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It’s nearly evening, and Venice’s lavish Saint Mark’s Basilica has closed to the public for the day. Just 40 of us file in, clutching our vaccination certificates and ID.

We’re invited to sit in front of the altar. Slowly, the lights dim until we are immersed in pitch darkness. Nobody speaks.

There’s a collective intake of breath as a light flicks on, and then another one, casting shadows across the domed ceiling. Moment by moment, almost 8,000 square metres of shimmering gold mosaics above us, some of them 800 years old, are illuminated.

If you imagine Venice on a typical day, with thousands of visitors thronging Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square), the queue for the basilica snaking around the block, you’ll get a picture of just how special this after-hours visit is.

This is just one of the treats that was lined up for my week exploring Venice and its misty lagoon on Uniworld’s new SS La Venezia. The vessel is not entirely new, of course. Cruise fans may remember the events of June 2019, when what was then Uniworld’s River Countess was moored at San Basilio, the small-ship dock on Venice’s Giudecca Canal. The out-of-control MSC Opera ploughed into the tiny ship, crushing it against the sea wall and destroying a section of wall in the process.

Two years on and Uniworld has completely revamped the ship, renaming it and upgrading it to Super Ship status, the classification for the line’s poshest and most opulent vessels.

And opulent it is. Uniworld’s Toni Tollman and designer Brian Brennan have taken inspiration from the sumptuous fabrics and Art Nouveau designs of legendary Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny. The Fortuny company factory lies on Giudecca island, just across from our dock.

Swagged curtains in deep bronze, throne-like chairs with gilded detailing, and bathrooms lined in grey and white marble feel madly over the top, but combine to create a truly decadent effect. The cabins are startling, to say the least.

A pale beige-gold motif covers the fabric walls, the ceiling and the furniture, so there’s a sense of being in a luxurious cocoon. My bedside light is an intricate Murano glass flower in pale peach, while the heavy door handles are brass snakes coiled around themselves. The public areas of the ship are beautiful, too. The reception is done out in a daring black and gold scheme, while ornate Venetian masks adorn one end of Hari’s Bar and Lounge, the bar itself painted a burnished gold.

As well as the main Rialto restaurant, which has open seating dining, there’s a smart little pizzeria, Cielo’s, on the top deck. Here we enjoy a delicious array of antipasti, a top-notch pizza and rich tiramisu.

Less popular is La Cantinetta, a private dining room for up to 12 with a show kitchen, where you pay around AUD$150 a head for a wine-paired tasting menu. With four nights alongside in Venice, we spend our money on dinner out in the city instead.

The week-long itinerary fluctuates according to the capricious tides in the lagoon. We’re supposed to head into the River Po and dock at Polesella, a convenient jumping-off point for the ancient cities of Bologna and Ferrara. But the water in the river is too shallow, so we spend two nights at Chioggia instead, in the far south of the lagoon, taking a longer road journey to Bologna.

This is no great loss; the Po isn’t a particularly scenic river, as its banks lined with trees and reeds, and so the itinerary doesn’t really suffer.

Much as I love Venice itself, I enjoy every minute of the scenic sailing south to Chioggia, and north again to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. Autumn is arguably the most perfect time to explore the city, when the summer crowds have thinned and an ethereal mist hangs over the water.

One night, a big storm blows away the mist. I lie awake listening to water slapping against the hull and wake to warm sunshine, the crags of the Dolomites forming a jagged line across the horizon.

The colours of the fishing villages we pass are dazzling against the monochrome of the lagoon. Houses are painted in lime green, electric blue and shocking pink. Egrets, herons and cormorants perch on the wooden pilings that mark the navigation channel across the lagoon. Stray from the channel and the water is only 30 centimetres deep at low tide.

The threat of flooding to Venice and its fragile lagoon is well documented. At acqua alta, or extreme high tide, water rushes in through the three entrances to the lagoon, often causing catastrophic flood damage to the city. Now, an AUD$9 billion system of flood barriers, the Mose, has been built across each entrance, rising up from the seabed on command to hold the water back.

I can see why it’s necessary, After the storm, we sail alongside the skinny sea wall, the teal-green Adriatic lashing angrily at one side, the lagoon serene and sparkling on the other, several meters lower.

The other big environmental challenge, of course, is big cruise ships, noticeable by their absence on my visit.

The cruise port, Stazione Marittima, lies empty. Although cruise passengers make up less than 10 percent of the 20 million or so annual visitors who would descend on Venice before the pandemic, the big ships have vanished. Since August 1 this year, vessels of more than 25,000 tons have had to dock at the unromantic ferry port at Fusina, in the industrial area of Marghera on the mainland. From our mooring at San Basilio, I can see Silversea’s Silver Moon in the distance and, the following day, a Viking ship.

Small vessels like SS La Venezia, which carries a mere 126 passengers, can still moor at San Basilio, in the Dorsoduro district, and Sette Martiri, even closer to Piazza San Marco.

We make the most of our privileged location, from where you can walk anywhere in the city centre. Excursions are arranged to a mask-maker and a gondola yard. One morning, a group heads off early with the chef to the Rialto Market, to buy fish for supper. From Chioggia, I join a cycling tour, pedalling around the green Lusenzo lagoon.

From our mooring in Burano, we visit the extraordinary Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on sleepy Torcello island. Founded in 639AD, the basilica predates much of Venice and is adorned with dazzling 11th-century mosaics. Uniworld’s regular guide, Venice-based art historian Susan Steer, brings these ancient sites to life with her witty, informed commentary.

On my last day, I take the vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore, the much-photographed church that guards the entrance to the Giudecca canal, opposite Piazza San Marco.

This is one of Venice’s best-kept secrets. From the top of the 18th-century bell tower, 63 metres high, the whole of the city stretches away: Piazza San Marco, grand palazzi, crooked bell towers and the lacy network of canals, gleaming in the sunlight, boats whizzing up and down the Giudecca far below.

Cruise passengers may no longer get that iconic view of Venice from the top deck of the big ships sailing along the Giudecca, but it’s here, in all its glory. Admiring it will cost you a mere AUD$9 – and it costs the environment nothing.

Fact file

Cruise line: Uniworld

Vessel: SS La Venezia

Launched: 2021

Star rating: Not yet rated

Passenger decks: 4

Passenger capacity: 126

Crew: 42

Facilities: Spa; gym; bicycles; sun deck; open seating dining room; pizzeria; private dining room; bar; WiFi; elevator; laundry; butler service in suites.

Verdict

Highs: Elegant ship with many inclusions. Being one of the few ships still allowed in central Venice is a big plus.

Lows: Cabins are compact. The itinerary is often changed because of water conditions.

Best suited to: Active cruisers; romantics; anyone looking to explore Venice in some depth.