Canals, boats and the possibility of awesome pizza twice a day are virtually irresistible to children, which is why — contrary to everything you may have heard — Venice is a great vacation spot for families with kids. Yes, lone and lonely travelers come to find themselves there (Von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s novella “Death in Venice,” Milly Theale in Henry James’ novel “The Wings of the Dove” and Jane Hudson, the Katharine Hepburn character, in David Lean’s film “Summertime,” anyone?) and lovers will always love Venice, but in my view, La Serenissima — as Venice has long been known — is absolutely made for kids.
From its doges to its dungeons (and what kid, after all, doesn’t like a bit of medieval cruelty?), Venice has it all. Wars with Moors, world-class opera, terrific gelato — and that’s just for starters. If something doesn’t fire your kids’ imagination in the floating city, then — dare I say it? — nothing ever will. But here’s the trick: Come to Venice in the winter months when the early morning fog can hang over the city like a shroud, but you more or less have the place to yourself. By afternoon, a weak sun more often than not breaks through, casting soft shadows on the piazzas. In winter, the vaporettos seem to struggle as they snake their sluggish way along the Grand Canal, the steely, hibernal light bouncing off the water, and the gondolier’s song is more of a weather-beating, rousing sea shanty than his summer evening ballad of wistful love.
In winter, in a Venice free of crowds, you skulk around atmospheric corners with your coat collar up against the wind and drink hot chocolate in Florian, on Piazza San Marco, where the waiters — unlike in July and August — are pleased to have customers to serve. At midday you can take the all-but-empty vaporetto to one of the near-deserted islands of the lagoon, a lunch of spaghetti alle vongole on Torcello, perhaps, before a visit to Murano to watch the glassblowers at work. Then, just when mid-winter in the Italian northeast can seem at its bleakest, in the last week of January, Carnevale bursts upon Venice, the city exploding in a riot of color. Grab a mask and a cloak (but don’t forget to wear your thermals underneath) and join in. This is Europe’s ultimate dress-up party and, incredibly, it goes on for a full 17 days (Jan. 23 through Feb. 9 this year).
At Carnevale’s end, I think it’s fair to say, you need some clean air and clean living. This is the time then to head up to Alta Badia, Italy’s loveliest skiing region, just two and a half hours’ easy drive north of Venice. High in the Dolomites — with more than 800 miles of runs as well as off-piste, natural-slope tobogganing, curling, skating and riding — it’s not unusual to see three generations of the same family out on the slopes. In the picture-postcard village of San Cassiano, you’ll find the Relais & Châteaux hotel Rosa Alpina, owned by the ineffably glamorous Pizzinini family, where the well-drilled, well-dressed staff is as chic as the guests, which believe me is saying something.
Isn’t that Sophia Loren by the elevator in the Bulgari earrings? No, silly, that’s the lady who does the flowers. Old money, old-fashioned comfort, but 21st century management, slick and on the ball. Forget to pack your skiing jacket? No problem. Hugo or Ursula Pizzinini will lend you one, delivered to your bedroom door in five minutes flat, the right size and even the right color. (How on earth do they know your favorite color? Well, they just do). Agnellis adore Rosa Alpina and Frescobaldis — Italy’s first family of wine — flock here. And did I mention Rosa Alpina loves children? Well, were I a child, I’d love it back. And I certainly couldn’t think of a better place to learn to ski.
Now if by chance you don’t do snow, and let’s face it, some of us don’t, you can hike or bike or spend all day at the fabulous, on-site spa, where they offer Dr. Howard Murad’s cell-renewal therapies along with treatments using Pharmos Natur Green Luxury products. And then there’s the food. Rosa Alpina has three terrific restaurants, including the Michelin-starred St. Hubertus, while about two miles down the road, there’s La Siriola, another Michelin-starred joint, owned by a Pizzinini cousin. Over at Corvara, meanwhile, barely 15 snowy minutes away, La Stüa de Michil is yet another Michelin-starred restaurant. It boasts the world’s largest private collection of Sassicaia wine.
So there you have it — the culture and exuberance of Venice coupled with the sheer exhilaration of the slopes. Frankly, I can’t think of a better winter combination.