The Westin Palace – Madrid, Spain

The Westin Palace offered a Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) “Cash & Points” rate during our weekend in Madrid.  SPG’s “Cash & Points”, which allows a combination of points and currency to be used to pay for a stay, often provides the best redemption rates on rewards.  They aren’t frequently offered, especially in Europe.  The availability of a low cost option for us to stay in Madrid at a luxurious hotel actually led us to extend our planned stay in Madrid by one night, and ultimately led to our selection of the Westin Palace.  In fact, we did not perform any of our usual hotel research for Madrid.  The Westin Palace clearly shined as a reputable hotel with a prime location adjacent to the Prado Museum.

Price. The cash rate offered during our stay was €245.  Accordingly, in our particular situation, the $90 + 4800 points “Cash & Points” option was nearly a 5% reward rate ($/points).  For SPG credit card holders, this is a great value for reward points (compare to the 1% and 2% reward options most credit card companies offer).  For those seeking to pay the cash rate for a stay at the Westin Palace, the hotel probably offers a value on par with similar international luxury brand hotels in Madrid.

Location. The Westin Palace is in a great location in the Museum District of Madrid.  The Prado is literally across the street, and lively Plaza de Santa Ana is a short 10-minute walk with plenty of excellent dining options.  Although the Museum District has plenty to offer, it’s not exactly central.  Ironically, the Royal Palace of Madrid is on the opposite side of the city center, over a 20 minute walk from the hotel.  Plaza Mayor, also west of the city center, is about 15 minutes.  Without better knowledge of the accommodation options in the center of town, however, I wouldn’t necessarily argue that the Museum District is not a good location.

Our room at The Westin Palace was modernly furnished and decorated with enjoyable prints of Spanish landscapes and people.

Room. We stayed in a recently renovated Deluxe Room.  Our SPG Gold Status earned us an upgrade from a room without renovations (at least that’s what we gathered from the reception desk).  The room was very modernly furnished, with several enjoyable prints of Spanish landscapes and people for decoration. The bathroom remodel was especially impressive, adorned with natural stone and equipped with luxury fixtures. Our room overlooked the main intersection with the hotel.  There was no balcony, but there was a small place to sit next to the window for people watching. I noticed their window here, and I’m looking for a window installation near me because I’m planning to do something like this at home. Anyway, other than the lack of an outdoor space, we had no complaints about our accommodations.

Dining.  There are several food & drink options at The Westin Palace, but all were out of our price range.  We did splurge on one round at the bar (cocktails were as much as €20!).  We managed breakfast on our own, however.  We were excited about advertisements for a terrace with drink service both on the web and in the hotel elevators.  The terrace ended-up being a complete disappointment.  Firstly, it took a confusing and circuitous journey through the hotel’s fitness center on the top floor to reach.  Then, upon arriving, there were just a few tables with practically no view and a telephone to the lobby for drink orders.  We also did not eat breakfast at The Westin Palace, as the buffet cost an excessive €45.  If you plan on staying at The Westin Palace and have a limited budget, plan on finding dining options elsewhere.

Amenities.  As a 5-star hotel, The Westin Palace offers plenty of amenities to guests.  The fitness center we walked through on the way to the disappointing terrace seems fairly complete, and can be access free-of-charge.  As SPG gold members, we were able to get free wireless internet as our “gift”.  For non-SPG members, expect to pay an exorbitant €19/day, which is sadly in line with other international hotels in Europe.  Although not inside the hotel itself, there is a Starbucks and a Vips cafe (to-go sandwiches, drinks. etc.) in the same building that are very convenient.

I suspect next time we are in Madrid, we will likely decide to stay at an independent hotel or B&B, unless a limited budget and/or a superfluous SPG account balance motivates us to return to The Westin Palace.  Although The Westin Palace worked for our situation on this trip and offered a good location for exploring Madrid, we miss the character of more local establishments and do not believe their cash rate offers guests a great value.

