American-style glitz and glam come sailing into Barcelona

Timothy Barber
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WHATEVER the brand values are that the W Hotel group holds dear, subtlety probably sits low on the list. Take, for instance, the way it classes its rooms. Not for W those fuddy-duddy words like Superior (meaning bog-standard) and Deluxe – instead, W offers you Mega rooms and Fabulous rooms, or if you want a suite, you can get a WOW suite. At penthouse level, there are Extreme WOW suites, or E-WOW for short, which is what you might expect a Yorkshireman to say upon entering one.

Known for its flashy, hip hotels in flashy, hip (predominantly US) destinations – its most famous branches include New York, Los Angeles and Miami – the W brand is the very opposite of discrete and retiring. It’s all about the party, baby.

That’s important, because this autumn London – where we traditionally like our hotels discrete and retiring – gets its very own W. Rather than nestling up an exclusive side-street like so many others (the Soho Hotel, for instance), it’s landing like a falling grand piano in Leicester Square. Where once stood the Swiss Centre with its clanging bells, from October we’ll have W London, reclaiming the tatty West End heartland from the binge drinkers and tourist hordes by sheer force of its own brash grooviness.

That’s the plan. Will it work? Well, some idea of the W effect can be found in Barcelona, where Europe’s first W opened late last year. For a city whose intoxicating wonders are best discovered at street level, it’s an astonishingly brazen construction. Almost 100m tall and in the shape of a vast, billowing sail, it sits on the seafront glinting out over the Mediterranean. It’s the brainchild of local architect Ricardo Bofill – who also designed the city’s rather stunning new airport terminal – and its all-over panels of mirrored glass are designed to reflect back the changing colours of the Catalunyan sky.

It’s visible across the city, and has generated plenty of local controversy. It is extraordinary that it ever got planning permission – it’s as though a chunk of Miami broke off, sailed across the Atlantic and washed up at one end of the long Barceloneta beach. Subtle it is not, but glamorous, fun and daring – all things you’d associate with Spain’s most cosmopolitan city – it most certainly is. Particularly once you’re inside, where the lobby sweeps upwards vertiginously, with glittery light installations, abstract sculptures and huge fashion photo projections. It’s stylish, sexy, and oh-so-cool.

At W they don’t actually call it a lobby, they call it a Living Room – the concept expands the traditional hotel entrance to a buzzy, open-plan space where you can sit with a cocktail, a book or a laptop (taking advantage of the free wi-fi) – and it’s the hotel’s best feature. Stretching horizontally away, it’s a huge area full of light streaming in through floor-to-ceiling windows. There’s a relaxed restaurant, a bar, a fashion boutique, snazzy minimalist water features and low sofa seating. Past those windows you come across a chic outdoor deck area with white recliners and a beautiful pool – though really, everything points to the beach beyond.

The W is the city’s only hotel with direct beach access, and if the surrounding port area is a bit of a wasteland – a marina development is coming, and it’s only a five-minute taxi journey into the city centre – the beach more than justifies the location. In the summer it’ll be a blast, and a lively place to match a city break with a beach holiday.

You can see the beach and city even better from the rooms, in which the outside walls are entirely filled by a window. The rooms aren’t huge, but they’re beautifully designed, with island beds (spectacularly comfortable) in the centre facing that immense window, and bathrooms cleverly integrated into the rear corner. Curtains are operated electronically so that you can admire the view in the morning without having to get up, and there’s an iPod dock, big TV, and a rather neat lightbox that changes colour to suit your mood. You also get a cocktail shaker and costly things to put in it, plus a telescope to inspect whether anyone on the beach hundreds of feet below is reviving its old nudist theme.

Up on the top floor, in the pinnacle of the building’s curve, is the Eclipse bar, W’s party central. You have to go down to the lobby to access it via a separate lift, which comes with its own rope-barrier, bouncer and clipboard girl. If you’re staying you’re allowed up, but making it in can still feel like something of an achievement. The bar’s run by the folk behind London swank-den Bouji’s, and it’s a sleek party space in which to demonstrate just what a fabulously hip, on-trend young thing you are. The views, of course, are magnificent.

If you like your luxury with a more traditional bent, you may find W a bit tiresome. But with a smart Bliss spa, gym and fine-dining restaurant, plus excellent business facilities, it covers all bases admirably, and if you’re prepared to go with the fashion-conscious flow, it can be a rather thrilling place to swan about. It left me looking forward to the London version. If nothing else, it’ll be great fun – and if those doom-laden forecasts are right, by October that’s something we’ll all be needing.

W Hotel Barcelona, Placa de la Rosa dels Vents, 1 Final Passeig de Joan de Borbo, Barcelona, 08039 Spain.

Rooms from €267.50 per night.

La Boqueria (right)
Barcelona’s massive covered food market makes you realise just how impoverished London is by comparison. Open six days a week and situated just off La Rambla, Barcelona’s most famous street, La Boqueria is a foodie paradise. Stalls heave with fresh meat, vegetables of every colour and variety, and seafood pulled from the Med that morning.

Construction started on Barcelona’s most famous landmark in 1882; it’s expected to finish in 2026. In a city whose character is so tied up with the work of modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, La Sagrada Familia is his great masterpiece – a thrilling eruption of form that’s beautiful, bizarre and changing constantly. The Pope will finally consecrate the cathedral later this year.

For all that Barcelona is full of stunning works of modernist architecture, it’s worth escaping into the close-knit maze of the city’s medieval quarter. There you wil find tiny cobbled streets, bewitching gothic churches and hidden squares, with some parts dating back to Roman times. Also known as Barrio Gotico, the area’s also home to some of Barcelona’s finest and most chic little bars and restaurants.

Another Gaudi masterpiece, on a hill overlooking the city from the north east, Parc Guell is a fairytale fantasy of colourful mosaics, gingerbread houses, twisting walkways, and striking open spaces.

Occupying two beautiful medieval townhouses, the gallery shows the progression of the great Spanish artist’s long career, from his youthful sketches through this blue and pink periods, Cubism and beyond.

Overlooked by the W Hotel, Barceloneta – meaning Little Barcelona – was historically a fishermen’s quarter. It’s now full of pretty seafront cafes, atmospheric bars and upmarket delis overlooking its long curve of sandy beach.

Occupying one of the twin skyscrapers of the Vila Olimpica (which was built for the 1992 Olympics), the hotel’s interior is rather more elegant and luxurious than its four-square exterior. The views are stupendous, particularly from the rooftop pool and spa, and the Michelin-starred Enoteca restaurant is a destination in itself.

Located a little out of town, Hotel Rey Juan Carlos 1 is something of a self-contained resort, with landscaped gardens and attractive outdoor pools. Its most impressive feature, however, is its 15-storey glass and metal atrium, while the spa is one of the best in Spain.

Reopened last year after a total refurbishment, the Hotel Palace is a magnificently opulent place – think black marble pillars, gold-coated rococo furniture, and an atmosphere of grandiose overstatement.

The Gran Hotel La Florida sits on a hill 500 meters above the city, offering panoramic views from the sea to the Pyrenees. It’s a highly romantic boutique hotel in a fairytale building dating from the 1920s.