Savoring San Sebastián

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark // Photo by danefromspain/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Hotel Maria Cristina has nine Terrace Suites overlooking the Urumea River.

Hotel Maria Cristina has nine Terrace Suites overlooking the Urumea River.

In this age of Instagramming our meals, a new travel zeitgeist prevails; folks are traveling for food, and meals are often the focal point of a trip. Weeks before take-off, serious eaters spend hours scouring restaurant reviews on the Internet, learning about a region’s culinary history, plotting their epicurean adventures. No city better encapsulates this trend than San Sebastián in the Spanish Basque Country.

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Food lovers make pilgrimages to Michelin-starred restaurants Arzak, Mugaritz, Martín Berasategui, and Akelaŕe. In these temples of haute cuisine, obsessive gourmands delight in serious culinary experimentation. On the other end of the spectrum, the bar food—tapas-like dishes called pintxos—is also exceptional. Chefs take pride in crafting each bite to reflect a unique combination of flavors and textures (like creamy risotto topped with liver and mushrooms). Don’t miss La Cuchara de San Telmo and Borda Berri in the picturesque Old Town.

Villa Soro provides a tranquil respite from the action-packed city.Pictured: Villa Soro provides a tranquil respite from the action-packed city.

Food may be the city’s raison d’être, but San Sebastián is a thrilling vacation spot beyond the feasting. Sandwiched between the sea and the rolling green mountains, the city offers wide sandy beaches favored by both surfers and sunbathers. Shopping is another pastime in this stylish destination, and you’ll notice that ladies of a certain age dress to the nines just for an afternoon coffee date. For such a small population (just 183,000 inhabitants), San Sebastián has a buzzing cultural program with film and music festivals galore. In fact, San Sebastián will be the European Capital of Culture in 2016. On a summer visit to the Basque Country, Luxury Travel Advisor scoped out some prime lodgings for your next European city break. 

Toast of the Town

Part and parcel of the San Sebastián scene is the Hotel Maria Cristina, which reigns over the riverbank at the entrance to the city’s Parte Vieja. As the only five-star hotel in town, the Maria Cristina is the reputed address for visiting celebs and dignitaries. When we stopped by to ogle the newly renovated interiors, we found that this grande dame—a century old in July 2012—is back in all her Belle Époque glory. (Coinciding with the hotel’s 100th birthday, the restoration was part of the Starwood Luxury Collection’s ambitious $200 million investment in its landmark European properties, also including Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville, The Gritti Palace in Venice, and Prince de Galles in Paris.)

The Hotel Maria Cristina Grand Suite offers plenty of amenities, making it a perfect choice for all kinds of trips.Pictured: The Hotel Maria Cristina Grand Suite offers plenty of amenities, making it a perfect choice for all kinds of trips.

Let’s start with the first impressions: the marble-swathed lobby. Bedecked with silk brocade fabrics, crystal chandeliers and Impressionist-style portraits, the reception area is dressed to impress. The four function rooms are just as majestic, with marble columns soaring to the high ceilings. Also channeling the Belle Époque, the Dry Martini Bar is an elegant spot for Afternoon Tea or pre-dinner cocktails while seated in blue leather armchairs stitched with gold thread.

Spaced out over five floors, the 136 rooms and suites have a warm, residential feel and are filled with natural light. The renovation updated the color palette to create a more contemporary vibe: gray and white with splashes of purple, green, and turquoise. Beds are topped with 200-thread-count linens and feather-filled duvets. Consummate comfort continues in the marble bathrooms, which have separate tubs and walk-in showers, heated towel racks, and Caudalie bath products. To reflect the setting, minibars are stocked with local products like Rioja wine. 

Booking Tips: There are eight Junior Suites, nine Terrace Suites, and 11 Grand Suites. Be sure to request a room with a balcony or terrace overlooking the Urumea River. We particularly liked suite No. 505 with its furnished terrace. The crème de la crème are the Royal Suites, located in the corner Cupola on each floor. Needless to say, the best views are from the top-floor Royal Suite, which has two rooftop terraces. For VIP bookings, contact Reservations Supervisor Eugenia Lopez ([email protected]) or Director of Sales and Marketing Amaia Gorriti ([email protected]). As of September 2013, the new general manager is Stijn Oyen, a long-time Starwood veteran with a particular passion for the culinary world. When making reservations, note that August is the busy high season.

