Under the Radar by Steffi Kammerer | 2nd December, 2022 | Travel
Legendary trains, elegant safaris, distinctive hotels – the Belmond group’s portfolio stands for unmatched sophistication. The next chapter: combining high-end luxury travel with culture and art.
Some things are difficult to describe. Like a recipe for a dish that depends on a combination of just the right ingredients. That’s how it is with the hotels in the Belmond group – each one a unique property whose magic envelops you as you step through the door.
When it comes to the Cipriani in Venice, you feel the magic the moment the gently rocking wooden motorboat drops you at the hotel’s private pier. All night, the boat travels back and forth to St. Mark’s Square.
“We want to celebrate the legendary art of travel.” ARNAUD CHAMPENOIS
The legendary hotel on Giudecca Island is an oasis of peace within the bustling city. Its walls are peach colored, just like the Bellini, which was invented here. Everything about the Cipriani seems to say: drink in the sun, exhale, relish the dolce vita. During the film festival, half of Hollywood comes here to recharge. George Clooney is a regular, he held his wedding here. The cocktail menu includes two drinks that he and the longtime bartender dreamed up. An Olympic-size seawater pool invites guests to indulge in a stylish dip. A hedge of fragrant jasmine surrounds the outdoor shower, its wild profusion imperfectly tamed; the well-worn slabs of marble at its base reflect the passage of time. Authentic details like these give the Belmond hotels their unique character and cozy charm. During our visit, a glittering installation by Subodh Gupta, called “Cooking the World,” stood among the lush flowers in the hotel garden. Gupta, who divides his time between Delhi and London, is one of India’s most successful contemporary artists. After causing quite a stir at Art Basil in 2017, the airy construction of old pots and pans delighted guests of the Cipriani from April to November, offering them a chance to explore and experience the artist’s work without having to stand in line. Gupta talks about how important it is to eat together – for families and communities. That day, he prepared the midday meal himself: traditional Indian dishes from his childhood. Eating the food he has cooked for them, guests become one with the installation and a part of a whole. Here in the peaceful garden, the silvery sparkling construction looks very much at home beside the herb bed. For centuries, the most important trading hub for spices from the Orient was Venice, after all. This is one of four projects that Belmond developed with Italy’s renowned Galleria Continua to further expand the company’s connection to art.
“People want to travel to learn something, to engage with the community.” ARNAUD CHAMPENOIS
The contact to the gallery, which represents artists Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor, had been established earlier, but an actual partnership didn’t come about until this past spring. Roundly regarded as a sweeping success, the partnership is set to continue in the coming year. The Cipriani has three restaurants, which Riccardo Canella took over as executive chef in early 2022. After a six-year stint in Copenhagen with Noma, the 37-year-old from Padua decided it was time to return to Italy. It’s late in the evening when he comes out of the kitchen and sits down at our table. The Cipriani is a “prima donna,” he says with a laugh, meaning he had better come up with something really good. Canella’s signature is particularly evident at Ristorante Oro, which has held a Michelin star since 2015. Even before the age of six, young Riccardo knew he wanted to become a chef, and Oro is now a restaurant of his own. Canella has big plans and an inquisitive mind; he experiments with plankton, for example, to find out what its possibilities are, investigates other things from the lagoon and searches for historical references. He serves up unusual delicacies, such as oyster sorbet. Or flowers and polenta crackers in the shape of a Venetian mask: a creation almost too beautiful to eat. Belmond is focusing more and more on what it calls Experiences, and at the Cipriani, you’ll find a linen folder in every room containing cultural activities presented on fine paperboard like a delicious treat. Hotel guests might be offered an exclusive tour at the Biennale or of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a chance to explore the city with a well-known author as their guide or a trip to historic photo archives to admire precious negatives. For Belmond, it all began with the Cipriani. In 1976, the American James Sherwood, who founded the company, bought the historic property for a mere £ 900,000. One year later, he acquired two dilapidated First Class sleeping cars at auction that had once belonged to the glorious Orient Express. He went in search of further cars and didn’t stop until he had restored 23 additional originals and brought the legend back to life. In 1982, the lovingly refurbished Venice Simplon-Orient-Express pulled into the lagoon city for the very first time. Today the London-based Belmond group has a diverse portfolio comprising 50 properties: a river cruise ship in Myanmar, safari lodges in Botswana, numerous luxury trains and legendary hotels worldwide, including La Residencia on Mallorca, Reid’s Palace on the flower island of Madeira, the Mount Nelson in Cape Town and the Grand Hotel Europa in St. Petersburg. Each hotel has its own identity and signature look and feel, even those in such geographic proximity as the romantic Villa San Michele overlooking Florence and the magnificent Castello di Casole in Tuscany on its 1,700 hectares (roughly 4,200 acres) of land. Belmond is a pioneer of exquisitely curated luxury travel. In April 2019, the company was acquired by LVMH, the world’s biggest luxury group. Within a year, the pandemic had started. Today Belmond is poised to take things one step further and become the world’s most coveted luxury travel brand. To this end, it plans to expand its portfolio over the long term. In February 2022 the company announced it had purchased the historic Villa Beatrice in Portofino – its third hotel in the coastal village near Genoa after the Splendido and the extensively refurbished Splendido Mare. Arnaud Champenois, head of brand and communication at Belmond, says: “New properties are in the pipeline, but we want to make sure that they make sense for the portfolio.” At present, the company is focusing on changes from within: “Our mission is to reinvent and reimagine our heritage properties, but in a very contemporary way. We have a new generation of guests, so we need to remain attractive for them. This is why programming is so important for us, it’s what creates conversation,” he explains. People today want to do more than just travel. “They want to travel to learn something, to engage with the community.” In addition to meaningful content, they’re looking for something that makes them think, he says, so the brand has to come up with something to maintain its appeal. “We need to pump up our programming in terms of culinary experiences, cultural experiences, wellness, fitness. It’s super interesting for us.” Collaborations with other LVMH brands offer countless opportunities for synergies. This year, for example, the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express traveled to the Cannes film festival from Paris for the very first time. Dior had transformed some of the art deco compartments into miniature spas so that guests could relax, have a facial and use Dior products to prepare for their grand entrances. The Venice Simplon- Orient-Express currently focuses more on cultivated sociability than it did in the past: In addition to new suites, it now has three restaurants and two bars. Belmond has big plans for the coming year. The famous Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro celebrates its centennial in 2022 and festivities will be taking place throughout the year, beginning with carnival in February. The Galleria Continua will be involved here too. In May the Maroma Hotel in Mexico will reopen its doors after extensive renovation. With the jungle on one side and the sea on the other, the exclusive hotel on the Riviera Maya is sure to provide plenty in the way of memorable Experiences.