When I arrived in Venice to board the first European river cruise to host Americans since the start of the pandemic, I got that coveted and rare look at what this popular destination feels like without any ocean liners in port and minus the thousands of day-trippers they once dropped here on a regular basis.
Before the week was out, a few big ships had come and gone through the heart of the Venetian Lagoon, although those sailings would be short-lived. As of August 1, large ocean liners are banned from the city’s historic center.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t—and shouldn’t—still sail in the Venetian Lagoon.
My weeklong late June sailing on Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ new 126-passenger S.S. La Venezia offered a preview of what a unique treat it is to be able to explore Venice and beyond from the luxurious and slow-paced vantage point of one of the few, more environmentally friendly small ships (Uniworld is committed to at least 50 percent of its electricity being renewable by 2025 and banning single-use plastics by 2022, among other sustainability measures) that will be able to continue to sail past the city’s landmarks and dock just steps away from St. Mark’s Square.
It wasn’t only the ease of having a floating luxury boutique hotel within walking distance of key attractions that made the cruise so enjoyable, it was also the relaxed nature of Uniworld’s Venice itinerary, which affords a much deeper dive into the destination than the typical, whirlwind day tours that conventional cruise ships and group tour companies offer.
Unlike most European river cruises that depart from one port and end in another, the Venetian Lagoon cruises by Uniworld and one other line, the more economical CroisiEurope, sail roundtrip from Venice. While we made a two-day jaunt up the Po River, the bulk of our cruise was spent in the lagoon, allowing plenty of time to explore Venice and nearby islands during off hours when you can better avoid the day-trippers who will no doubt be back in droves as larger ocean liners carry out plans to return to nearby ports.
I arrived by train from Rome late on a Sunday afternoon, in time to have dinner and take in sunset views of Venice’s waterways and skyline from the top deck.
At that time, Italian regulations required a COVID test upon embarkation or within 24 hours of boarding, as well as a second test midweek and another before disembarking. Regulations can change on a dime during the pandemic, however, so travelers should verify what the latest rules are for U.S. cruise passengers in Italy at the time of travel.
Otherwise, protocols were no more intrusive than what most of us have come to expect in the age of COVID. Onboard, masks were required while walking the halls, but could be removed while outside or while seated in the dining and lounge areas.
Off the ship, Italy was still requiring masks both indoors and outside, although the outdoor mask requirement has since been dropped. And as of August 6, tourists and locals alike are required to have Italy’s so-called green pass, showing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result in the last 48 hours to visit restaurants and many indoor venues.
Tests are readily available for free at train stations and pop-up clinics across the country and for about $25 at most pharmacies. This makes getting tested while in Italy easy, including for Americans needing the test required by the U.S. government for all international travelers entering the U.S. (including Americans returning home from abroad).
Venice minus the masses
While the pandemic-related rules and restrictions can and have changed often in Italy and throughout Europe, I found navigating them well worth the opportunity to explore Venice without the typical tourist crowds.
On Uniworld’s inaugural sailing, there were fewer than 50 people on board, making for a private-yacht-like experience complete with butlers, farm-to-table dining, and small group excursions to some of the region’s most famous sites.
On our first full day in Venice, excursion options included a morning walk in Venice with a tour of the Doge’s Palace, as well as a private evening tour of St. Mark’s Basilica. I spent much of the day wandering the streets of Venice, which were delightfully void of the throngs of cruise passengers I encountered on my last trip here in 2019.
The city’s famed and formerly tourist-clogged canals were practically empty, although gondola captains stood at the ready. Street vendors, restaurants, and shops were mostly open, and there were enough tourists and locals on the streets and the waterfront to create the lively vibe one expects to find in any globally renowned city such as Venice.
The next afternoon we set out toward the Po River, sailing just inside the lagoon, past numerous colorful fishing villages on the barrier islands that separate the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea.
Stops included Chioggia, known as little Venice, where I joined a cycling excursion that took us on a relaxing 90-minute ride across two islands and to the channel that connects the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea.
The next day’s included excursion was a day trip to Bologna, complete with a pasta-making class.
The following day it was back to Chioggia, where we spent the morning wandering the village’s weekly street market before setting sail into the lagoon for an overnight stop at Uniworld’s new, private dock on Burano, which offers easy on-and-off walking access to the island best-known for its colorful houses and lacemakers.
The final two days allowed for leisurely sailing and solo or group exploration around Venice and the lagoon. Excursion options included a trip to one of Murano’s famed glass-blowing centers.
The entire experience reminded me what is so wonderful about small-ship cruising (the great service, the carefree nature of not having to pack and unpack more than once, the slower pace), and what I don’t miss about larger ships, especially in a place as magical and threatened as Venice.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, the S.S. La Venezia is Uniworld’s top-to-bottom overhaul of the River Countess, which made headlines when it was rammed by a cruise ship in 2019 as it sat docked in the heat of Venice. That accident renewed years-long calls for the recently enacted ban on large ships.
Many of the guests on my cruise had originally been scheduled to sail just after that collision, which took the ship out of service for a few months before its already planned upgrade. Instead, they got to sail on the newly refurbished ship with a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the region at its uncrowded best.
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