Spain - Bilbao
With Frank Gehry’s architectural masterpiece The Guggenheim Museum - and an exploding gastronomic and art scene, Bilbao’s star is on the rise. The largest city in the Basque Country offers an array of architectural styles, from gothic to contemporary. An example of the city’s hip edgy trend is evident in Philippe Starck’s eye popping cultural center, Alhóndiga Bilbao. Contrasting this is the historic old quarter, Casco Viejo, with its ancient buildings like the St. James Cathedral, local shops and traditional taverns.
Gehry’s extravaganza of titanium fish scales is reason enough to visit Bilbao, as are the innovative dishes being turned out by a handful of Bilbao’s local chefs, like Josean Martínez Alija at Michelin starred Nerua Restaurant, inside the Guggenheim. I relished an unforgettable feast of tantalizing cod, artichokes, asparagus and beef tenderloin with red beet gnocchi created by chef Martínez, an El Bulli trained artist.
I recommend the Miro Boutique Hotel, ideally located between Gehry’s showstopper and the Fine Arts Museum in the heart of the art gallery scene. The property features stylish suites with Guggenheim views, fabulous art photographs throughout, chic ambiance and the excellent massage therapist, Igor. www.mirohotelbilbao.com
While in wine country, visit the picturesque Rioja Alavesa region and sample the famous Rioja wine at Luis Canas winery and CVNE. Overnight amid vineyards at Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal, a Luxury Collection Hotel that houses the Michelin - starred Marques de Riscal Restaurant. Savoring a divine lunch of red shrimp carpaccio, langoustine with avocado, hake and glazed lamb, I went straight to foodie heaven.www.luxurycollection.com/marquesderiscal
Sixty-one miles north of Bilbao, close to the French border, the small seaside town of San Sebastián, Spain’s food capital, is an unrivaled gastronomic destination. With a population of only 185,000, this culinary mecca has more Michelin stars per head than anywhere else in the world - 16 and counting. A favorite summer resort of Spanish Royalty drawn to its gorgeous coastline and golden beaches, this Basque beauty showcases Belle Époque buildings, wide boulevards and waterfront promenades. With voguish high-end boutiques dotting its elegant streets and a charming old town, San Sebastián has it all. It has been designated European Capital of Culture in 2016.
Three restaurants hold Michelin’s highest three-star honor: Arzak, Akelarre and Berasategui. If you can’t score a reservation at these, there are excellent eateries galore in this foodie paradise. At 9 pm the action is at the pintxos bars such as popular Gambera, where locals go to socialize and enjoy the tasty concoctions with wine before dinner. Pintxo’s, the Basque version of tapas, can involve anchovies, crabs, cod, shrimp, octopus, olives, Iberico ham and a host of mouth-watering delectables. For a fun lesson in creating these, head to Ni Neu Restaurant and culinary workshop in the chic Kursaal overlooking the sea where chef Diego Gelabert will impart his magic. In San Sebastián, ‘Pinxto’ is more than the local specialty, it’s a way of life.
In this region, the Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel, just steps from the old town overlooking the Urumea River is ‘the’ place to stay. With a plush interior featuring soaring columns, 19th-century portraits and rich silk brocades, plus beautifully appointed suites, this stunner delivers a truly opulent experience. www.luxurycollection.com/mariacristina
France - Biarritz
Just over a 30 minute drive from San Sebastián, this posh seaside town has long been a favorite haunt of the rich and famous. Much of the activity centers around the Grande Plage, (the beach), the art deco Casino Municipal, and on glorious promenades along dramatic cliffs where you can watch the surfers. Biarritz gained international renown when Napoléon III built a palace on the beach for his wife, Empress Eugénie - now the Hôtel du Palais. It became an instant playground for aristocrats, royalty and glitterati. As soon as you enter the stately Hôtel du Palais Imperial Resort & Spa, you’re transported into a glamorous world of fabulousness. Lavish Belle Époque interiors with magnificent chandeliers dazzle. Super size plush suites impeccably designed feature handcrafted furniture and extravagant fabrics. After indulging on spectacular ocean views and refined Basque cuisine at the romantic La Rotonde restaurant, it was really hard to leave this enchanting palace.
Among many tour operators offering travel to the Basque Country, contact www.romotur.com in Spain or www.spanishjourneys.com in the U.S.
With no direct flights from the US to Bilbao, flying Lufthansa with connections in Frankfurt or Munich is a great choice. The airline offers excellent service, comfortable lie flat beds in business class and seamless connections. Additionally, Lufthansa just launched its New Premium Economy Class which features extra comfort and quality at affordable prices.