooftop terrace with a glass of chilled Santa Cristina wine, are all reasons why many guests happily remain island-bound.  

Others set off for nearby islands to discover art treasures like the stunning Byzantine mosaics in the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, where Locanda Cipriani opened in 1934 and has long been a favorite haunt of crowned heads and celebrities from Princess Diana to Margaret Thatcher and Audrey Hepburn to Ernest Hemingway. The Michelin Venissa Wine Resort on neighboring Mazzorbo is for connoisseurs of the finest dining and, across a wooden footbridge on the rainbow-hued island of Burano, is the Trattoria al Gatto Nero, where Chef Ruggero Bovo, his wife Lucia and son Maximiliano treat guests to some of the most amazing seafood in the lagoon. Note: Advance reservations are a must in all these iconic eateries.  

“We are blessed to have Venice, one of the world’s most visited cities, on our doorstep. Private islands are usually in remote places that take hours of flying from the nearest city. We are remote, but our USP is that we are in the heart of Europe and only a couple of hours from many of its great capital cities,” says René.    

The sitting room, which has artwork brought back from Tibet and Morocco by René and Sandra.

As well as bewitching guests with its private-island magic, Santa Cristina has a liaison, Allison Zurfluh ([email protected]; 011-41-76-345-3554), who can wow your A-listers by bringing them to see and do things that are reserved for the privileged few. Allison, who was raised in California, is an expert on the lagoon and, thanks to her insider network, can open rooms nobody sees in Venice’s stunning Renaissance Marciana Library. She also sets up rowing lessons with the legendary gondolier Franco Dei Rossi, a five-time winner of the Historical Regatta, and classical music concerts on Santa Cristina’s outdoor terrace with world-famous pianist Olivier Cavé. 

Lovers of art and photography can take classes with the Australian artist John Kelly, and photographic outings with Steven Rothfeld who hails from San Francisco and is acclaimed for his work on food and Italy. Top Tip: Allison’s exclusive lagoon fish fries with local fishermen in places no tourists can access, and candlelit nights in beautiful secret venues donning traditional Venetian capes and masks. 

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