Nick Trend, The Daily Telegraph, June 26, 2013
One of the great lost experiences of Venice is the grand arrival. In a city that was, perhaps more than any other in history, built to display the immense wealth of its inhabitants, virtually all the palazzi and elite buildings were designed with their formal entrance, the porta d'acqua, opening directly onto the water. For the smartest of all, of course, this meant the Grand Canal.
If you were a privileged guest – whether a 15th-century medieval merchant or an 18th-century Grand Tourist – your gondola would glide between the gilt-capped mooring poles and you would step directly onto the water-lapped steps and the pink-and-white chequered marble floor of the entrance hall.
Then you would progress up the main staircase to the piano nobile and the central reception hall, lined with silk wall hangings and lit by a glittering Murano chandelier, before strolling over the terrazzo floor to the balcony to see who would be next to arrive. It was all about ease, elegance and the display of enormous wealth.
Today we have almost lost our sense of how these spectacular pleasure palaces were designed to be used. We see them only from the deck of a vaporetto or the crowded quays of the Rialto. Meanwhile, the back streets echo with the rumble of wheeled suitcases as tourists seek out the alleys and side entrances designed for the tradesmen and serving classes. Even if you are lucky enough to arrive by water taxi, only a tiny number of hotels still use the original porta d'acqua.
So, it was hard not to be deeply impressed by the experience of arriving in exactly this way at the new Aman hotel in Venice last week. It was, I suppose, roughly the equivalent of sweeping up the tree-lined avenue to the main entrance of a National Trust stately home in a chauffeur-driven Bentley, instead of leaving your car round the back, and entering via the ticket office in the stable block.
It's not surprising, though, that Aman should seek to take a different approach to the competition. This small chain of luxury beach resorts – it has about 20 scattered across the more upmarket corners of the globe – has a highly distinctive style of relaxed, discreet personal service combined with contemporary surroundings and obsessive attention to detail. So how would it reinvent a 16th-century palazzo in Venice – the first time it has opened a hotel in a European city?
The critical difference from the guest's point of view is that at every opportunity Aman plays down the sense of being a hotel. It feels rather as though you are staying in a private palazzo. There is no reception desk, no signs to the bar or the lavatories; instead, helpful staff seem to materialise when you need them. There are no swipe cards for the rooms (you use the original 19th-century locks on the ornate walnut doors), nor is there even a sign over the entrance, while the street gate at the back (you won't want to go everywhere by water taxi) has only a discreet lettering on the intercom button.
Even more importantly, the integrity of the building has been preserved. Unlike most of the other hotels in Venice, it has not been divided up to maximise the amount of accommodation available. It still feels like a palace. Virtually the entire three principal floors and double-height grand salons of the main building form the reception rooms and dining areas, while most of the 24 bedrooms (together with the three spa treatment rooms) are in the 19th-century wing attached to one side.
Here too the rooms have been left intact, meaning you get a huge amount of space for your money (a rarity in Venice), with bathrooms so big that in some cases they double as sitting rooms.
For the most part, Aman's clean, simple, contemporary furnishings blend extremely well with historic detail, and there are deft decorative touches, such as fresh white amaryllis flowers scattered throughout the reception rooms.
True, when you have 18th-century frescoed ceilings, cornices dripping with gilded stucco, rococo mirrors, and a library with elaborate walnut bookcases, a more restrained approach is probably a wise move. Just occasionally, however, form wins out at the expense of function. The low-slung chairs and tables in the restaurant look great, but it's a novel position from which to enjoy a formal meal, and I fear for the health of the waiting staff. Not only do they have to dip their knees awkwardly to serve to the table top, but they will no doubt be required to help lever less agile guests back to their feet at the end of their meal.
That won't trouble you if you choose to eat in the Japanese restaurant which is about to open in the palazzo garden – it has higher seats. This wonderful green space, fronting directly onto the water, and unique among Grand Canal hotels, is a huge bonus in a city that can, on hot, crowded days, feel claustrophobic. And the sense of space and freedom doesn't stop here – there is a shady back garden too. And up on the fifth floor, is a traditional altana – a rooftop platform where you can sit high above the pantiled roofs among the belfries and chimney pots of the city and enjoy one of the best views of Venice I have ever seen.
So how does the Aman compare with its three main rivals, the Gritti Palace, the Danieli and the Cipriani?
In terms of location, it is right at the heart of the city, in the San Polo district, a short walk from the Rialto bridge. If you know Venice well, it's an excellent place to be. If you prefer to be near the more famous of San Marco sights, the Gritti is farther down the Grand Canal a few minutes' walk from St Mark's Square, while the Danieli, which overlooks the lagoon, is just a few doors along from the Doge's Palace. Although the Cipriani is on the Guidecca (a separate island from the rest of Venice), you can, on demand, use its free private taxi shuttle to cross the lagoon in three or four minutes.
The Cipriani is certainly the most laidback of the four – it has a large pool, gardens and, along with the Aman, is the only one to have a spa. The Danieli is bigger and livelier, and the Gritti (recently reopened after a £36 million refurbishment) has perhaps the most impressive pedigree of celebrity guests.
If you want to see and be seen, these, in their different ways, are better bets than the Aman. But if you crave a sense of how a palazzo was meant to be, and the feeling of being a private guest in a private home, none of them can come close to this newcomer on the Venetian block.
Finally, there is the question of price. Bear in mind here that Venice hotels are the most expensive in Europe, so all rates are eye-wateringly high. Aman operates a tariff that does not change according to season and which it says it does not discount. Its cheapest rooms are £850 a night – excluding breakfast.
This compares with low-season rates of £997 at the Cipriani, £415 at the Gritti and £320 at the Danieli – though you may pay significantly more in high season.
Booking for the Aman Canal Grande Venice (0039 041 2707333; amanresorts.com ). Booked at the airport quay, a water taxi transfer costs €110 (£93).
For our Expert Guide to Venice, including a formal review of the Aman, and details of flights, events and other activities see telegraph.co.uk/venice .