The drawing room at Villa Soro is filled with antiques, and is a great place to unwind.Pictured: The drawing room at Villa Soro is filled with antiques, and is a great place to unwind.

A word about the food: Tse Yang, the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant specializing in haute Chinese cuisine, was the highlight of our visit. Owned by the Café Saigon chain, which has had tremendous success with its restaurant at Hotel Villa Magna in Madrid, Tse Yang is beautifully designed according to Feng Shui principles. The Peking Menu is a delicious, multi-course affair starring Peking Duck. Kicked off with hot and sour soup, the feast features dim sum, Northern Style king prawns, Peking Duck, curried rice noodles, and a caramelized apple dessert—all for just 36 Euros ($48) per person.

For other restaurant reservations in this foodie town, the concierge staff, helmed by Gloria Rodrigo ([email protected]; 011-34-943-437600), can pull rabbits out of hats. Be Warned: Restaurants like Arzak require bookings months in advance. Rodrigo has a rolodex of stellar alternate addresses, and her team can also arrange culinary workshops and guided market tours with top chefs.

Guests can burn off all the calories in the basement fitness center, which has Technogym equipment and free weights. (In-room spa treatments by La Perla are also available.)

Quiet Luxury

A 10-minute walk from Zurriola Beach, the Villa Soro provides a tranquil respite from the action-packed city. Originally built for an aristocratic family in 1898, the historic-listed villa charms its guests with warm hospitality and architectural details like the stained glass window above the grand wood staircase. When showing Luxury Travel Advisor the hotel, Director Ander Elortegi ([email protected]; 011-34-943-297970) likened it to “a British-style villa in a French-style city.” There are just 25 rooms—15 in the main house, 10 in the former stables—and they come with all the creature comforts: bottled water by the bed, free Wi-Fi, plush robes, and Penhaligon’s bath amenities. With rates starting at 165 Euros ($222) per night including a beautiful breakfast, the Villa Soro is also a great value. 

When it’s raining in San Sebastián, the drawing room—filled with antiques and a roaring fire in the winter—is the perfect place to unwind. On sunny days, there’s a lovely garden terrace, and the cozy, oak-paneled bar is ideal for a nightcap. Despite its small size, the hotel has a full range of services: bicycles for exploring the city, in-room spa treatments, room service, and free parking in a city that’s notoriously difficult to find parking in.

“San Sebastián tourism is a high-quality product,” explained Elortegi. “It’s a destination for culture and authenticity. There is no distinction between where the locals and tourists go; they eat pintxos side-by-side in the Parte Vieja.” He continued, “My perfect day would start at one of our three beaches, followed by pintxos for lunch, then a nice restaurant dinner.” A perfect day indeed.  

Advisor Insight:

Melissa Joachim, president of New York-based Tour de Forks, specializes in designing culinary travel experiences. “In San Sebastián, La Brecha Fish Market is worth a visit. The fish here are displayed on white marble slabs while the fishwives stand proudly behind on raised platforms. This is a society that takes its seafood very seriously. Distinctions are made in the market, for example, between fish from the various Basque ports (Ondárroa is known for hake, Bermeo for sea bream) and the various methods of catching: hook or net.”

“I also highly recommend dinner at Arzak. Your reservation should be at a fashionably late Spanish hour. The name Arzak is synonymous with top-tier fine dining in Spain and rightly so. Although the Arzak family has been serving food in the same building since 1897, Chef Juan Mari Arzak is considered to be the father of modern Basque cuisine and has taken it to an art form. 
His talented daughter Elena now holds the reins at the Michelin three-star restaurant, and the menu, comprising local ingredients, is exceptional.” For pintxos, Joachim recommends A Fuego Negro.

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