Why high style reigns in Spain

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With world-class restaurants, innovative museums and chic new hotels, it's no wonder that it's the top holiday destination for Brits, says Aoife O'Riordain

What's the attraction?

Spain is the UK's favourite holiday destination – more than 13 million of us visited last year. But for every overpopulated playa, there is an equally charming finca or an unspoilt village to explore. With pioneering talents such as architects Santiago Calatrava and Patricia Urquiola, street artist Sixeart and shoe king Manolo Blahnik, not to mention fashion behemoths Zara and Mango, Spain continues to push design boundaries. The birthplace of molecular gastronomy also cultivates some of the most innovative food on the Continent.

Fit for a queen

San Sebastian is one of Spain's classic seaside spots and one of its iconic landmarks is the Belle Epoque hotel Maria Cristina (00 34 943 437 600; hotel-mariacristina.com). It's the place to stay, particularly when film stars like Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar descend on this Basque city for its annual film festival (20-28 September; sansebastian festival.com). To mark the grande dame's 100th anniversary in 2012, the hotel completed a €20m makeover; the public spaces retain all their grand style, with dded lustre. Doubles start at €192, room only.

All aboard

One of Spain's most luxurious experiences on the rails is the Al Andalus Express. This year sees the introduction of the new "Ibérico" itinerary – a five-night tour on the tracks between Madrid and Zaragoza. Passengers are cosseted in high style on board the restored Belle Epoque train. The trip visits some of Spain's less well-known cities and towns including Burgos, Avila, Segovia and Pamplona. The Luxury Train Club (01249 890 205; luxurytrainclub.com) offers the six-day itinerary from €2,350 per person. The price includes full board, all meals and excursions but not travel to Spain. Departures on 7 and 21 July and 4 and 18 August.

Mallorcan magic

Recently, luxury players have been taking note of Mallorca's upmarket appeal and several new hotels have opened. Castell Son Claret (00 34 971 138 620; castellsonclaret.com) is set at the foot of the Tramuntana Mountains and offers 38 luxurious rooms from €400 including breakfast. In the capital, Palma, the Calatrava Hotel (00 34 971 728 110; boutiquehotelcalatrava.com) overlooks the sea and has 16 contemporary-chic rooms that start at €198, as well as a spa.

And even Magaluf is aiming upmarket, with Meliá's Beach House (00 34 971 123950; melia.com; doubles from £68) and Sol Wave House (00 34 971 131624; melia.com; doubles from £75) offering stylish rooms and a roster of internationally-renowned DJs.

Capital style

Madrid is the country's style capital as well as Spain's seat of government. Widen your exploration to the fringes of the city to check out one of its newest cultural institutions, Matadero (mataderomadrid.org), a 1915 slaughterhouse transformed into a cultural centre. It's also accessible from the Madrid Río, an ambitious project that has created a verdant ribbon of parkland along the banks of the Manzanares River. Expedia (0800 783 23 84; expedia.co.uk) has two nights' B&B at the AC Santa Mauro – with interiors by local favourite Lorenzo Castillo – from £360pp, with flights from Heathrow.

Andalucian escape

Flights from the UK to the city of Granada stopped in 2007, but British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) is bringing them back with four a week from London City from 25 July. This is great news not just for those wanting a quick route to the wonders of the Unesco World-Heritage listed Alhambra, but also the stunning Andalucian countryside.

Set halfway between Granada and Cordoba, Casa Olea (00 34 696 748 209; casaolea.com) is a small but stylish six-bedroom B&B set amid olive groves with captivating vistas of the Priego de Cordoba National Park. Doubles start at €120, with breakfast included.

Relaxed rusticity

This year Menorca is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a designated Unesco World Heritage Biosphere Reserve, which protects the diverse flora and fauna of the second largest of the Balearic Islands (after Mallorca).

A chic new boutique hotel, Torralbenc (00 34 971 377 211; torralbenc.com), has just opened in the south-east of the island. A huddle of 19th- and 20th-century historic farm buildings has been sensitively restored to create this bucolic bolthole near Alaior. Some of Menorca's finest beaches and coves are a gentle cycle ride from the hotel. Doubles start at €175 with breakfast.

Nueva Cocina – style on a plate

Spain's culinary scene is thriving. The Catalonian restaurant El Celler de Can Roca (00 34 972 222 157; cellercanroca.com) recently toppled Noma of Copenhagen to win San Pellegrino World's Best Restaurant. One of five Spanish restaurants in the top 50, it is housed in a striking building outside Girona and serves playfully innovative food conceived by the three Roca brothers. Avant-garde tasting menus cost €140 per head. If the prices seem too steep, make for its newly opened gelateria Rocambolesc (00 34 972 416 667; rocambolesc.com).

Catalonia may have bid farewell to Ferran Adrià's groundbreaking El Bulli, but a little further down the coast is the Barcelona tapas bar Tickets that he runs with his brother Albert (ticketsbar.es); online reservations essential.

The Basque countryside surrounding San Sebastian is home to several lauded dining rooms that include Arzak (00 34 943 278 465; arzak.info), Martín Berasategui (00 34 943 366 471; martinberasategui.com) and Mugaritz (00 34 943 422 455; mugaritz.com).

Insider information

"Restaurante Atrio (00 35 927 242 928; restauranteatrio.com) opened up a couple of years ago in the new Relais & Chateaux Atrio Hotel in Cáceres. The food is exquisite, locally sourced and stunning. It is also fancy, so if you want simple food, avoid Atrio!" José Pizarro, chef and restaurateur (josepizarro.com).

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