A gentle purr is being whipped up from the ceiling fans as the weather-beaten face of a woman in a flimsy straw hat stares down at me. On either side of her are neat stacks of perfectly rolled cigars and battered wooden boxes labelled Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and Robusto. But I'm not in Havana, nor the Philippines, where these striking, charcoal-grey images were captured. I'm in the rather fine lobby of the hotel H1898 in Barcelona.
It's a sultry assembly of marble, wood panelling, striped upholstery and brick flooring; the ambience is languid, as people drape themselves on elongated sofas and sip cold drinks. The imposing stone edifice surrounding it was once the headquarters of the General Philippines Tobacco Company, and the hotel's name was taken from the year in which Spain's last two colonies – Cuba and the Philippines – gained independence.
There wasn't much fanfare when the H1898 opened just under two years ago. But the sensitive restoration of this landmark building, coupled with top-notch service, is garnering it quite a reputation. While the hotel has taken on a character of its own, with modern flourishes and specially commissioned photography, the colonial influence prevails. Many original features have been restored, from the mahogany-panelled offices to the original parquet flooring, which has been lifted and remodelled as expansive coffee tables in the lobby.
In the brick vaulted basement, an emerald-green tiled swimming pool with an adjoining sauna, steam, fitness and treatment rooms have been added. But when the weather is warm, which it is for at least half of the year in Barcelona, the place to relax is the roof terrace, with its pool, day-beds and loungers set among potted plants, and, of course, its view. The best time to enjoy it is as the sun is setting, with a mojito or chilled cava from the rooftop bar.
H1898, La Rambla 109, Barcelona, Spain (00 34 93 552 9552; www.nnhotels.es). Unlike many of Barcelona's new breed of design-focused hotels that are tucked down sinuous, pedestrianised streets, H1898 is conveniently located near the top of La Rambla, where it borders this tourist-mobbed thoroughfare and the hip Raval neighbourhood. The Gothic quarter and seafront are both just a short walk from the hotel.
Time from international airport: the efficient express airport buses stop at the Plaça Catalunya after the 15-minute ride, which is a five-minute walk to the hotel.
The 169 rooms are identical in style – think Henley Regatta meets New England beach home, with candy-striped upholstery and a corresponding colour scheme. Ours was pillar-box red (others range from moss-green to charcoal and navy), with dark wood flooring, chrome fittings and a framed vintage nautical map of the South China Sea. The hotel's reading material was placed in an old cigar box. Some rooms have interior views, others overlook La Rambla or incorporate balconies, while the suites have separate sitting rooms, and two have terraces with private plunge pools. There's the statutory five-star pillow menu, soft cotton bedlinen and shiny marble bathroom.
Freebies: Etro 1898-branded bathroom goodies; tea and coffee – although, bizarrely, there's no kettle, so you have to request hot water from the guest relations desk.
Keeping in touch: direct-dial phones, flat-screen TVs with cable channels and complimentary broadband connection, and Tivoli radios. Free Wi-Fi is available in the lobby.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Double rooms start at €213 (£152), room only. Breakfast is an additional €21.40 (£16.50), but is a little lacklustre. Instead, walk five minutes down La Rambla to La Boqueria food market for breakfast in style at Bar Pinotxo: pa amb tomaquet (toasted bread smeared with tomato and olive oil), washed down with cava.
I'm not paying that: The Hotel Banys Orientals (00 34 93 268 8460; www.hotelbanysorientals.com), in the genteel Born district, has simple but stylish double rooms from €107 (£76), room only.