Spain’s Basque Country

Leaving behind notions of sangria, flamenco and other stereotypes of southern Spain in the dust, Basque Country is finally getting its due.

Fresh and undiluted, Basque Country is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, where wine flows, black berets are still spotted and the clickety-click of the Basque language—of origins unknown—thrives. These days, Euskadi—Basque Country in Basque—finds itself in top form as a leader of art and avant-garde architecture, Michelin stars and fine wines, though not necessarily in that order.

bilbao the bold It’s a new era in Bilbao. Founded in 1300, the capital of the province of Biscay has evolved from an industrial city in the 1970s into one of service, further pushed by the creation of its own Guggenheim Museum and later, the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Conference Hall. Gardens and children’s parks pepper the city as old buildings stay put among modern architectural gems. The city—once talked about in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” for its quality iron used for forging swords—has been transformed into a modern metropolis buzzing with life, where even its airport (BIO), with its Santiago Calatrava-designed terminal, is a sleek reminder of how far Bilbao has come. This so-called Guggenheim Effect, which has modernized Bilbao since the creation of its museum, has also resulted in larger walkways and thus a more pedestrian-friendly city. Today, despite its industrial past, this is now a very elegant town.

The best way to get around Bilbao is by tram, and visitors will find that the same transportation card, available for sale throughout the city, can be used for both the metro and the bus. Have clients visit the fragrant fish and meat market, aromatic with the expectations of what’s to come at dinner; the Gran Via strip and its surrounding streets for shopping (yes, there is an El Corte Ingles here for fans of the famous Spanish department store); the Casco Viejo and its historic buildings; romantic Albia Gardens and Cafe Iruña, the oldest cafe in the city, right across the street.

The main event here, however, is the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, which debuted in 1997. Designed by Frank O. Gehry, who considers this one of his masterpieces, this art repository is an architectural celebration of Bilbao’s ship-building and steel-centric past, as well as the flow of the Nervion River that runs right by it. Its structure is different from each angle, with curving sheets of titanium and glass walls that let in light and outside scenery. As one of Europe’s leading cultural institutions, the Bilbao Guggenheim houses a great mix of permanent exhibits (including works by American artists) and welcomes rotating ones each year. The museum is a magnificent ode to a fluid, energetic city.

The Bilbao Guggenheim is just a few minutes’ walk away from the Sheraton Bilbao hotel, with modern art on its halls, a striking metal and concrete atrium with streaks of color flooding the area and panoramic elevators. The Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Beds are almost impossible to leave behind, the mini-bars are blissfully packed with goodies and the hydro-massage tubs in each bathroom are sent from heaven. In fact, clients flying into Bilbao from the United States or Canada will want to kiss you if you book them a room here after their long flight. It’s hard to imagine a better hotel in which to get over jet lag—dining options are a delight, shopping options are right across the street, and an outdoor heated pool revives the most weary of travelers. Rates run $172 to $336 per night, including breakfast, through June.

pintxo capital Movie lovers may know of San Sebastian because it’s the site of an annual film festival, while foodies may be well aware that out of the Basque Country’s 23 Michelin stars, 18 of them are found here. The elegant year-round destination of San Sebastian, just 60 miles from Bilbao, is classic and crisp of character. Even its hotels, in fact, hold on to a vintage style.

Hotel Maria Cristina, A Luxury Collection Hotel, is probably the most famous of them all. Located in front of the Urrumea River, it was named after the Regent Maria Cristina, great-grandmother of the current King Juan Carlos of Spain, and opened in 1912—with the regent the first guest to walk through its doors—in the style of belle epoque that glimmers to this day. Guestrooms are huge and classic in style, with pillow-top beds and plush robes, and its Royal Suites—the highest room category—have two private terraces each with views of the river and a large part of the city. The Maria Cristina is home to the Hydra Wellness Center and Spa, which comes with its own hydro-massage wet areas, full array of treatments, fitness section, and a health and rehabilitation area with the services of a nutritionist and physiotherapist. More luxurious options at this divine property: private car service for sightseeing, a “Luggage Liaison” for suitcase storage, packing and unpacking, and two top onsite restaurants. Rates start at $247 per night.