BARCELONA AND MADRID MAY JUST BE the most heavily trafficked tourist destinations in Spain—plus, the cities claim the country's two largest populations: Madrid is first, followed by Barcelona. However, that doesn't mean you can't create a genuine experience in these two cities, which are full of tapas restaurants, historic architecture, shopping, museums and nightlife. It's easy to create an itinerary that lets clients experience the best of Madrid or Barcelona, mixed with an extra dash of authenticity courtesy of the surrounding countryside.
Recent buzz has Spain claiming the title of Europe's tourist giant from Italy in the next few years, and some agents indicate that may very well be the case, due in equal parts to Madrid's and Barcelona's architectural boom and a revival of Spain's northern wine country.
Exploring Spain With Packages
Create a customized tour to Madrid with Avanti Destinations (www.avantidestinations.com). The wholesaler offers a range of hotel options in the city, including the popular Westin Palace Hotel (www.westinpalacemadrid.com) on the Plaza de las Cortes. Dubbed Madrid's most famous hotel, the property faces the Museo del Prado (http://museoprado.mcu.es), or the Prado Museum, and Neptune Fountain, and is loved for its central location and stellar service.
After exploring the Prado, shopping in Madrid's main district and sampling a variety of tapas—which Madrid is famous for—extend the vacation by adding on a package to La Rioja in the Basque Country of northern Spain, only a short jaunt from Spain's capital city.
What's really putting La Rioja on the map, in addition to its wine, is Starwood Hotels and Resorts' (www.starwoodhotels.com) new property there, Hotel Marqués de Riscal, designed by the architect Frank Gehry. The hotel is Gehry's second venture in Spain, following Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum (www.guggenheimbilbao.es), conveniently located near La Rioja.
Avanti also offers a La Rioja wine package, which includes a three-night hotel stay complete with taxes and fees, two lunches with wine cellar visits, a trip to La Rioja's Dinastía Vivanco Museum of Wine and Culture (www.dinastiavivanco.com), daily breakfast and a four-day manual car rental. The package also works well as a pre- or post-cruise excursion from a ship that ports in Bilbao or San Sebastian. Agent Advice
In Barcelona—which, according to one agent, is losing out in popularity to Madrid—it may be hard to narrow down the best sightseeing options, being the large city that it is. Depending on clients' desired level of activity, it may be best to stick to landmarks surrounding the chosen hotel. Recommendations include La Rambla (www.laramblabcn.com), a perfect boulevard for people watching; Tibidabo mountain, which offers a beautiful view of the city; and a stop (or two) in any one of Barcelona's many museums, particularly the Museum of National Art of Catalonia (www.mnac.es) and the Picasso Museum (www.museupicasso.bcn.es).
For a made-to-order Barcelona trip, explore options from Travel Bound (www.booktravelbound.com) and choose from a range of hotels that fit any budget, from the Hotel Rialto (www.gargallo-hotels.com/rialto) at $49 per night to the $189-per-night Hotel Majestic (www.hotelmajesticbarcelona.com).
Or, check out the highly recommended Hotel Casa Fuster (www.hotelcasafuster.com), a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. Located in the Modernist quarter of Barcelona, the hotel is near plenty of shopping and museums. What's more, insiders say that a stay at Hotel Casa Fuster is like bunking at the home of a (very rich) local. "Other hotels are fantastic, but you could be anywhere—Rome or Hong Kong," the insider says. "At Casa Fuster, all the rooms are different and each has its own charm. You really feel like you are in Barcelona."
Given its Mediterranean climate, Barcelona is a perfect vacation choice for any time of year and our countryside suggestion is just as versatile. Andorra, about three to four hours outside of the city, is a favorite warm-weather (and tax-free) shopping destination for locals and, with its location in the Pyrenees, is also a perfect destination for winter sports.
Secure a rental car or private chauffeur and enjoy the scenery on the drive to Andorra for a stay at Hotel Grau Roig (www.hotelgrauroig.com). Here, you certainly won't have to worry about an abundance of tourists, as the hotel only had one American visitor last year! That's likely to change soon, as the property recently signed on as a preferred property with JDB Fine Hotels & Resorts (www.jdbhotels.com). The ski-in/ski-out property houses fans of winter and summer sports and wine enthusiasts, who take advantage of the hotel's extensive "theatre of wine." (The space can host a dinner of up to 10 people for about 40 euros, or roughly $57, per person.) Tour Info
The best rooms to book are suites 212 and 312, which offer panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and are equipped with such amenities as Bulgari toiletries, satellite flat-screen TVs, and a mini-pool or hydro-massage bath.
Room rates during peak ski season (December through March) average 230 euros ($325) per night, based on double occupancy. During that time, it's advisable to book two to three months in advance. The hotel cannot be found in any global distribution system; for reservations, it's best to call JDB at 800-346-5358, which will pay a 12 percent commission. For special requests, contact Dunia Sans, owning manager of the hotel, at email@example.com.
For more information on Spain, visit www.travelagentcentral.com/spain