Carmen de la Alcubilla del Caracol – Granada, Spain

Located a convenient 10 minutes away from the Alhambra and tucked away from the town center with commanding views of the city, Carmen de la Alcubilla del Caracol is a perfect choice for a small bed and breakfast stay in Granada, Spain.  The small hotel has only 7 rooms, all with a view and all with access to beautiful hotel gardens and seating areas.  

View from our private terrace, Granada, Spain.

Price.  The rooms were €120, €130, or €140 per night for our September stay, plus €8 per person/per day for breakfast and then 8% added for taxes.  We opted for the super double room with the private terrace, which was €140.  However, all of the rooms are supposed to have a view, and the rooms for €130 even have shared or small balconies from which to enjoy Granada from above.

Location.  The location is fantastic.  The hotel is situated above the main center of Granada, so we walked down to get into town.  We visited the Alhambra twice during our visit (day and night), so it was perfect to be able to walk there in only about 10-15 minutes.

Room.  Our room was huge with two twin beds pushed together to make a king.  We were on the top floor (2 above reception) and the only room on that level.  Because it got so warm during the day, we opened up our doors once the sun started to set and let the cool night air into the room.  

Dining.  As I mentioned above, breakfast was available at the hotel for €8 per person.  Guests are only charged if breakfast was consumed, so there is no need to try to pre-plan.    It was served from about 8:30-10:30 and consisted of yogurt, fruit, tomatoes, bread, and something a little special – toasted bread with ham and melted cheese on top.  This was our absolute favorite, and our host gladly prepared it for us!  And we were set up with the best seat on the breakfast terrace both mornings that we had time to dine before heading out (pictured above).  The hotel also had a small kitchen area with snacks and drinks (including beer, wine, and other alcohol).  There was a price list on the counter and guests could take anything they wanted and just keep track on a piece of paper.  We took a bottle of wine up to our room more than once to enjoy on the terrace!

Amenities.  Free wifi, breakfast (for a fee), a large reception area with travel books available for guests, and a stocked kitchen (snacks and drinks for a fee).  The owners were also very helpful for transportation to and from the hotel.  It can be a headache getting to some of the smaller hotels, but we had absolutely no issues. 

Our stay at Carmen de la Alcubilla del Caracol was very enjoyable and I would recommend this hotel to visitors who will be touring the Alhambra, since the proximity was a huge convenience.  

Hotel Amadeus – Sevilla, Spain

Unusual circumstances landed us in the Hotel Amadeus in Sevilla, Spain.  Normally, we are able to book our “top choice” hotel based on our research, because we allow for plenty of lead time.  However, our plans for Andalucía solidified much later than our itinerary for the rest of our trip and by the time we decided to stay 2 nights in Sevilla, our first choice and a favorite, Hotel Casa 1800, was booked solid.  Luckily for us, Hotel Amadeus turned-out to be a very suitable alternative.  In addition to a prime location in the venerable Barrio Santa Cruz neighborhood and spacious rooms, Hotel Amadeus offers unique common areas with musical instruments (their trademark and also check out their affordable online music lessons available here), an unbeatable continental breakfast, and a beautiful rooftop terrace complete with Giralda views (see photo to the left), a bar, and a refreshing (albeit unheated) jacuzzi.

Price. €185/night for 2 people in a junior suite.  Breakfast was another €10 per person per morning, but well worth it (described below).  Hotel Amadeus was the most expensive stay of our trip.  However, we used loyalty points (SPG) in the more expensive cities of Madrid and Barcelona and decided to splurge on an upgraded room.  In retrospect, we would have booked the much more affordable standard room (€112/night).  With so many things to do in Sevilla and the outstanding common areas in the hotel, we spent very little time in our hotel room.  The basic rooms in this hotel offer excellent value, considering the amenities and location of the Hotel Amadeus.

