A highlight of any trip to Spain is a stay in the picturesque city of San Sebastián (pop. 185,000), known in the Basque language as Donostia. Set on the cusp of the seashell-shaped Bay of La Concha, it is just 14 miles from the border with France. Gourmets make pilgrimages here for the world-renowned Basque cuisine, which takes its culinary cues from both countries. And this charming resort town boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other city in the world.
We had arrived here after eating our way across Spain: tapas in Barcelona, espetos de sardinas (sardine skewers) in Málaga, serranito (Andalusian warm sandwiches) in Seville and jamón Ibérico and vermut everywhere. It was hard to imagine that we’d still want to indulge this late into our trip, but gastronomy is usually the principal point of any visit to San Sebastián.
Although we could have stayed close to the beach, or in the center of town with its many lively pintxo (tapas) bars, we’d chosen a quieter location west of the city instead. A 10-minute drive up winding roads that hug lush green hillsides brought us to the top of Monte Igueldo. Here, we found Akelarre, a 22-room property that surveys the vast expanse of the Cantabrian Sea. While most hotels grow by adding a restaurant, this one had the opposite genesis. Akelarre was already a celebrated Michelin three-star restaurant when it opened a companion hotel in 2017.
Pedro Subijana, head chef of Akelarre since 1975, received his first Michelin star in 1978. Having created the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, he was at the forefront of the food scene here and a pioneer of the New Basque Cuisine movement. Today, his playful and poetic menu includes offerings like Diabolic Butter; Gin & Tonic on a Plate; Squid as a Risotto, Butter Flower; and the Leaves and the Foie Under the Rain. The primary purpose of our visit, however, was to experience the new hotel.
Arriving in the mid-afternoon having driven ourselves from Bilbao, we pulled into the parking lot unsure if we were in the right place. We saw the name of the property set against a stone wall, but there was no one to welcome us. Were we at the entrance to the restaurant or the hotel? It was hard to know. Unsure of what to do, we parked and went inside. There, obliging hotel staff greeted us, inquired about our bags, showed us to a comfortable lounge and offered us glasses of Champagne. Suddenly, it was impossible to be grumpy.
The space was undeniably dramatic: White-oak flooring played off a flat-black ceiling, and an enormous glassed-in weathered-steel staircase spiraled to the floors below. Two walls of windows drew our eyes to the sea and sky beyond. The minimalist design maximized the impact of the natural splendor. Drawn to a deck outside, we marveled at the extraordinarily imaginative architecture. Below, guests could be seen sitting on the rooftops of monolithic stone cubes that jutted from the hillside, cocktails in hand, admiring the view. If someone had told me I’d been transported to the set of a James Bond film, I would not have been surprised.
Our room was ready, so we dragged ourselves away. Two flights below the main entry floor, corridors of light wood with contrasting walls of dark-gray phyllite (a slate-like rock containing shimmery mica) were enhanced by recessed lighting throughout their length. The entrance to our room, 2.05, was inside a small vestibule, but with all three walls looking identical and no telltale hardware hinting at the door, we had to rely on our porter to reveal the hidden entrance.
Designed by the Spanish firm Mecanismo under the direction of thirtysomething architects Pedro Rica and Marta Urtasun, Akelarre’s accommodations exude contemporary elegance. Natural materials such as wood, linen and stone combine to make the spaces warm and inviting. Walking into our 645-square-foot Deluxe Sea View room, we were confronted by enormous sliding-glass doors. Rising to the 10-foot ceiling, these opened to a small terrace overlooking pathways dotted with grasses, flowers and ferns. Beyond were more mesmerizing views of the sea. With a palette of whites and off-whites, the room was a lesson in refined sophistication. In this case, less really was more. The headboard, coffee table and built-in desk all had Danish-contemporary clean lines. Crisp white linens from Spanish company Bassols 1790 covered the king-size bed, and a natural-linen Studio Massaud sofa matched the color of the carpet atop the light oak floors. The room also came with a wet bar (with a complimentary bottle of Spanish red wine) and an enormous walk-in closet with numerous drawers.
Every detail had been carefully considered and the latest technology factored in. LED reading lights had been fitted on both sides of the bed; the 40-inch flat-screen television offered Apple TV; and the sound system was Bang & Olufsen. There really was no reason to leave the bedroom, except to enjoy the views from the bath. There, a large picture window above the tub allowed you to soak in the scenery while enjoying the organic Per Purr Spanish toiletries and bath salts. Other amenities included double terrazzo sinks and a shower with excellent water pressure.
Besides its three-star Michelin restaurant, Akelarre offers a more casual dining option, Espazio Oteiza, named after the Basque sculptor Jorge Oteiza, a personal friend of the chef. It was here that we took breakfast each morning, starting the day with sheep’s milk yogurt (cuajada natural de oveja), a choice of six kinds of eggs and Basque specialties like chistorra, a fast-cured sausage similar to chorizo. Oteiza also offers lunch and dinner, and with sweeping views from its terrace, it’s a popular place for the public to enjoy a cocktail as well.
On our last day, I indulged in a 90-minute therapeutic massage in the Akelarre Spa by Sisley. After disrobing in a private room, I was escorted to an egg-shaped treatment cabin that looked right out of a 1960s science-fiction movie. The massage featured just the right level of intensity with long, relaxing strokes. Post-treatment, I was offered a liter of water and a sun lounger from which I could stare at the sea. Had I not been sapped of energy, I might have taken advantage of the gym and glassed-in pool.
Akelarre is an architectural triumph. The stark exterior belies the aesthetically refined interior, where the accommodations are both visually stunning and exceptionally comfortable. Walls of windows dominate the guest rooms, dining rooms and spa. Everything is oriented to the sea. And, truly, all you want to do during a stay is to gaze at the ocean, watch the clouds roll in and feel the breezes brush by. I’ve seldom felt such a deep sense of contentment as I did during those blissful three days.
The exquisite views, delightful service and creative dishes at Espazio Oteiza. The fact that it is a completely plastic-free hotel.
The small gym seemed like an afterthought.
The hotel is not recommended for children. A twice-daily shuttle will take guests to the city center.