Carol Wright gets a real taste of La Dolce Vita with a cruise around the vibrant Venice Lagoon

Venice once dominated the sea and is still fragilely poised on water, so the best way to see her – and to avoid the summer crowds – is to tour the Lagoon and Brenta river by small boat.

La Dolce Vita is one of the world’s smallest ‘cruise ships’ – an 1897 21-metre long and 4.9m wide former Dutch working barge converted in 2004 and refitted in 2006 that takes six passengers and three crew – captain, chef and steward/guide.

She is a chunky, slow-moving lady, not to be hurried. Her local Padua-born captain nudges her through the canals and knows every channel in the lagoon by heart. Just as well, since the lagoon is only around 2ft deep but teeming with fish, from anchovy to seabass.

Apart from her cumbersome girth, she lives up to her name. Life aboard is certainly sweet. Her deck bears dining table, chairs, loungers, umbrellas and bicycles. Sitting in the sun with book and glass of local wine, gazing over the water, it’s easy to slow down and relax. Once aboard, everything is included – three full meals, wines and bar drinks, excursions and guides.

Passengers must make their own way to the Hotel Villa Goetzen at Dolo on the Brenta canal, about 40 minutes by taxi from Venice’s Marco Polo airport. Pick up from the hotel is 5pm on Sundays.

A taxi ferries passengers to La Dolce Vita’s mooring below Padua’s Roman walls, the crew lined up with welcome Prosecco and substantial canap�s. The three cabins have double or twin beds with drawers underneath, a wardrobe, air conditioning and windows high up. The adjoining shower room is spacious, with shelves, hair-dryer and good mirrors.

Throughout the voyage, young chef Eros from Reggio Calabria produced superb meals from a tiny galley, beautifully presented and using fresh local products. At 7.30am each day, he went ashore to buy ingredients, including fresh bakery items for breakfast which included yoghurt, fruit, cereals, two juices – one of scarlet-hued Sicilian oranges – hams, cheese and eggs cooked to order.

Lunch included fish salads, pasta dishes such as spaghetti con vongole, and always two cheeses carefully described by Karim the Casablanca-born steward, while dinner was substantial, with delights such as three types of Italian ham with melon; a platter of smoked swordfish, salmon and trout; and large prawns on pasta. Desserts embraced millefeuille with fruit, soft sponge cakes for birthday celebrations and biscotti – sweet, hard biscuits – shaped to represent canal bends, canal guiding posts and islands served with sweet white wine to dunk them in. A true delight!

Most meals are served in the lounge, which has a CD player and disc library, open bar, board and card games and a small library of books about the area. After dinner, smokers retired to the open deck under the stars with digestifs. The chef gets one night off when passengers eat at the Villa Goetzen at Dolo that specialises in fish. Dress is informal; shorts and tops for daytime plus some decorous cover-ups for church visiting. Dinner is not dressy either, except for the captain’s farewell dinner when women put on dresses.

The first day at Padua, we walked to the vast basilica of St Anthony’s cathedral. After that came a visit to the world’s oldest botanical garden, founded in 1545, where huge trees shade lotus pools and the area’s ubiquitous magnolia grandiflora trees. In the afternoon, La Dolce Vita moved up canal to moor in an old lock to visit the Scrovegni chapel, commissioned by wealthy merchants as a hopeful passport to heaven. Timed tickets allow 15 minutes to study Giotto’s frescoes of the life of Christ and the contrasts of heaven and hell.

The next morning, I awoke at the landing stage of the massive Villa Pisani, which took 10 years to build as a country party palace for a rich Venetian family. The place cost so much, it later had to be sold to Napoleon, and the emperor’s sunken bath and golden baldacchino bed can still be seen.

There’s little furniture left but beautiful monochrome murals by Francesco Simonini have a fascinating 3D effect. The highlight is the ballroom with a ceiling by Tiepolo, 300 square metres in size that took 76 days to paint. The extensive Le Notre-inspired park contains an 18th century coffee house, maze, water features, orangery and stables and is studded with ultra-modern sculpture.

The following day we passed more palatial country houses while, downstream, the river became curvaceous, sweeping between maize fields, with time to laze on deck and watch as we wiggled through a lock designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Past ugly industrial pylons and petrochemical towers, we were suddenly out in the Lagoon, a water-flat horizon always dominated by the distant tower of St Mark’s.

La Dolce Vita followed the line of bricole along the Fustina channel leading to Venice. Bricole are ancient wooden piles outlining the dredged lagoon channels. They act as mooring posts for the boats of anglers, lovers and bathers, and some have little shrines on them.

From the Fustina Canal, we entered the Guidecca Canal hugging the side past the Redentore church, to tie up in the yacht harbour of San Giorgio Maggiore island just across from St Mark’s square. Lunch was taken on deck watching Venice’s equivalent of a speed camera; a policeman by the canal entrance taking pictures of speeding boats.

After a guided visit to the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s, we left for Murano, arriving at sunset when all the day’s tourists had gone. We moored below the Vetriano Ducale for the night and, early next day, before the visitor invasion began, saw how glass is hand-blown into horses, chandelier pieces or vases and toured the salesrooms among glass formed into every possible shape and colour.

Passing Casanova’s house on a rural canal en route to Torcello, we walked along red brick paths through fields to Torcello’s basilica, built in 639 with grimly evocative scenes of the descent into hell mosaiced onto the walls. With three bistros, only a handful of people still live on Torcello, which was the most important island 1500 years ago until, driven out by malarial mosquitoes breeding in the silted channels, the population moved to Venice. The bell tower of Santa Fosca stands sentinel to the former dominance, rivalling St Mark’s as a location pin-pointer.

We used a couple of bricole to moor up for a leisurely lunch with views of Burano, our next island, not far away. We arrived here late afternoon when again the day visitors had left and we could appreciate the stunning colour-washed beauty of a town noted for fishing and lace-making. Karim took us to the home of an 85-year-old lady who showed us how she makes delicate pillow lace butterflies. We then meandered round the canals and connecting alleys, overlooked by houses painted blue, green, pink, rose, lavender, purple or yellow – the pastel shades reflecting in the water below.

After overnighting at Burano, the final day was meant to take in San Francesco del Deserto, where monks welcome visitors, and San Lazzaro degli Armeni en route to San Giorgio for lunch. By common agreement, we skipped San Francisco and headed to the Lido instead for a swim and moored at one end for our lunch.

In the afternoon I was dropped off at San Lazzaro so I could see the Armenian monks’ fantastic library of 150,000 volumes and 4,000 Armenian manuscripts. In 1816, Byron spent time here working on the first Armenian/English grammar book and his portrait gazes down on an Egyptian mummy with its brain carefully placed alongside its head – one of the many eclectic items donated to and collected by the monastery.

That evening, the upper deck table was set with cloth and candles for our farewell dinner. We took photos, exchanged addresses and toasted the crew as the sun sank scarlet over Venice’s domes and bell towers.

It would, perhaps, have been more serene to leave next morning from the high note of our San Giorgio mooring, spending time in Venice before going to the airport. But we returned to Fustina on the Brenta, where a taxi took us to the airport – a shock to be among traffic again.