Rafael Vargas  /  Hotel Silken Puerta America
No fewer than 18 architectural and design firms representing 13 nationalities were involved in the construction of the 342-room, five-star Hotel Puerta America that's 20 minutes by car from downtown Madrid.
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updated 3/24/2008 3:54:34 PM ET 2008-03-24T19:54:34

Spain is hot. And it shows no signs of cooling down — at least not where hip hotels are concerned. Foreign investment is sizzling along with the Spanish economy, and not surprisingly, hotel life is experiencing a rebirth.

It’s a veritable boom time of tourist influx and heightened service standards, which means that finding posh five-star hotels in the major cities isn’t hard to do. But that leaves the bigger challenge of zeroing in on the hot spots. Which hotels — because of their design, spirit and, yes, location — are distinct enough to be considered destinations in their own right? After all, when you’re in Madrid, wouldn’t it be more fun to shun the chains and stay instead in a new hotel with a fictional host, like the Oscar? Or in an architect’s fantasia with individual floors designed by the likes of Jean Nouvel and Sir Norman Foster?

At the $94 million, 342-room property Hotel Puerta America, the focus on design reaches its apotheosis. Each of its 12 guestroom floors was designed by a different high-profile architect or designer, and the difference between floors is nothing short of extreme. “The idea was to have the work of the best architects in the same building,” says hotel spokesperson Marta Cabello. “They had no limit in the budget or in the use of color or materials, so this was a dream for them.”

Enrique Sarasola, the Spanish entrepreneur behind Room Mate Hotels (of which Oscar is the newest member) says, “We think that the best way to visit a city is to go to a friend’s house and let him or her advise you on the best place to go in town.” This philosophy paved the way for the faux-host concept behind Sarasola’s growing roster of hotels like the Alicia, Mario and Laura. This hipness is surprisingly inexpensive: “Pay 100 euros here and you’ll find yourself in the center of the action, amid dramatic décor, good-looking people and in a hotel that serves a breakfast that’ll keep you fueled up for the whole day.”

Likewise, over in rival city Barcelona — now less than three hours from Madrid on the high-speed AVE train — some of the coolest hotels are surprisingly inexpensive. Take the Casa Camper, a living experiment in eco-chic hospitality from the famous Spanish shoemaker Camper. It’s not often one finds bicycles hanging from the lobby’s ceiling, set aside for guests’ use. But such is the case at this 25-room urban retreat near the bustling Rambla. Each room comes in two sections: a mini-lounge and a small bedroom separated by an exterior corridor. Bathrooms are drenched in natural light, and shower water is recycled right into the toilet, trimming water consumption in half.

Over in the less touristy but very trendy Eixample quarter, the Hotel Axel has got it going on. It’s a spare but chic hotel geared toward the upscale gay market but is also billed as the first “hetero-friendly” hotel. The sleek rooftop pool and chill-out deck are great places to take your Ibiza or Mallorca holiday on a dry run.

In the Rioja wine region, Frank Gehry continues his architectural conquest of Iberia with the jarring Hotel Marques de Riscal in Elciego. Gehry’s titanium jumble may not be to everyone’s tastes, but once you get inside, the sun-drenched, loft-like guestrooms are irresistible. There’s also a grape and wine treatment spa on the premises as well as (naturally) vineyards.

Image: Hotel Axel, Barcelona
Axel Hotels
Not simply located in, but an achor of Barcelona's fun Eixample neighborhood (dubbed "gayxample" for its many gay-oriented bars and shops), the breezily hip Hotel Axel hosts lots of parties and theme evenings in its bar and public spaces.
South of Barcelona is Valencia, Spain’s next up-and-coming center of modern design after Bilbao. The completion in 2005 of Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic 4,000-seat, 230-foot-high opera house was a defining moment in this Spanish Mediterranean city’s repositioning as a magnet for upmarket tourists. Valencia’s hot hotels include the Hotel L’Agora and the five-star Hotel Palau de la Mar in a renovated 19th-century palace.

Head east from Valencia and you’ll end up in the Mediterranean Sea, home of the Balearic Islands and many noteworthy hotel hotties, one of which is the Hotel Puro in Palma de Mallorca. It blends Oriental, African and Arabic influences into an oasis of Mediterranean chic with plenty of breezy open spaces, parrot feather hats from Cameroon above the beds and a happening DJ bar called Opio, which draws the locals.

Image: Hotel Montiboli, Villajoyosa (Alicante)
Relais & Chateaux
What could be more appealing than a five-star luxury hotel all in white and perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, on the outskirts of a fishing village called Villajoyosa?
But hardcore revelers should head straight for Ibiza and the Hotel es Vivé.This boutique property with 52 rooms, pastel neon lights and swaying palms may radiate a South Beach vibe, but this is the Balearics — drop your top and slip into the pool. Or, chill out to the DJs spinning at the Fierce Angel party Saturday nights in the Smirnoff & the Electric Cabaret Bar. The comely young staffers ensure your hands are never cocktail-free for long.

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