Barcelona 2017: One week family stay at Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Home away from home: Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

We didn’t choose our Barcelona hotel. It was selected by the organizers of the conference where my husband was speaking. Sometimes, these choices are a disappointment, but something to put up with graciously. After all, I’m tagging along at little to no cost for lodging in an expensive city.

Hotel Catalonia Ramblas was not one of those disappointments. We were incredibly comfortable there as a family of three.*

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1Often, location is the single biggest factor in how a hotel stacks up. Hotel Catalonia Ramblas is in a prime location just two blocks from the heart of Barcelona, the Plaça de Catalunya. Leading downhill toward the Mediterranean from the Plaça is the famous La Rambla pedestrian thoroughfare.

It’s hard to beat a hotel location this close to two of the must visit sites in a city.

This is also a major shopping district. The grande dame of Spanish department stores, El Corte Inglés, is an imposing presence across the street. Which street? With more than one location near the Plaça, you can take your pick of all clothing to the south or housewares and toys, etc., to the northeast.

You’ll find anything you might need within an easy walk of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas, including access to public transportation and the starting point for popular tours.

I saw internationally recognizable brands as well as shops with a Catalan flavor everywhere along the Carrer de Pelai, home of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas.

My bank has an agreement to waive fees with a group of other large, international financial institutions, and the ATM I needed to avoid paying fees was mere blocks away.

Location? Check!

Two’s company; three’s a crowd?

We had what I believe was a standard room (i.e, not a suite), albeit perhaps an oversized one since it included a sofa bed for our son at one end. I know there are suites with private pools(!) available in this hotel, but I didn’t investigate any other room types.

Refer to the first paragraph: I was in residence as a beggar, not a chooser.

Barcelona hotel entrance corridor - 1One entered our room from the public hallway into a short corridor with doors at both ends; the bathroom entrance opened from this corridor to one side.

Barcelona hotel bathroom glass door - 1The bathroom employed a frosted glass door, but the presence of the additional wooden door between the private hallway and the sleeping space meant no early morning light pollution when one family member rose early to go to work while his spouse and child lazed about for hours’ more sleep!

I dare you. Just ask my opinion of glass walls in double hotel rooms. These rooms are designed to be shared by more than one person who might have very different schedules. My thoughts aren’t positive.

Entering the bedroom from the hall, the closet separated the bathroom from the sleeping space. This no doubt added some sound insulation. I found it easy to sleep through DH’s early morning routine.

One section of the closet had shelves, including a pull out with electric kettle and instant coffee/tea things; the other two thirds offered standard hanging space. Three thick blankets and an extra pillow were at hand in the closet, proving themselves very useful as we experienced a rare run of freezing days during our week in Spain.

You might notice from my photos facing toward the closet that the pulls on the closet doors could serve as makeshift hooks; I kept our light and dark laundry bags there so my family knew where to put soiled clothes.

The main bed(s) were two oversized singles pushed together in the European fashion. I didn’t bring a tape measure, but I’d judge that each of these was closer to an American double/full size (54″ wide) than our twin (36“) beds.

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Disposable paper coffee cups aren’t good enough for a 4 star hotel like San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis

Due to my husband’s travel schedule and a favorable fare war over the flight path involved, I had the great pleasure of spending five (5!) nights in the heart of San Francisco. His professional obligation put us up at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square.

I would be unlikely to pay for a 4 star hotel in this location—unless, perhaps, it was in an historic building I admired—but I’m eminently capable of enjoying it.*

My husband in particular dislikes a hotel which increases the fussiness or snootiness of the service at the expense of obvious value added to his straightforward tastes.**

Overall, the Westin St. Francis did a great job providing the unpretentious service we prefer at a level above what we demand to be satisfied. It was a very comfortable and gracious place to stay in a bustling San Francisco neighborhood.

Housekeeping gracious manners - 1

It’s my habit to leave a brief thank you with the tip for Housekeeping. A first for me: Westin Housekeepers thanked me back!