Location. Hotel Amadeus is located in the Bairro Santa Cruz, the most enchanting quarter of Sevilla.  It is within 5 minutes of the Sevilla Cathedral, which is reached from the lively restaurant-lined Calle Mateos Gaga.  It’s nearly across the street from the popular Casa de  la Memoria de Al-Andalus flamenco show.  The Bairro Santa Cruz is conveniently positioned between the great shopping options near Plaza Nueva and the picturesque Plaza de España, both within 20 minutes walking distance.  No doubt, we’ll want to stay in the same neighborhood on subsequent visits.

Room. We upgraded to a Junior Suite based on photographs on the hotel website.  Unfortunately, there at least two Junior Suite options at Hotel Amadeus, and the one we were assigned was not the same one that intrigued us from the website pictures.  As mentioned earlier, we wouldn’t pay for the upgrade again, especially for our version of the “Junior Suite.”  It was fairly spacious with a modern bathroom, but did not warrant a €73 premium over a standard room.  Our particular room included windows that opened to a view over a small courtyard, but with no balcony.  There were two small couches, a small desk, and and armoire.  We had no complaints about the comfort of the bed.

Hotel Amadeus offers a continental breakfast served in your room or on the rooftop.  Their fresh squeezed orange juice and chocolate croissant were a trip breakfast highlight.

Dining. For a hotel of its size, Hotel Amadeus has excellent dining options.  A beautiful manned rooftop bar is open late and offers an assortment of wine, beers, cocktails, as well as a decent menu of appetizers.  They also offer guests a continental breakfast for less than €10 that is very filling and includes tomatoes, cheese, fresh OJ, and a variety of pasties (including a chocolate croissant!).  The breakfast is also available on the beautiful terrace, which offers great views of Seville.  We recommend a shady spot, as the morning sun can be quite brutal.

Amenities. Hotel Amadeus uniquely places a variety of musical instruments in public areas for the use of guests, inline with their musical theme.  Although intrigued by the idea, did not see any people taking advantage of this amenity.  However, many guests used the common areas for relaxation, as all were adorned with comfortable sofas and chairs.  The rooftop terrace is also a great place to relax, with plenty of outdoor lounging chairs and couches.  There is also a small jacuzzi on the roof that seemed unheated.  A lukewarm jacuzzi fit the bill, however, after a hot day of exploring Sevilla.

The Hotel Amadeus is a great option for Seville travelers.  Although we could not justify the price of our premium room, their standard rooms offer a great value.  They are located in the most desirable neighborhood in Seville and offer guests great common areas, including a beautiful rooftop terrace with views of the Giralda Tower.

W Hotel – Barcelona, Spain

The eye-catching, sail-shaped hotel at the very edge of the Barceloneta neighborhood is where we decided to stay for our 3 nights in Barcelona.  The W Barcelona was very luxurious, but felt worlds away from the rest of the city.

Price.  Expensive.  I don’t know the exact dollar/euro amount, but we spent 20k starpoints per night.  Looking at prices in May and September of 2013, the lowest level room is €350-415.  So, paying with points was definitely the better option for us!  An alternative Starwood hotel is the Le Meridien, which is slightly cheaper and much more conveniently located to most of the attractions and transportation in Barcelona. 

Location. Right on the beach (there is a direct access from the hotel) and great for relaxing (by the pool).  However, other than that, the location wasn’t great for seeing the rest of Barcelona.  We felt isolated from everything.  It took us around 40 minutes to walk to the Gothic neighborhood, which was our favorite area in the city (next time we’ll look for a hotel there).  With the heat and humidity, we wasted a lot of energy walking back and forth between our hotel and it definitely had a toll on the activities we had planned. 

Room. Gorgeous and comfortable, with a fantastic sea view.  The room was set up just the way I like it – the bed was in the middle of the room, facing the bench-to-ceiling windows.  And the W beds are so comfortable.  

Dining.  Like most Starwood hotels, the W has food that is readily available and expensive.  We were very hungry our first morning in Barcelona and opted to eat at one of the hotel restaurants before heading out for the day.  Unfortunately for us, both options were €30 per person, so although we got enough food to hold us over until our late, light lunch, it was more than we wanted to spend.  We also enjoyed some drinks and snacks at the bar on the ground floor and at the hotel bar.  Again, none of it was well-priced, but you’re paying for the luxurious ambiance (the hotel pool was especially nice, with comfortable benches and tables and lawn chairs by the pool). 

