Richard Branson has Necker in the British Virgin Islands; Leonardo diCaprio has Blackadore Caye island in Belize; Shakira has Bonds Cay in the Bahamas; and, for now, I have Isola Santa Cristina in Venice.
Before you reach for Google to see if my Greek origins lead back to Onassis, Niarchos or Midas, I’ll save you the trouble — they don’t. Nor do they need to, because at €2,900 per night (and sleeping 16) this private island is within the means of people who don’t have shipping companies or the ability to turn things into gold.
Santa Cristina is a pearl in the hypnotic wilderness of Venice’s northern lagoon, and is close to the city — about 30 minutes by water taxi — yet light years away from it. Where Venice stirs you with a sense of urgency and a compulsion to see and do everything, the island gives off a calm reassurance that it’s fine to do nothing. Gaze out over the archipelago. Read, float on your back in the pool, take a walk. Chef will have dinner ready on your return.
Even getting there is emotionally transportative. As my boat chops along the canals, the worry disappears — it’s hard to believe that half an hour before I’d been caught in a maelstrom of wheelie bags and travellers at Marco Polo airport, my stress levels set to explosive.
Beyond Murano, Burano and Mazzorbo, signs of human existence fade and nature comes to the fore. Marshy mudflats jostle with isles submerged by earthquakes 1,000 years ago and islands where ancient monasteries stand silhouetted against a setting sun. The only inhabitants appear to be cormorants, herons, flamingos and egrets.
When I disembark and walk through the cypress-shaded, jasmine-fragranced garden to Villa Ammiana, I feel an immediate sense of peace that normally only comes after a week in a spa. It is this remarkable quality that brought owners René and Sandra Deutsch here to transform the island and the nine-bedroom villa into an eco-retreat.
“My stepfather bought the island in the Eighties and we would come here often as a family,” says Deutsch. “No matter where I was, I always had a yearning to come back. We wanted to immerse ourselves in Venetian life and join the artisans creating ecologically sound, sustainable businesses that will preserve the traditions and heritage of the lagoon. We wanted to take the island back in time, to restore it, restock its canals with indigenous species, revive its vineyards and orchards, and to re-introduce bees.”
Santa Cristina is one of only three islands remaining in the Ammiana archipelago but I don’t need a guidebook to see the sights — there’s only the villa and, past the gardens, the pool and lake and the Deutschs’ home with its yoga studio that guests can use.
Though the circumference of the island can be walked in an hour, I take twice as long, meeting the island’s residents: the free-running chickens that supply the breakfast eggs, the bees that last year produced the island’s first honey in decades, and the herons that would steal my dinner from the fisheries, given the chance.
The attention I pay to my surroundings gets me much closer to achieving the much prized and often elusive state of mindfulness than any app or colouring book ever did.
Guests are welcome to self-cater using the extensive kitchen but what’s the point of staying on a private island if you have to do your own grunt work? Chef Anna Elisabetta, one of many hired by the Deutschs for their visitors, creates a traditional Venetian menu for me that includes snails, soft-shell lagoon crabs, polenta served with cuttlefish, a beautiful bean stew and a remarkable chestnut-flour pasta coated in pesto sauce made with carrot and radish leaves, walnuts and parmesan.
It’s so good that I’m already planning my next visit. I just need another
15 guests to join me… Any takers?