VENICE, Italy - In the age of overtourism, an increasingly important cornerstone of luxury travel is private access.
And while avoiding lines and crowds is the obvious benefit, I didn't realize, until my group of 21 on a recent Luxury Gold "Ultimate Italy" trip had more than an hour alone in Venice's famed Doges Palace, what a truly different and immersive experience a private tour affords.
We were on the final leg of a 12-day trip, where we had had VIP access to Italy's most popular attractions, meaning no lines and minimal crowds. Still, there were always other people around us.
And I would be lying if I didn't say some of us were a little museum and cathedral weary by the time we arrived in Venice. The itinerary said private tour, but we assumed that meant, as in our other visits, just not open to the general public.
But when we walked into massive courtyard of the grand gothic palace that housed the doges, or duke of the Republic of Venice, at 9 p.m., we discovered that for the next hour-plus we would indeed have this architectural and historical marvel all to ourselves.
The interior of Doges Palace. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing
It's hard to describe the incredible and overwhelming sense of place one gets by walking into such a monumental structure when it is completely empty, to be able to soak in the architectural details, the art and the sheer scale with absolutely no distraction and the full freedom to wander at your pace with an expert local guide.
It also made me realize that my lifelong aversion to museums and monuments has much less to do with a lack of interest than the annoyance of the constant interruption of the crowds, whether large or small, and one too many guides unable to read when their audience has long since tuned out.
After visiting the palace's many grand chambers we crossed the famed "bridge of sighs," waving to tourists on a nearby bridge through the cutouts in the stone walls through which prisoners used to take their last glimpse of freedom while being led to cells across the canal.
We wandered through some old cells, wondering what horrors had taken place there, before emerging from the palace, dripping from the sticky heat but exhilarated by what most of us agreed had become one of it not the highlight of the trip.
In addition to the private tour, our entire visit to Venice was timed well to avoid the worst of the crowds that descend on this city each summer. We arrived late in the afternoon when only one cruise ship was left in port.
By the time we checked into our hotel and found time to wander, St. Mark's square was surprisingly empty. We easily found tables for an outdoor dinner before our visit to the palace. And the next day we escaped some of the bustle with a trip to a nearby island for a glass-blowing demonstration, then lunch on the fishermen's island of Burano.
We arrived back to Venice in time to see just how crowded the streets can get on a summer afternoon, escaping them immediately, however, by jumping into the gondolas that had been reserved for our group to take a leisurely ride through the city's canals.
By the time we got cleaned up for dinner, the day trippers were gone, and as we walked to our farewell dinner it once again felt as if we had this wonderful city almost to ourselves.