Though not quite to the level of get-it-before-you-ask intuition shown at five star properties, we found Room Service to be quick and attentive to detailaspicky eaters on a weird schedule. Housekeeping was very thorough, friendly, and, like Room Service, paid careful attention to special requests.

I can’t fault any of the service personnel at the Westin St. Francis, though the Front Desk was often busy or otherwise slow to serve.***

There was one item both Housekeeping and Room Service failed to providefor us when asked, and I did make requests of both. I asked Housekeeping in a note, and DH asked Room Service on the phone. I was told they could not provide a reusable mug for the in room coffee service.

Even when ordering espresso via Room Serviceor seated in the lobby cafe, it was provided in a tall 12 oz paper cup with Starbucks branding. Yuck!

My complaint here is twofold:

  • I love my coffee, and it tastes better from a ceramic cup.
  • Throwing away a paper cup for a beverage I’m drinking seated and indoors is needlessly wasteful.

I prefer a paper cup to styrofoam, but we all know there’s got to be a coating on that paper to make it waterproof, right? Coffee is hot. Wax and plastic coatings melt. Plastic, even without BPA, still contains chemicals that probably impact human health.

No, I don’t think the paper cup’s interior coating enhances the flavor of my organic medium roast.

And as for the unnecessary creation of garbage for drinks I’m consuming in the comfort of my hotel room? No, just no!

I think it is tolerable—if not my personal preference—for the Westin or any other hotel chain to choose to default to paper cups for in room coffee services. I don’t know the statistics on hotel behavior, but it’s absolutely possible that most guests most of the time are preparing, then carrying out, their room-brewed morning beverage. I understand that the glass carafes on the old 4-cup coffee makers broke regularly, creating headaches and hazards for Housekeeping and guests.

In this Tower room at this Westin hotel, the location of the coffee service near the tiled bathroom, but outside of its perils on a carpeted floor, would seem to reduce the risk of broken service items. A ceramic mug also seems less likely to crack than the thinner glass of a drip coffee machine’s carafe.

Most emphatically, if guests can be trusted to eat from ceramic dinnerware and glass cups delivered via room service, there can be no increased risk from coffee mugs of the same materials!

I suspect that the partnership with Starbucks is a part of this equation. Lots of people love Starbucks. It’s viewed as a premium brand. It probably “means something” to use that mermaid logo on your in room coffee service.

Perhaps Westin has an agreement to serve all coffee in Starbucks branded cups? Provide a ceramic mug with the iconic green logo, then, but please do have one available when I request a less wasteful coffee cup. If Starbucks is forcing the use of its branded paper cups, they need to be called to account for it or change their stated intent to reduce their environmental impact to a more honest one.

In Starbucks stores, I can always get my beverage in a ceramic cup by asking for it when I order. My estimation of the company would skyrocket if they made this policy a requirement for third parties displaying the Starbucks logo for marketing purposes. That would show a real commitment to the environment.

In a hotel with several bars and restaurants, a full menu of room service, and a complete kitchen that must include commercial dishwashing equipment, it is simply unacceptable to tell me that you don’t have a ceramic cup for me. I find it repellent, walking through the beautiful, marbled lobby, seeing a cafe full of guests settled in to drink from cups that are, essentially, garbage. I expect much better in an environmentally aware city like San Francisco.

Since 2012, the municipality of San Francisco has demanded that consumers pay for every paper shopping bag procured from a retailer. Plastic bags were banned outright in 2007. Even luxury boutique Hermès must ask if you want to pay 10¢ for a bag to carry home your new $12,000+ Birkin handbag.

How does this align with a hotel advertising rooms available “from $620 per night” during my stay that wouldn’t provide a washable, reusable mug for my use in the hotel?

My solution was to purchase a new glass “to go” cup from local roaster Blue Bottle Coffee. Theirs was manufactured by KeepCup. Trying Blue Bottle’s single origin espresso was on my list of adventures for the City by the Bay, so I got a meaningful souvenir and solved my cup problem in one fell swoop.

