Flanked on one side by the Basque Country’s Urumea River, the Maria Cristina is a short stroll from an array of white-sand beaches and the old town’s pintxos-bar-lined cobblestone laneways. A prime position for the city’s most prestigious and historic hotel, built in the honey-coloured sandstone typical of the region.
There’s an undeniably cinematic quality to this heritage hotel and no wonder: the first person to cross the threshold when it opened in 1912 was Spain’s Queen Maria Christina, who led the way for the slew of royals, aristocrats and Hollywood greats who have followed ever since. Guests are greeted in the grand marble-floored lobby by classic belle époque opulence – an enormous chandelier, red velvet chairs, a stained glass ceiling and marble columns. There’s a library filled with excellent design, art and food books, and replacing the souvenir shop is Mimo San Sebastian, a gourmet food and wine shop stocking high-end goodies including foie gras, pickled Basque peppers, red wine-infused salt and Spanish wines including local favourite txakoli.
The opulence continues in the 107 rooms and 29 suites. I’m in a deluxe garden view room, where double french doors open to a small balcony with views of the majestic sandstone Victoria Eugenia theatre and the Cantabrian Sea (only just) beyond. There’s a chic, well-designed marble bathroom with a tub and Hollywood-worthy back-lit mirror, and a bed so comfortable is soaks you up like a sponge. The abstract, colour-splash artwork above the bedhead is a nice contemporary counterpoint to the art deco mirrors and soft-edged colour scheme.
The lavish breakfast buffet is served in a large river-view breakfast room with gilded finishes, plush curtains and floor-to-ceiling french doors leading to a sun-drenched patio. Alongside the artfully laid out charcuterie, Basque cheeses and bread and pastries baked in-house each morning, there’s also an Asian selection including congee. There’s the deeply chic Dry Bar, featuring glitzy mirrors in a nod to the hotel’s Hollywood guests including Hitchcock, Sophia Loren and Bette Davis (she stayed here just before she died in 1989), where Spain’s leading mixologist Javier de las Muelas weaves his magic into the cocktail list. There’s an elegant Asian restaurant, Café Saigon, and the newest addition, Restaurante Ezcaray, by Michelin-star chef Francis Paniego. They both look gorgeous and the menus are enticing. But this is San Sebastian, Spain’s culinary capital, and the temptation to head out for dinner is just too great.
Start with a stroll along the sea and riverfront or grab one of the hotel’s bikes, free for guests to use, stopping for a dip in La Concha Bay where you can admire Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s iron Wind Comb sculptures. Afternoons can be spent wandering the old town’s laneways, doing a spot of shopping and hopping between the dozens of excellent pintxos bars – try Ganbara for their mushrooms dipped in egg yolk and fried green peppers. You’ll need an afternoon nap, because evenings here don’t start till late and continue until the wee hours. San Sebastian offers a dazzling 17 Michelin stars, one of the highest densities per square metre anywhere on earth. World-renowned eateries such as Arzak, often considered Spain’s best restaurant, and Mugaritz, which has been awarded a spot in the World’s Best top 10 list for a decade, need to be booked well in advance.
An unbeatable location, historic opulence, spacious rooms and bend-over-backwards service. It’s no wonder this hotel has stayed at the top of its game for more than a century.
From $344 a night. hotel-mariacristina.com.
Location, location, location.
Breakfast isn’t included in regular room rates, which seems bizarre in a hotel of this calibre.
Nina Karnikowski was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent and Cathay Pacific.
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