What makes for a great hotel?


What makes for a great hotel? Nowadays I’m not so sure. As a kid it was clear that travelling anywhere from my home town was difficult. Impossible by road, limited by sea and expensive by air. The few times we went abroad my parents wanted us to top up on culture as much as possible. Like any other parents they were very keen for us to be as well-educated as possible. Thus we saw as many cathedrals, churches, museums and art galleries as possible. The hotel experience was just the means to an end.

Today the hotel facilities do matter. We seem less drawn to more learning whilst on holiday and prefer to find adventure, sports, some local culture and relaxation. Cruises are good for this, however cruises are not for everyone. For me it depends on the expectation you have. High expectations can lead to disappointments. Whilst I love dressing up for formal evening meals and having the opportunity to meet other diners, I don’t do well with the race for a breakfast table and a sunlounger… and the crowds! So even the luxury of a cruise can fail to please.

The perfect hotel is probably not perfect for everyone. I don’t even think it depends on the number of stars it has been given, it’s location, amenities, or friendly services. I firmly believe that it all depends on the memories we have attached to the place. I have often chosen one particular place with my heart and ended up going back to the Atalaya Park Hotel in the Costa del Sol, located between Estepona and Marbella, Spain.

 They describe themselves as a Golf Hotel and Resort. For me it’s where I spent one Christmas with my entire family (seventeen of us at the time) and Santa made an appearance with presents for every child. We went back to celebrate a surprise weekend for my father’s 65th birthday. I’ve been with my kids as toddlers and as teenagers. They always want to go back.

So what is the charm of this hotel? It isn’t part of a chain of hotels. It’s not modern. It hasn’t been renovated to the level of some 5 star modern hotels and the air conditioning is not up to everyone’s standard. However the grounds were aquired in the 1960’s, when land was cheap and it has been a hotel ever since. It therefore stands on a plot of 50,000m2.  There is space and no other buildings around it. The beautiful grounds have very mature palm trees, a mini-golf, 9 tennis courts (with a professional tennis coach available to give classes), a football pitch and a basketball pitch. They have their own 18 hole golf courses (2 of them). I’ve seen people doing PADI diving courses in the pool. I’m not ashamed to confess to having seen most of this from the comfort of my sunbed. My kids have stayed in the pool the entire time and have therefore opted out of archery, rifle shooting and other activities. Neither did we hire canoes and kayaks, but we liked to think we could…

In some areas the hotel has moved into the 21st century by going all-inclusive. More’s the pity. The area around the pool sometimes doesn’t drain well and the lawn gets soggy and muddy. But to me this hotel is like a grand old dame, beautiful, with an elegant lobby and bar area, with a faded air of grandeur that would be so difficult to re-create. And yes, she probably has seen better days, but I don’t think it would be easy to match this hotel in most other 4 star establishments.

Few places are perfect, but all things considered I think the Atalaya comes close. What is your idea of a perfect holiday stay?



A modern day Grand Duchess

I have to admit it’s one of my guilty pleasures. Occasionally following the bizarre rantings, ravings and revelations about politicians, celebrities and certain members of the Royal Family is entertaining. Perhaps I harbour a secret jealousy or admiration for those who do what they want without fear of ridicule or consequences. Maybe there’s a petty little side of me which finds it hearwarming to see that even the privileged and successful have set-backs.

The Grand Duchess

Spanish culture however, is rather more concerned about what others might think or say, el que diran. That does not mean there is an absence of well- loved eccentrics and few are greater than the Grand Duchess of Alba.

Her name is Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva and she is the 18th Duchess of Alba, Spain. Born in 1926 she is a descendent of King James II and therefore a distant relative of both Princess Diana and Sir Winston Churchill (source http://www.seguilamoda.com/ver_nota.php?id=cayetanaalba ).