Blue Bottle espresso - 1 (1)

Yes, Blue Bottle Coffee’s single origin espresso was worth seeking out in its own right.

For someone like my husbandadmittedly, not a coffee drinker, like many most traveling professionals are—whose free time in the hotel is strictly limited by the rigors of his work schedule, this wouldn’t have been an option. As it was, when I offered him a soothing cup of chamomile tea in the evening, I had to clarify that he’d be getting it only after I finished my own cup of Darjeeling. We only had my one glass mug, of course.

Travel dish soap - 1

I often travel with my own refillable coffee cup† and I always carry a tiny 0.5 oz Nalgene drop dispenser bottle of dish detergent in my toiletry kit, but I left the travel mug at home this time. We were staying in a full service, four star hotel, so I assumed there would be proper drinkware on offer. I also knew that I’d have lots of free time while DH worked. I planned to savor my beverage of choice—espresso, straight up—seated in cafes and not on the go.

A recent sale flier by U-Konserve, the company that makes most of my reusable lunchbox components, pointed out the following from this study by ScienceAdvances:

“There is now one ton of plastic garbage for every person on Earth.”

U-Konserve also gives this fact in their Environmental FAQs:

“About 25 billion single-use coffee cups end up in landfills every year. If you buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 pounds of waste in one year.”

KeepCup estimates the environmental breakeven point of my reusable glass cup vs disposables to be as low as 15 uses. Put another way, if I use my new Blue Bottle travel mug 16 times instead of a paper cup, washing it between uses, I will have made the more environmentally sound choice.

Paper cups aren’t plastic bottles, but, seriously, are we still debating the wisdom of the throwaway society?

And I’m not even particularly militant on this topic. It strikes me as possible that disposables are more convenient to many business travelers, and I’m not prepared to insist that my opinions dictate what ends up in other users’ hands.

I am, however, quite wedded to my position that a hotel of the caliber of the Westin St. Francis has an obligation to provide environmentally friendlier options to guests like me who want them.

If not, it is greenwashing of the highest order by a company highlighting its sustainability mission and asking customers to “Make a Green Choice” to defer housekeeping that happens to be labor/cost saving for the hotel in addition to water-wise.

*My personal valuation of hotel class often boils down to: if the location is what I want, clean and simple will serve my needs. I prefer to pay extra for more space (i.e., two bedroom vacation rental with kitchen when traveling as a family) over luxury finishes or a more extensive range of services.

**He raved about the Philadelphia Four Seasons, mostly because room service recognized almost immediately that he prefers exactly the same menu every day. They came to answer his afternoon call with, “Are you ready for your berries now, sir?”

***When the shower knob fell off in my hand, the front desk forgot to send maintenance after my first call; I had to ring them again after 45 minutes of waiting. The service technician, once summoned, fixed the problem quickly, thoroughly, and with a total commitment to disturbing me as little as possible while he worked.

†My favorite is an unbreakable stainless steel-lined model by Liquid Solution. It has a non-slip, textured exterior, a simple lid, and holds up to machine dish washing.Coffee cup travel mug - 1

Short, bright tea-time in my room

My house has enough eccentricities to be worthy of a post in and of itself. The quirk prompting my musings today is the presence of not one, not two, but three built-in wet bars in our home. Presumably, the architect feared for the poor soul who had to climb even one flight of steps before having a mixed drink over ice. There is a bar on each of our three levels, each complete with a built-in fridge, bar sink, pull out glassware shelves, and a mirrored backsplash.

One of the wet bars is in my bedroom. Heaven forbid a homeowner be forced to make such a portentous choice: go downstairs to the second floor bar (or, horrors!, the kitchen), or go to bed sober.

I enjoy my red wine, but I’m not otherwise a big drinker. There isn’t much call for a wet bar anywhere in my social life, but especially in the bedroom. DH doesn’t drink, and I don’t often entertain in my boudoir.

