Review by Fiona Duncan, published 8th January 2005.
Recently I had lunch with friends on the roof terrace at the Hotel Danieli. While the view across the lagoon was magical, the meal was anything but. I've eaten better at service stations, and the bill, when it came, left us stunned. It's a feeling you can get all too often in Venice. My friends were particularly gloomy. One couple had been allocated a very ordinary room in the Danieli's charmless annexe which, like the food, was hugely overpriced. Another were staying near the Rialto in a "silk-lined coffin" reached by three ladder-like flights of stairs. A third found their hotel on the Grand Canal acceptable but lacklustre: "the dead flowers in the window box said it all".
At least I was in a charming hotel for a modest price, but then I'm lucky, I'm in the know. You have to be in Venice. Too many of its hoteliers are content to take the money and deliver minimal value. The following places, from budget establishments to spoiling ones, are all well run and offer something extra. Prices refer to a standard double room with breakfast in high season; low-season rates are up to 50 per cent cheaper. At La Calcina (Fondamenta Zattere ai Gesuati; 041 520 6466; www.lacalcina.com; £100) owners Alessandro and Debora Szemere are intent on preserving the spirit of the pensione where Ruskin lodged in 1876 (he stayed in Room 2), while making it appealing to present-day travellers. Rooms are unpretentious and tasteful, with cream walls, floaty curtains, parquet floors and original furniture from the old inn, plus modern bathrooms and air- conditioning. La Piscina, a floating café/restaurant under a canopy of white umbrellas, adds a sparkling touch, with light dishes available throughout the day and evening. If you can, book a room overlooking the water, especially one of the corner rooms (2, 4, 22 and 32), but if you can't, don't worry: stay here anyway.
La Calcina is in a lovely position, but anyone who craves a window on the Grand Canal, yet is on a shoestring, should head for La Galleria (041 523 2489; www.hotelgalleria.it; £79) by the Accademia bridge. Through an improbable entrance next to a craft gallery, you climb a flight of steps and travel back some 90 years, for this quaint, 10-room hotel in a creaky building appears frozen in the Edwardian era. Stick to the larger rooms on the Grand Canal: others are too small. The best is No. 10 (£103), which can sleep four and has a glorious painted ceiling. Breakfast is served in your room by charming staff.
Another budget option is Locanda Ca\'Foscari (Calle della Frescada; 041 710401; www.locandacafoscari.com; £64), well-situated near the Frari church. It is a simple one-star hotel where only seven of the 11 rooms have their own shower or basin, but it has much to recommend it. Run by a mother, father and daughter, it has a cosy, family feel, with flowers in reception, a domestic kitchen and spotless bedrooms that have pretty bedspreads and lacy curtains. The skimpy beds are surprisingly comfortable. A group of 22 to 28 can take the whole place, including dinner and breakfast, for £34 a night each.There has been a recent explosion of b&bs in Venice, but only a handful can be recommended. Palazzo dal Carlo (Fondamenta Borgo; 041 522 6863; www.palazzodalcarlo.com; £89) is among them. After time spent in Milan, Roberta dal Carlo returned to her childhood home on the pretty Eremite canal, restoring and redecorating it to perfection, with three double bedrooms (one triple), each with a contemporary glass and marble bathroom. Decorative highlights include the delicately coloured stucco ceiling in the guest sitting room, a romantic roof terrace in the largest room and a superb terrazzo floor in the hall. But it is Roberta herself - vivacious, warm and elegant - who makes the place. Breakfast, at the communal dining table, is delicious.If a b&b is not for you, consider stepping the Antica Locanda Montin (Fondamenta Borgo; 041 522 7151; £96), almost next door, which was established in 1800 and is still family-run. The bedrooms, leading off a magnificent beamed landing, have plenty of devotees. They may be simple and a bit chipped but they have character, lifted by the pretty wrought-iron beds and the many paintings donated over the years by artists in lieu of the bill. Go for the rooms with their own bathrooms, overlooking the canal: No. 11 is the best.
Where do the locals go for dinner in Venice? One favourite is Agli Alboretti (Rio Terrà Foscarini; 041 523 0058; www.aglialboretti.com; £125), once the haunt of artists, now owned by Anna Linguerri. She also runs the adjoining little hotel, with 23 small, neat bedrooms, dotted with pictures and an antique or two. Best are the three rooms with garden views (15, 18 and 22), the last of which has a balcony on which you can breakfast. The pergola-covered terrace is a delight.The Danieli is just one of many hotels along the Riva degli Schiavoni whose guests must pay for the beautiful views by putting up with the crowds below their windows. Far classier and better value, in my opinion, with excellent food in its restaurant, is the Londra Palace (041 520 0533; www.hotelondra.it; from £337). Most of its rooms, with original paintings and Biedermeier furniture and flowery fabrics, have lagoon views - in this hotel it\'s pointless being in one that hasn\'t. In the morning, heavy shutters keep rooms deliciously dark and quiet; open them and you lie in bed listening to the peaceful slap of waves on the quay. Service is smooth and the twinkly concierge endears himself to everyone.
One evening, I was close to St Mark's when my eye was caught by the discreet sign and 16th-century entrance to the Locanda Antica Venezia (041 523 0880; www.hotelanticavenezia.com; £125). I had a good look round: spacious, gracious, well-equipped rooms, a cosy beamed sitting room and a terrace, perfect for drinks (served 24 hours) and friendly owners. The room rates came as another pleasant surprise.I've often hurried through little Campo San Gallo behind St Mark's Square, but never, until recently, pushed open the wrought-iron gate that stands to one side. Do so, and you find yourself in a secret, silent and tiny square with the low-key front door of the Locanda Orseolo (Corte Zorzi; 041 523 5586; www.locandaorseolo.com; £160). Step inside the hotel and you might be in a compartment on the Orient Express: elegant, enveloping, and richly coloured and furnished. But it's the warmth of the young team at this equally young 15-room hotel that makes it really special - Matteo, Barbara and their brothers, sisters and friends. In the morning, Matteo dons an apron and cooks pancakes and omelettes to order, Barbara serves and everyone chats. The comfortable bedrooms are being transformed to echo the ground floor, complete with hand-painted murals and canopied beds. Secure one and you\'ll have a real bargain.
Novecento (Campo San Maurizio; 041 241 3765; www.novecento.biz; from £125) has great panache: the laid-back, ethnic decoration and beautiful beds, each different, the imaginative breakfast (slices of feta surrounded by little strawberries) and the delightful, devoted young owners. You can pick holes if you like, but it feels just right to me.