Travel agents know that Americans who visit Europe often fall into two categories: those who like familiar franchise hotels with standardized rooms and amenities and those who gravitate toward one-of-a-kind properties with Old World charm. The problem with the latter, however, is quality control. How do you know that atmospheric castle you're sending your client to doesn't also come with ancient plumbing and lumpy beds?
Spain has long dealt with this problem through its Paradores de Turismo properties, all 100 or so of which have been vetted before being admitted to the network.
The hotel portfolio was created a century ago under the direction of King Alfonso XIII, starting with a 30-bed royal hunting lodge in the Gredos Mountains. More properties followed, most of which are converted historical buildings such as monasteries, fortresses and hunting lodges. There also are some modern properties in the mix, such as the Parador Hotel Segovia overlooking the city.
Despite the economic downturn, the Paradores de Turismo group has expanded by nearly 15% in the last five years, with more properties to come in the next two years.
This season, the network features two new members as well as a number of refurbished lodgings for travelers looking for that one-of-a-kind experience.
The new, five-star Parador de Alcala de Henares, Madrid, the second-largest property in the Paradores de Turismo portfolio, is housed in the 17th century Dominican Collegiate-Convent of Santo Tomas de Aquino, once frequented by "Don Quixote" author Cervantes.
Part of a Unesco World Heritage site, the 21-room parador was also a cultural center for centuries and now puts on an annual performance of "Don Juan" every November in the interior courtyard of the Archiepiscopal Palace.
The decor is a mix of traditional and modern, complete with antiques and reproductions of 17th century furniture and the building's original dark wood beams. Travelers will also find contemporary conveniences such as WiFi and air conditioning.
Foodies can also take advantage of the on-site restaurant, which prepares Castilian specialties. Other amenities include a spa, an outdoor swimming pool and meetings rooms.
Also new this year is the four-star Parador of Cruz de Tejeda on Spain's Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, less than 30 miles from the island's capital, Las Palmas.
The 23-room parador is situated on a cliff overlooking Roque Nublo, a prehistoric monolith, and adjacent to El Nublo Nature Reserve archaeological park.
The property features a restaurant serving regional cuisine, Internet access, a swimming pool and meetings facilities.
Some of the other properties to recently join the Paradores system include:
The 80-room Parador de Lorca in Murcia, situated near an old Moorish fortress.
The 74-room Parador de Morella, a former 15th century Convent of San Francisco in Castellon.
The 82-room Parador de la Granja, near Segovia, which was once an 18th century Casa de los Infantes on the grounds of the royal summer Palace of La Granja.
The 75-room Romanesque Parador de Santo Estevo in Nogueira de Ramuin, near Ourense in a former monastery in Galicia that dates from the sixth century.
Recently renovated properties include the five-star, 195-room Parador Hostal de San Marcos in Leon, a 12th century monastery and former hospital for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The property is known for its original carvings, tapestries and frescoes as well as its cloisters and gardens. Features include air conditioning and free WiFi.
Travelers interested in visiting more than one parador can take advantage of suggested itineraries that incorporate discounted rates on select properties.
The Parador Passport, for example, is a prepaid voucher system that trims room rates on two or more consecutive nights at one parador.
Other specials include the Golden Days pass for travelers over 55 and the Young Person's plan for ages 20 to 35 as well as a host of other options.
Rates at the Parador Santo Estevo, for example, start from about $192 per night, double, dropping to about $176 with the Golden Days rate; $146 with the Young Person's rate; and $133 with the Five Night Card (good for five stays at most of the properties).
This report appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of Travel Weekly.