I toyed with the idea of buying a beautiful set of bar ware for display, but that’s not really my style. I love the idea of a glamorous, sparkling setup, but then I’d have to dust it. More likely, I would fail to dust it, thus living with another constant reminder of my lackluster housekeeping and the resultant allergens. No, even antique cut crystal decanters weren’t the answer to my superfluous home “feature.”

Instead, I outfitted my bedroom wet bar as a tea station. A coffee setup would work equally well, but that doesn’t suit my routine. I really love my coffee, but I don’t drink it first thing in the morning. Coffee is a fortifying, sit down treat with second breakfast or elevenses. I don’t have time to enjoy that until both of my children are occupied with their academic work, one at home and one at school.

Ideally, before the three-ring circus day’s schedule begins, I like to have a mug of strong black tea to jumpstart my brain. Yorkshire Gold, please!

My typical weekday starts with waking up a little boy, getting him (to get himself) ready, then shuttling him off to school. I’m not one of those living-on-air types who won’t eat before noon. I need at at least a bite of something before operating heavy equipment (the minivan my children dubbed Pookie) but my first breakfast is often just a slice of toast or a piece of fruit on the run.

Morning stiffness is one of the characteristic symptoms of the autoimmune disease that I live with. With medication, this is much reduced, but I wake up something like the discovery of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. While my kids sleep on, I creak my way out of bed, shuffle into the next room to commence my morning ablutions, then spend ten minutes or so reading, gently stretching, and just generally allowing my body to warm up to movement again.

Tin Man

Just like me with my morning tea, except I pour it down my gullet instead of applying it to my knee. Usually. <dribble>

Bringing a counter top water purifier and an electric kettle into my bedroom gave me the means to have my first cup of tea during these quiet minutes at the start of my day.

Our local water doesn’t flow from the tap with a pure, clean taste, so I filter what I consume; my electric WaterLogic purifier uses a removable water carafe instead of requiring new plumbing, and it was a good fit for my narrow space. An electric kettle works just like the stove top version, but it’s plugged into an electric socket to provide heat to boil the water.

I use two trays to keep the space organized. A stainless steel surgical instrument tray came in precisely the right dimensions to fit the space to the right of the bar sink while accommodating both electric devices. If I miss the mark while refilling the kettle with stiff fingers, the drips don’t mar the wooden counter. (Who bothers with a mirrored backsplash while neglecting to install a water-resistant counter top around a sink? Drunken architects, apparently.)

Tea Station right

I chose the black T-fal BF6138 electric kettle because it was small in size and it does NOT ding when the water boils. This makes a lot more sense in a shared bedroom than it would in a kitchen.

A more decorative, handled wooden tray sits on the other side of the sink. It holds mugs, teapots, and anything else I might want to carry en masse to the kitchen for mechanical dish washing. If I had designed my own tea station from the ground up, I’d have a mini dishwasher installed beneath the counter instead of the refrigerator. I don’t need milk for my tea, and I really don’t enjoy hand-washing, not even a few lightly soiled mugs.

I’d always appreciated similar setups in hotel rooms, but never thought to try fitting such a thing into our cramped upstairs floor of our previous, much smaller home. The electric kettle and having what you need laid out nearby is all that’s really necessary, though. Bonus points if you have a convenient sink, but carrying water in a carafe will suffice with a little forethought.

If I move house again (God forbid!), I think I will forevermore duplicate this set up in a corner of my room. A small table or cart placed near an electric socket and the habit of replacing the consumable tea things the night before is all that it would take to keep enjoying my favorite ritual. It’s only a little effort, and a tiny space.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day, imagining my morning cup of tea is the soothing balm that defeats my pestiferous insomnia. I look forward to those quiet few minutes. I savor them.  The morning light, the soothing warmth of the mug in sore hands, the fragrant steam rising up to my face… Carving out a little space is a small price for a great luxury to enjoy every single day.

Have you set aside space in your home for your own little sanctuary? What’s your most nurturing ritual?