If you're looking for a unique vacation or just love Frank Gehry and/or Spanish wines, read on!
Located next to the tiny village of Elciego (or as the Basque say, el-thee-aygo), even the most jaded travelers agree this is a gem. It's an easy, scenic drive from Bilbao and thrilling to see 2 of Gehry's creations in one trip. He originally refused the commission (adjacent to the Marques de Riscal vineyard) as he now walks w/a cane and it is indeed a long way from LA...changed his mind after tasting the wine!
We visited in early November '06 right after the opening. If you go in the next several months, there will be some road construction delays and brief periods of hotel closure; however, the locals seem unfazed, the grapes are tasty and most improbably, the design fits. We checked in behind several press folks and figured that the good rooms were gone. Happily surprised when our Starwood Platinum status (for 25+ stays during the previous year) was fawned over (sorry, but that just never gets old!!) and we were given a suite, not in the main building (the one always photographed), but across the indoor bridge (check out the view from our room!!). Loved the room, especially the welcome gift of wine (not the Marques de Riscal) and chocolate truffles...it was perfect for sharing w/our 2 Italian friends who are now Plat converts! Oversize marble bathroom w/separate loo. Internet connection in the room or walk down the hall for the free computer in the lobby of the suite wing (see photo).
If you plan to wine taste, please note that Rioja vineyards are nothing like the walk/stumble-in tasting rooms of California/Australia/Italy. Also, there’s nothing equivalent to an enoteca in every town. EVERYTHING (including the Marques de Riscal) has scheduled tours (typically 2 hours and ~6 Euros) and must be reserved in advance. There is usually only one tour/day in English and you can't skip the tours and go straight to tasting. The day before isn’t enough notice…even for the hotel’s namesake vineyard (hotel guests still have to reserve and pay). The staff valiantly tried to set us up, but even in low season, it was too late. Not to worry, you can always create your own wine flights in the nearby (thankfully, non-touristy) tapas bars of the walled village Laguardia. You may even luck out and get one of the owners to make a phone call to one of his vineyard buddies for you…(-: There is a ‘museum of wine culture’ at Dinastia Vivanco in nearby Briones, but we couldn’t get motivated to pay 20 Euros for a 3 hour tour and tasting, when we just wanted to taste!! This is, however, a great stop for photos, souvenirs (unique wine gadgets and mugs/shirts w/drunken sheep...) and wine by the bottle (theirs). There is also a cool, unrelated shop (huge signs, so you can’t miss it) on the main road where you can taste (tap it yourself in plastic glasses from the kegs) and buy wines, cheeses, chocolates and meats. The selection is top notch and the prices are great…just be sure to mind the kitties and other animals you’ll encounter in the long driveway.
Marques de Riscal is worth a visit, even if you don’t stay there--you can have coffee/drinks at the bar (in the main building) or a fixed price dinner (85 Euros) that (given the prices we found in Bilbao) is an incredible bargain. One note for spa princesses…the treatments are very pricey and guests must pay to use the hot/cold pools & sauna. Sercotelhotels is an excellent source for discount hotels in Spain, especially for nearby Laguardia. We stayed one night at the Villa de Laguardia (~100 Euros) and were very pleased w/the rooms, wine library and the view over the vineyards from the exterior glass elevator.