Venice Gather 2019 at the JW Marriott: feast in the Floating City
Every time I mentioned to someone that I would be going to Venice, I was greeted with a sympathetic smile and something like: “Oh, it’s very crowded. So many tourists.”
Well, yes - it’s Venice, people want to visit. If it’s peace and quiet you seek, try Norilsk in the remote Siberian wilderness - there’s plenty of space, though I’ve heard the gelato’s rubbish.
Alternatively, do the sensible thing and get yourself to the JW Marriott Venice, which sits a ten-minute boat ride away from the hustle and bustle of Venezia on its own delightful private island, Isola delle Rose.
The Week Portfolio was lucky enough to visit during Gather Venice, the annual culinary and wellbeing festival by JW Marriott and Food and Wine Magazine.
Four intimate cooking classes, eight wine and cocktail tastings, seven chef-hosted dinners, and 30 culinary and well-being events made up the impressive festival.
Our first Gather experience was courtesy of top US chocolatier Norman Love, who led our small group’s chocolate-making experience, giving each person one-to-one tuition on how to make the perfect praline truffles.
Presented in a beautiful gift bag at the end of the class, they were the perfect souvenir for the unfortunate souls back home who couldn’t join the trip. Or at least they would have been, had I not taken it upon myself to eat them all.
The two Michelin-starred Italian chef Ciccio Sultano led my second cooking class. Pan-seared seafood and perfect pasta were created - and then enjoyed - under the instruction of a true Sicilian master.
He even smiled patiently for a series of Americans eager to get a photo with him. I pretended to be too cool to want one, and then regretted it for the rest of the day.
Cookery schools are available all year round at the hotel’s Sapori Cooking Academy, offering everything from six hour classes on the grand classics of Italian cuisine, to two hour classes creating cicchetti, Venetian small plates.
Lunch during Gather a casual affair, with various stalls set up around the hotel’s grounds offering Italian favourites like pasta, pizza and gelato.
Games were encouraged, with everything from boules to giant Mikado set out for guests to try their hand. A personal favourite was Prosecco pong, possibly the best way to enjoy a few bottles of generously provided Prosecco at 1pm in the September sun.
Wine tasting and mindfulness experiences took place on a rolling basis, and it was up to guests to choose whether yoga and meditation would be more relaxing than drinking six glasses of wine.
What to eat
Arguably the best part of Gather was saved for the evenings. The first night saw An Italian Homecoming dinner hosted by the Michelin-starred chef Fabio Trabocchi in the Marriott’s Fiola at Dopolavoro Venezia.
Fresh, local produce was the foundation of a supper including beautifully cooked sardines, caviar, spider crab risotto and langoustine, charcoal-grilled duck breast with Foie Gras and peverada sauce, all finished off with the ultimate Italian classic - tiramisu.
The following evening took us east, with Michelin-starred chef Dalad Kambhu offering up Thai cuisine. A peach, pear and fig salad started off a meal that included a ceviche of local seafood, steamed ombrina fish and a Venetian curry. A South East Asian style gelato was the perfect end to this Thai-via-Venice culinary experience.
The final evening was hosted by Gather Venice’s all-star chef roster. Fabio Trabocchi, Giada De Laurentiis, Ciccio Sultano, Angela Hartnett, Jonathan Waxman and Martina Caruso all prepared a course each, complemented by carefully selected wine pairings from Food & Wine magazine’s editor Ray Isle.
Lobster and lemongrass, Tom Kha chicken with palm sugar and coconut, lasagna and lagoon crustaceans, poached wild branzino with caviar, snapper with anchovy glaze and roasted venison loin all featured in a triumphant celebration that brought Gather Venice 2019 to a perfect conclusion.
What to do
Glorious views of the hotel’s grounds and beyond can be enjoyed from the rooftop bars that sit atop the Marriott, and are best paired with a sunset aperitivo. Favourites included Aperol Spritz, a Negroni, or even a Gallic coupe of champagne.
Back on ground level, you can grab a bicycle and tour the island on two-wheels. If you’re canny enough, you may be able to find some of the secret spots tucked away around the Isola delle Rose, offering the perfect hideaways to relax and take in further spectacular views of Venice across the water.
Another well-kept secret - until now, scusa - is a hidden, Tokyo-style Suntory whisky bar tucked away next to the Marriott’s spa. A special gold coin, handed out to select guests, is required for entry to the tiny basement bar that fits a handful of people shoulder-to-shoulder.
Out and about in Venice
The Marriott offers half-hourly shuttles to San Marco, the tourist heart of Venice and home to St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs. Guests can hop on and off the boats, which run until 00:30.
A highlight of my excursions into Venice proper was joining one of the Marriott’s chefs on an early morning tour of Rialto Market. Packed with fresh and seasonal produce, the market offered a look at an authentic side of Venice that can get lost while enduring never-ending luxury at the hotel.
Guests can sign up to the market tour as part of the Authentic Venice cooking class, which starts with the visit, goes via the hotel gardens and class kitchens before ending up at the school’s dining table.
How to get there
There are regular and reasonable flights between the UK and Venice Marco Polo (VCE), with British Airways offering prices that compete with the budget airlines.
The hotel is happy to arrange transfers to and from the airport, which is advisable - getting to the Isola delle Rose shouldn’t be marred by having to slalom around tourists with a suitcase.
Arriving at the hotel is an experience in itself; bouncing along the water in the back of a boat as the island gets nearer, before gently cruising through the imposing water entrance and arriving on terra firma.
You can book your stay at the JW Marriott Venice on the hotel’s website. Gather has its own website, where you can book packages and experiences. Venice Gather 2020 dates are not yet confirmed, but Gather by JW in Dubai is set to kick off on 24 October 2019.