Travel: Barcelona

The female cabbie grinned at my request for "el hotel W"."Ah, la vela!" The sail: for that is exactly what the new W Barcelona looks like, a gigantic glass sail poised on the tip of the city's harbour, ready to launch into the Mediterranean.

Coming from a Britain mired in recession, the first European outpost of the luxury W hotel chain might seem like an anachronism from the boom years: 26 storeys by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofil, 473 rooms, luxury without compromise. It exudes the image of this American brand, part of the Starwood Hotels group: hip, sexy, design-conscious, and expensive. You don't have to be Gordon-Brown dour to wonder if they've got the timing right.

Yet in Barcelona, it works. I hadn't been to the city in more than ten years: I loved it in the late 1990s but now I gape at just how cool and international a place it has become. Its shops and bars ooze designer chic; many of its restaurants are wildly innovative; it is a happening city yet also eminently liveable.

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Tourism is down but Barcelona still throbs with visitors: even on a windy November weekend, there were long queues at the Gaud houses. The city fathers are pushing ahead with a new metro line looping right across the city. Barcelona seems confident.

So – cocktails in W's 26th-floor Eclipse bar, gazing out over the panorama of city lights, surrounded by beautiful Spaniards, French, Americans and yes, Brits? Why not?

It is early days for W Barcelona: it opened last October and there are still a few loose ends. The full opening of Bravo 24 restaurant, featuring Carles Abelln (ex-El Bulli, now Michelin-starred and one of Barcelona's most fted chefs), was postponed for a few weeks.

Yet the hotel deserves to succeed because it is of a piece with this coolest of Spanish cities. First, design is paramount. These are possibly the most fabulous hotel rooms I've ever seen. Their style is clean and elegantly simple in a way that so few British hotels seem to have the confidence to embrace. They are defined by space, light, a lack of clutter. Huge windows help: the sea is the star. The views from almost every room must be stunning; those from the ones at the leading edge of the sail, looking out over both the Med and the harbour, are immense.

Beds are vast and blissfully comfortable. A wet room and toilet hide in a frosted glass cube, with a bath big enough for two in the bedroom, all generously supplied with Bliss bath products. The cream leather sofas and fittings are handsome but comfortable. Rooms burst with more electronics than a Krautrock album: big flatscreen TVs, iPod docking stations, cordless phones and a baffling panoply of controls for lights, blinds and curtains.

Second, W Barcelona feels effortlessly international, and not just because of the clientele. Every sign in the hotel is trilingual, in Catalan, Spanish and English, as are, more importantly, its front-of-house staff.

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Service from reception, bar and restaurant staff is impeccable: the publicity does not say so but Starwood has sunk a serious amount of cash into training.

In somewhere so designed, the spaces that join private and public places can feel impersonal. On the ground floor, though, a soaring atrium gives way to a more promising space, a vast lounge and the Wave bar and restaurant. Beyond them, outside, stretches an extensive terrace with pool, bar and view over the beach.

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The Wave restaurant is excellent (if pricey) but a place for upmarket snacking rather than serious dining. That said, as elsewhere in Barcelona, while the weak pound makes food prices higher than at home, wine still costs less – for example, the terrific Priorat, Catalunya's trendiest red, which I tried. Meanwhile, breakfast is a buffet of almost heartbreaking magnificence: cold meats, cheese, fish, fruit and just about everything else imaginable, beautifully displayed.

I was sorry to miss dinner at Bravo 24 because it's a simple yet beautiful space, and Abelln's cooking is inspirational. His Tapa 24 restaurant, just north of Plaa de Catalunya, manages to be both fiercely, authentically Catalan yet also groundbreaking: the McFoie Burger, an intense foie gras-fuelled take on fast food, had us whimpering with pleasure.

W Barcelona feels right in its corner of the city, secluded down by the water, although it's a little far from the action. To eat elsewhere, you can either walk ten minutes up the boardwalk to the port of Barceloneta, a gentrified fishermen's district, fast becoming a tourist magnet since the 1992 Olympics, with a fine selection of bars and fish restaurants. Or else it's a ten-minute cab or bus ride into the old town.

Much the best way to get around is, however, to hire a scooter. We zipped between the sites and restaurants, then up to Parc Gell, a Gaud masterpiece high above the city. Barcelona glittered below us. Far away, late afternoon sunlight glinted off the giant sail of the hotel at the water's edge.


Flights from Scotland to Barcelona start from 177 (, 0844 493 0787); W Barcelona, Placa de la Rosa dels Vents 1, Fina Passeig de Joan de Borbo, Barcelona (, 034 93 295 2800). Double rooms start from 85; Tapac 24, C/Diputacio 269, Barcelona (034 934 880 977,; For more information see

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• This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday 09 January, 2010.