Amenities.  All of the expected amenities of a Starwood hotel, with a few extras worth mentioning:

  • Private beach access: walking down the steps from the lobby brings guests to the private beach area specifically for W guests.  There are towels and lawn chairs available to use (free of charge).  
  • Nice pool/lounge area, but fairly impractical for swimming.  It was hot (over 90 degrees F) while we were there, but, just like other European pools, the water was so cold that we couldn’t stay in for more than a few minutes without worrying that our heart might stop beating.  That being said, we snagged a booth while we ordered snacks and drinks, and then moved to the lawn chairs that sit right in front of the pool, so we definitely enjoyed ourselves.  Beautiful area to lounge around at and work on the tan, but not so great if you actually plan on swimming.
  • Gold Check-in Amenity :  At check-in, we received the choice of free wifi for the stay (normally 19 euros per night!), two free drinks, or 250 starpoints.  I chose the free wifi, but the man at the desk was super nice and also gave us two free drink certificates (beer, wine, or cava only).  A few days after checking out, I signed into my SPG account and realized he also gave us the 250 points!

 If we could go back in time, I would have chosen a different hotel for this trip.  The location was a huge drawback that we didn’t fully anticipate while planning.  Taking a taxi everywhere was an option (and that made the distance more bearable), but being able to step out of the hotel and into middle of the city is a benefit we won’t overlook on our next trip. 


Orejas y Fútbol

Evenings in Madrid enthralled us.  On the warm fall nights during our visit, we discovered swarms of energetic people, spirited music, and an electrifying atmosphere.  This jubilation   apexed around Plaza de Santa Ana, the heart of Madrid’s nightlife scene.  It was here that we began our culinary adventure through Madrid’s tapas offerings.

Our first tapas stop in Madrid was a planned one.  As we do in preparation for all our trips, we repeatedly watched relevant Rick Steves episodes prior to our departure.  A scene capturing Rick eating sautéed pig ears in his Madrid episode especially intrigued us.  Accordingly, we followed his lead and ordered a ración of oreja (ears) at the Orjea de Oro bar, along with two glasses of the Galician ribeiro wine (€1 each!), and an order of patatas bravas.  The taste of the ears was recognizable–not too different from bacon–but the texture was wild.  Just like one might expect, the dish was “cartilagy” and far from tender.  The pieces of ear served already cut-up, so luckily minimal chewing was required.  

Our oreja ración at Oreja de Oro

To our chagrin, instead of a colorful local, we found ourselves sitting next to a fellow Rick Steves aficionado.  He was similarly following Rick’s trail through Madrid’s tapas offerings, but could not muster the courage to order the orjeas.  He had no shame communicating with the English-speaking bartender in Spanish that was nothing short of abysmal.  Despite the lack of local flavor and toughness of the orejas, we do not our regret our experience.

Anxious to find an authentic local experience, we sought out a tapas bar playing that night’s Real Madrid fútbol match.  After surveying several options, we found a spot called La Venta de Farracas just a few blocks away with plenty of buzz and an open table.  We ordered traditional tapas, all of which we had sampled in other Spanish cities–croquettes, fried calamari, and more patatas bravas.  I ordered a couple of Spanish beers to accompany the food.  The food itself was decent, but the real highlight was the fútbol game.  All eyes were fixed on a large big screen television in the back of the establishment.  Unlike the modern American sports bar, with dozens of digitial high definition televisions, this spot had one television, with a noisy analog signal.  This did not distract the crowd, however. They chanted, cheered, and groaned just as they would at the stadium.   To their dismay, the game resulted in a loss for Real Madrid to underdog Sevilla.

That same night, we also visited a pintxos bar called Txakolina for  and and one additional Rick Steves recommendation in Casa Toni to completely satiate our appetite.  We ended the night with a strong sense of accomplishment at successfully completing a 4-stop tapas crawl.