Venice virgins can be forgiven for thinking that the city's best hotel should be close to San Marco or on the Grand Canal. Not so. Insiders know that you want to look over to the main island while avoiding the hordes of tourists, who can be more plentiful than the pigeons. There's nothing quite like waking up in the Hotel Cipriani, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. That location, for starters. It's on Giudecca Island facing San Marco, amid a sea of quiet streets, sprawling gardens, and that giant saltwater pool (hotel lore says it was planned in feet but the designer built it in meters, thus tripling its size). The full glory of Venice is suddenly yours — you can actually imagine being here when the city was a world power of its own.
Be aware that rooms vary in size and have a certain faded look, so ask for dimensions and try to snag a lagoon view. (Management tends to favor repeat guests, but persevere.) Avoid the new annex altogether, which has small rooms and a less glamorous feel. Even better — though it costs a mint — choose a room in the Vendramin, a restored waterfront palazzo that comes with a fleet of private butlers. It's no wonder Clooney often makes the Cipriani his bachelor pad when in town for the film festival.