Luxury bargains: Italy in winter

When I last checked, Rome’s Colosseum and the Sistine chapel in the Vatican had not changed. Up in the north of Italy in this magical, majestic land, Venice's Grand Canal still retained the allure that has enticed travellers down the centuries.

But, like so many other countries, some things have changed in Italy. The recession has known no international borders.

Of course, financial considerations have marginalised some. But for those who are still able to travel, there has probably never been a better time to visit Italy; yes, even in winter.

In Venice, carnival time (this year from 5-16 February), is one of the premium times of the year. The kaleidoscope of colour and intrigue draws visitors from right across the world. To stroll down a quiet, poorly lit Venetian alleyway close to midnight and see a figure wrapped in a black cape, wearing a mask and hat coming towards you provides a unique glimpse of a tradition that dates back centuries.

Yet even for carnival time this year, several of Venice's leading hotels still have rooms available. And even those who could report healthy occupancy rates would almost certainly have had to offer deals to attract business.

I tried two hotels in Venice, one in Rome. By some distance, the Regina Hotel, Rome, one of the elegant Baglioni chain, was the best. Here is the personification of elegance, comfort and charm. Luxurious drapes line windows, rooms are generously sized and there is a quiet, understated elegance to all that is offered. Afternoon tea or evening drinks beside a real log fire in an elegant drawing room/lounge was a wonderful experience. There is, too, a spa in which you can have a massage and relax.

Situated conveniently in the Via Veneto, the Regina is one of the finest hostelries in the Eternal city. In normal times, prices might seem beyond the reach of many budgets yet in this era of straitened finances, it is very different. Opportunities abound.

Chiara Visentin, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Luna Hotel Baglioni in Venice, told me "We find that flexibility is essential in these times. One thing we are not prepared to do is reduce the quality of our product. Indeed, we are one of the very few hotels groups I know in Italy which have continued to invest even in these difficult times.

"The owners here have improved and up-dated all the rooms. It has meant we can offer even better facilities, very often at very realistic rates."

Negotiating a deal has become endemic in the travel business. Rack rates, the prices hotels might normally charge, have become in most cases merely an aspiration. There are few nowadays who will not listen to offers and seek to find a compromise with potential clients. It may be in some cases that, if prices cannot be lowered as far as the customer might wish, other factors such as upgrades can be applied.

The end result is that some genuine bargains are available. Suddenly, luxury hotels such as those in the Baglioni group can come within reach of many travellers. They have had to extend their potential client base well beyond just the jet setters and multi millionaires. And if you can agree a deal within your budget, you will experience the stay of a lifetime.

Dinner at the Luna Baglioni Hotel in Venice, sited right on the Grand Canal near St Marks Square, was a gorgeous experience. Beautifully cooked food and elegant wines you expect at a hotel of this quality. But it is the surroundings that make such an evening so special. Comfortable and elegant, the dining room and service reflected the standards of the hotel itself.

Nearby, the Liassidi Palace hotel, discreetly situated off one of the labyrinth of smaller canals, also offered a valuable deal, of three nights for the price of two. A 4 star hotel, it was not of the standard of the Luna Baglioni, especially in terms of attention to detail. Breakfasts were sufficient but hardly inspiring and leaving an empty bottle of wine and the dirty glass in the room for three days seemed odd.

The room was large with plenty of space and lovely views down the canal. Front desk staff were most helpful. But the lack of a head board on the bed meant reading before lights out was all but impossible. And the lack of an actual bar in the hotel was a pity.

If the tougher economic times mean luxury hotels have to be far more flexible to attract customers, they must provide the best facilities. After all, you're still paying a decent amount and you’re entitled to expect the best. The Baglioni group offers that. They can transform your Italian trip from a pleasant experience into a lifelong memory.

That, at the end of the day, is what makes any trip special.

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