Her Property

Hers is one of the wealthiest families in Spain. This wealth has grown through marriages resulting in an accumulation of lands, palaces, buildings, stocks and shares and an unbelievable art collection. As a child I remember being told that  the Duchess could travel across the whole of Spain, North to South, without ever setting foot outside her own lands. Urban legend? Who knows. She purportedly owns some 34,000 hectares which is approximately 170 times the size of Monaco. (source http://blogs.ua.es/duquedealba/category/patrimonio/ )

At the age of  8 her mother passed away and two years later, due to the Civil War she had to flee to England. From her first marriage she has six children. After  twenty five years of married life her husband passed away. The Duchess shocked the sensitivity of many people by choosing for her second husband a man who had previously been a Catholic priest. But she was not to be deterred from her choice. He too passed away in 2001. Cayetana, the Duchess continued with a “normal” life; bullfights, charity events, family life and attending receptions with the Royal Family. She loves Seville, the fair, is spotted in street markets in Ibiza and the press just cannot get enough of her. The people love her.

(source http://www.elmundo.es/especiales/espana/duquesa-alba/iman-mediatico.html )

Husband number three

On the 5th of October 2011 the 85 year old lady married a 60 year old civil servant who had been a bachelor all his life. Her children opposed the wedding right from the beginning but once the Duchess drew up her will and shared out her property the arrangements proceeded without much of a hitch. Most of her children attended the wedding.

YouTube videos of the Duchess

http://youtu.be/9Qxne8XzZ1 The Duchess over the years.

http://youtu.be/tPF1hyKeDn  The Duchess just after her 3rd Wedding, aged over 85.

At the end of the day we rarely please everybody so at the very least we should please ourselves. At least from time to time. Like the Duchess. What do you think?

La Sagrada Familia; the old and the new.


I have only ever been to Barcelona once and even then only for a few hours. We were on our way to start a cruise of the beautiful Mediterranean Sea in the month of August. It was to be our first ever family cruise and we were all excited and really looking forward to it. Good weather was guaranteed, everyone said wonderful things about cruises so seven days of predictable contentment were bound to ensue. Or so I thought.

This holiday took place almost 3 years ago and changed the course of my life, ending in marital separation. And no, I can’t possibly blame it all on cruises even though I’ve learnt they are not everybody’s idea of a dream vacation. (Just ask the ex!)

La Sagrada Familia was right in front of our little boutique hotel. And even though I had promised the kids there would be no sightseeing I really could not justify not crossing the road to see this beautiful building. It was without a doubt amazing. I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was in the centre of Barcelona. For me, tenderly and with a touch of sadness, it remains a metaphor of what all our lives are about. The old and the new coexisting with unbelievable grace, beauty and resilience. Still a work in progress even though it was started 130 years ago. It has been in the hands of different architects; starting with Francisco de Paula del Villlar in 1882, then Gaudi until 1926 and various architects since. They have all influenced and shaped the design, adding character and individuality. It remains unfinished but it stands strong.

It has been built entirely from donations. Gaudi famously said that it’s future is “in the hands of God and the will of the people”, aren’t we all….

The Passion endures

If I turn back the clock a couple of decades, today is the day that no loud noises were allowed at home. Viernes Santo (Good Friday) vinyl records could not be played. My brothers could not play football in the corridor at home and we could not eat meat. It was a day of mourning. The television (with the volume turned down low) showed black and white footage of processions with holy images of Christ  and the Virgen Mary. People lined the streets and filled every balcony to watch these sacred images go by. Those participating in the processions belonged to different catholic fraternities and brotherhoods. The colours of their long flowing robes and their individual emblems differed whilst their characteristic tall cone shaped hoods covering their faces and allowing only their eyes to be seen were alike. Those doing a penance for favours asked or received from God might be walking barefoot for miles, making the journey on their knees or whipping their bare backs with knotted ropes. There was blood, pain, devotion and solemnity, broken occasionally by an individual singing a slow sad lament (saetas) to the images as they went by. We were marking the day Christ was crucified for our spiritual salvation. And as a child I witnessed it through the eyes of  Franco’s Catholic Spain. To this day I remain more moved, overwhelmed and fearful of the passion, the intensity of emotion, of the people than I am of the Passion of the Christ.

Today’s Spain allows those who wish to go on holiday, make noise or have fun to do so. There is a legal and moral independence of the State from Church interference. But the traditions and the symbolism of the day endure unchanged. The devotion and the passion lives on. As indeed some of the other traditions linked to this Holy Week (Semana Santa). Interestingly, every year a number of prisoners are pardoned by Royal Decree and released from jail. This comes as a result of a petition made by the different fraternities and brotherhoods following a tradition originating in the 18th Century during the reign of Charles III.

