A stunning stretch of Mediterranean coastline, pockmarked with apartment complexes and poorly built resorts whose development seems to have gone unchecked since the sixties, Spain’s Costa del Sol is among the worst examples of what can happen when tourism is allowed to expand unabated. Over the decades, first the Brits and the Germans, and now the Russians, changed the tone of the Costa irreversibly. What was once dramatic seashore flanked by Andalusia’s white villages and wild, parched mountains is now an endless expanse of unattractive buildings and overcrowded beaches. Málaga airport is the hub, where sunseekers pour off European charter flights; from there a few head straight for the tackiness of Torremolinos, while some head farther west toward Marbella, where there are still a few pockets of style to be found. The Marbella Club Hotel, for example, opened since 1954, manages to retain a discerning crowd (see “The Old-Time Classic,” below). Others prefer Sotogrande, a resort town 90 minutes from Málaga by car. There, the polo ground, marina, and Argentine beach boys attract plenty of Spain’s old-money crowd, even if the sand itself is a disappointing gray. And Tarifa, famous for its kite-surfing beaches, is where the hippie-chic English come to live off their trust funds. For Americans, of course, it’s mostly about the golf, not least of all the Robert Trent Jones–designed course at Valderrama, scene of the 2002 Ryder Cup.
But now there’s a new contender: Finca Cortesin, a hotel, golf, spa, and villa project on 530 acres between Sotogrande and the town of Estepona, which opened last autumn at a cost of $320 million. The original finca—a traditional farmhouse—remains; the rest is all newly built, the structures nestled within a raised horseshoe-curve of golf course. (From October 29 through November 1, it hosts the Volvo World Match Play Championship, one of the oldest fixtures on the PGA European tour.) Behind the property, Andalusia’s hills begin their rise into the distance, and with the coast only about half a mile away, the resort affords sweeping ocean views. On clear days one can see all the way to Morocco.
In spring Finca Cortesin plans to open its own beach club right on the water, but even now the resort is bliss, especially for families. There are three vast pools (including one indoors) plus a small paddling pool for toddlers and a kids’ club that will debut soon. The main Olympic-size pool, flanked by scarlet daybeds and an avenue of palms, resembles Marrakech’s dramatic Ksar Char-Bagh, and the spa is also impressive, with seven treatment rooms, a Turkish bath, and a Finnish sauna. Services feature Biologique Recherche products, and for a deep massage, it’s worth remembering the name of Arlette, the Angolan-born therapist.
Both the interior and exterior styles are loosely Andalusian. The courtyard, with its central fountain, is particularly atmospheric, the surrounding loggia scented by peppery ferns, while the lobby features a collection of 18th-century portraits, antiques, and splashes of lemon yellow. The 16 villas (which are available for purchase but also in the hotel’s offerings) are probably not worth the extra money for a short stay. That’s because all the resort’s 67 suites—done in classic fabrics like toile de Jouy, gingham, and rustic-colored linens—are big, bright, and spacious, just what one always wants in Europe but so rarely finds.
The par-72, 7,655-yard golf course is still a bit too young to compete with the 35-year-old Valderrama—the transplanted olives trees need to grow into their new surroundings, and the greens have yet to mature—but the course has the right pedigree: It was designed by Cabell Robinson, who was formerly with the Robert Trent Jones studio. The clubhouse and its relaxed restaurant are an attractive blend of wood beams, travertine marble, and vast amounts of natural light, with a pro shop stocked with goods from Ralph Lauren, Ashworth, and Srixon. And just in case one gets lost—which is unlikely, given the easy-to-navigate links and the two-to-one staff-to-guest ratio—there’s a GPS system in every golf cart.
And then there’s the food, the amazing food. Perhaps the poolside lunches could do with a better grade of lettuce, and breakfast might be a little too avant-garde for some tastes (muesli with foaming yogurt, amuse-bouche-size dishes of local cheeses and salamis), but the gourmet restaurant Schilo, which combines flavors from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, is exceptional. Dutch chef Schilo Van Coevorden, formerly of Blakes in Amsterdam, is clearly talented—he cooked with several Michelin-starred chefs before moving here—and ambitious, too, seeking to make this a significant address in a part of the world that is sorely lacking in decent restaurants. Tantalizing highlights from a recent ten-course tasting menu include a dish of sushi rice layered with thinly sliced carrot steeped in sake, mirin, and pickled ginger juice, all topped with grated frozen foie gras. For dessert, the chef’s signature is a “chocolate olive tree”: crushed chocolate biscuits sprinkled with pistachio powder to resemble earth, dark chocolate filled with a mousse of white chocolate, and Castillo de Canena olive oil for the “trunk” and “branches.” Even the most devoted Marbella Club veterans can’t say no.
Suites at Finca Cortesin start at $730; tasting menus at Schilo begin at $108 (Carretera de Casares, Casares, Málaga; 34-95/293-7800; fincacortesin.com).
The Old-Time Classic
Marbella is one of my favorite seaside destinations, and not just in the summertime. Even at Christmas you can have lunch alfresco, wearing a cotton guayabera, linen pants, and moccasins made by the famous Marbella artisan Pepe (these are religiously worn without socks). The doves cooing in the jacaranda trees also feel that there is no need to go any farther south for the winter. This is a place where for two millennia the cultures of North Africa, Spain, and the rest of continental Europe have interacted, where everybody is tanned and fit just like in southern California, and where the timetable is all pushed forward, as is so often the Spanish way, with lunch served after 2 p.m. and dinner not until 10 p.m., at the earliest. As on the French Riviera, the movida, or groove, continues even later into the night—or, actually, into the very early morning—at the nightclubs Suite and Olivia Valere.
But Marbella would not be what it is without the Marbella Club Hotel. Founded by Prince Alfonso Von Hohenlohe in 1954, this legendary 121-room beachside hotel quickly became the jet-set destination on the Costa del Sol. Today—as ever—a mix of Italians, Brits, and Americans, as well as a smattering of old Spanish families, stay in a sort of botanical garden, a mixture of Mediterranean and tropical flora, and sate themselves with charcoal-grilled sardines and glasses of fino sherry from MC Beach, a dressed-up snack bar (for so-called chiringuito) that sits just a few yards from the sea. Here, life feels at its best. And thanks to the club’s sophistication and understated elegance, even the nouveaux riches of the noisy and vulgar variety learn to behave. Rooms, from $422. At Bulevar Principe Alfonso Von Hohenlohe; 34-95/282-2211; marbellaclub.com. —Umberto Angeloni