The most popular version of the origins of this tradition states that in 1759 the plague hit Malaga so severely that the events of Semana Santa were suspended. The prisoners in Malaga offered to carry the image of Jesus in the procession but their request was denied by the authorities. This resulted in a rebellion and mass escape by the prisoners who did indeed carry the image of Christ in the longest procession ever, after which they returned to their cells. What followed was the sudden disappearance of the plague in Malaga. It was interpreted as a miracle and a blessing thanks to the devout, although somewhat illegal, actions of the prisoners. In appreciation certain cities in Spain were granted the right to appeal for mercy in respect of certain prisoners.

As always there is a fine print. The prisoner must be serving a prison sentence for minor crimes which did not include bloodshed, must have demonstrated exemplary behaviour during their time in prison and must not break the law again within a period of four years. There must be reasons for appeal on the grounds of justice, fairness and/ or public service. Their names if successful are not released to the media, just their initials. Of the sixteen released this year many will take part in the processions with the fraternity or brotherhood which petitioned their release, hooded like everyone else. This year some of those who have been pardoned (indultados) as well as some of those carrying the heavy images are women.

So this Good Friday whether I watch the image of the Christ of Forgiveness, of our Lord Jesus Tied to the Column, of our Lady of Sorrows and our Lady of Hope, I will be enchanted and entranced by the sights and sounds, the devotion and traditions that will mark this day. I will still be watching on tv.  And for a combination of reasons that are best left unexplored I will say a quiet prayer and it will be with faith.

Spring is coming!

The wisteria is beginning to bloom. Thank God! It’s my annual reminder that we have survived another grotty winter and are so much closer to the those amazing, lazy summer months. The truth is that there seems to be little to celebrate at this time of the year; the period of time between the christmas tree going down and the easter eggs coming in. (Yep, I deliberately missed out St Valentine’s – I’m not on speaking terms with him right now). There is however, a lot to worry about and I am a grade A worrier. The list is endless; wars, recession, unemployment. And closer to home it doesn’t get any easier as I worry about my nearest and dearest. Heck I can even have sleepless nights over my daughter’s career prospects, her wedding and her pension fund –  and she’s only 13! To add to my anxieties there is now scientific evidence that I could truly be stressing myself into sickness, premature aging and a shortened lifespan!

In an interview on Spain’s TVE Canal 2 last night Eduard Punset (REDES) spoke to Monica de la Fuente, a professor of physiology at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, about the aging process. And it got me thinking about the number of minor medical niggles which have been plaguing me  and getting me down since Christmas. The University’s  research points to the fact that the immune system whose principal function is to fight off viruses and infections, works closely with and is affected by the nervous system and the hormonal (endocrine) system. Ms de la Fuente points out that feeling anxious, depressed  or suffering a loss can impair the immune system and make a person more susceptible to infections and serious illnesses. And although stress is a complex matter, what is stressful to one person is not so to another, small amounts of stress are crucial and prepare people for the challenges that life throws at them. Indeed a relaxed stress-free life without challenges does not generate the defences required to face stress and change. (Not a deficiency I have to concern myself with right now.) Thus individuals find they are emotionally unprepared unable to cope.

On a positive note the reverse is also true and positive emotions help to regulate the immune system and result in better health. So, all those hours spent watching the Comedy Channel were a sound investment in my health. Even more good news; it appears our genes account for 25% of our health and longevity whilst our lifestyle accounts for the remaining 75%. This puts over-anxious control fiends like me in control of the quality and length of our lives and our health. It is deeply empowering.

Healthy eating, exercise, sleeping well and staying mentally active are essential. Avoiding alchohol, drugs and obesity is vital. Yet , now that I know just how important it is to avoiding crippling anxieties there is just one more thing to worry about. To lose sleep about. So it’s back to the gym, to doing my pelvic floor exercises as I do the ironing, to focusing on deep abdominal breathing three times a day and that’s without the day job, the housework, my kids…. Still, should sleep soundly after all that. Spring is almost here! And if you, gentle reader, have any surefire stress relief tips – please share. xx

For a full transcript of the interview in Spanish go to www.redes.tve.es