The Marbella Club review
Family Time at Villa del Mar, Stuart Cantor Photography

Why the Marbella Club remains the jewel of the Costa del Sol

10 Jul 2024 | |By Richard Brown

It’s the resort credited for catalysing tourism on the Costa del Sol. As southern Spain’s most storied sanctuary celebrates its 70th year, The Marbella Club remains Andalusia’s hotel nonpareil

The first time I visited the Marbella Club, the legendary, low-slung village-hotel out from which the rest of the Costa del Sol radiates, geographically, figuratively, I found myself, through only minor fault of my own, three sheets to the wind shortly after check-in. It was a not-disagreeable state of out-to-lunch semi-consciousness that I managed to maintain, almost in entirety, for the remainder of my three-night stay. A top work trip, in other words.

It was through the friend of a former girlfriend that I’d fallen into journalism – the pseudo ‘lifestyle’ kind, fortuitously. One of my earliest ‘assignments’, ahem, was to report on something called the Marbella Club Spring Games. There are only a handful of places in the world, it turns out, where you can ski on proper snow and swim in the actual sea in the same day. Back in the 1960s, this gave Marbella Club founder, the swashbuckling aristo Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a novel way of marketing his embryonic hotel – the Prince would put on an annual, adrenaline-fuelled sports day, designed to showcase the joys of southern Spain in spring.

It took half a century, and the efforts of Prince Alfonso’s nephew, Pablo Hohenlohe, to get the idea off the ground. 28 competitors were invited to compete across six sports. There was skiing in the neighbouring Sierra Nevada mountains (yes, you can ski in Andalusia), motor racing in Ronda, polo on a nearby private estate, then golf, padel tennis and clay pigeon shooting in the grounds of the Club. The evening culminated in a gala dinner. The next day there was an al fresco lunch in aid of a cancer trust, where paparazzi took photos of 200-or-so high-society guests as they arrived.

The Marbella Club review

During the white-tablecloth do, which took place under palm trees around a swimming pool that looked out onto Marbella’s fabled ‘Golden Mile’ (I made my excuses nine hours in, just as things were beginning to ramp up), the men’s Spring Games winner was announced as Georg von Opel (the billionaire heir to the Opel motor fortune). The women’s medal went to Flavia de Hohenlohe-Langenburg, Alfonso’s niece and then-president of Sotheby’s Spain (from which you might just be able to deduce the sort of competitors invited to take part). The two-day event was sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, as these sorts of things always are.

Ever since then, I’ve always wondered how my hazy recollection of the Marbella Club – a sun-drenched oasis of tropical plants and manicured lawns, impervious, it seemed, to irritating reality missiles from the outside world – was the upshot of all that Veuve, plus some fresh-out-of-university wide-eyed unworldliness (it really was a whole new world), and how much was real?

It’s been more than a decade since that addled introduction to the Marbella Club – the Spring Games were short-lived, it turns out – and more than 70 years since Alfonso, under orders from his father, the Bohemian-born Prince Maximilian Egon, took his Rolls-Royce to southern Spain to partake in a much older sport: land speculation.

The backstory, because, at the Marbella Club, the backstory is the story: Alfonso had, on his father’s side, descended from a line of Hohenlohes who’d reigned in central Europe during the Holy Roman Empire. Named after Spain’s King Alfonso XIII (his godfather), the Prince was the grandson, on his mother's side, of a Spanish adventurer who’d made a fortune in Mexico in the 19th century. That fortune disappeared after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, the family’s standing taking a further pummelling when, following the Second World War, properties in Germany and Czechoslovakia were claimed by the Soviet Union.

In 1946, Alfonso’s father, who had attempted to remove Hitler from power diplomatically during the war, and who was promptly expropriated by the Czechoslovakian communist party after the conflict, sent his son to live with his landowning uncle, Ricardo Soriano, a Marquis in his own right, down in Andalusia.

The Marbella Club review
Poolside at Villa del Mar, The Marbella Club, Stuart Cantor Photography

During a road trip from Gibraltar to Malaga, goes what we can presume is a romanticised version of events, the pair stopped for a picnic in Marbella. Taken by the setting, the fairytale continues, Alfonso persuaded his father to invest in a 24-acre plot of land, upon which resided little more than a phylloxera-riddled vineyard, a small collection of pine trees, and an abandoned farmhouse formerly used for drying figs.

Funded by some shrewd motoring-related maneuvers both home and abroad – in 1953, the Prince secured a lucrative concession to sell Volkswagens in Mexico, followed by a deal that allowed him to introduce Volvo to Spain – Alfonso began developing his place in the sun. After building a private residence of his own – having sold adjacent plots to friends with surnames including Rothschild, Thyssen and von Bismarck – Alfonso converted his former fig-drying facility into a hotel for visiting guests. The Marbella Club, with its 20 original rooms, opened in 1954 – the same year the Prince took part in the final instalment of Mexico’s notoriously deadly Carrera Panamericana car rally – as the Costa del Sol’s first luxury hotel.

Things might not have taken off had it not been for our moustachioed aristo-adventurer – Olé-Olé, to his friends, owing to his hard-partying ways – having the foresight to have one of the region’s only phone lines run through his lobby. In an age when it could take up to two hours to connect to a local town, and several hours to connect to larger cities, the line ensured a steady stream of visiting day guests who would lunch, swim and, if they so wished, play tennis while waiting for their calls to connect to friends in Madrid, Paris and London.

The Marbella Club review 04
Marbella Mondays, The Marbella Club, Stuart Cantor Photography

These days, there’s Netflix in the hotel’s 132 bedrooms and lightning-fast WiFi around its three swimming pools (two outdoor and heated; the other indoor and saltwater). There’s also a thalassotherapy spa, a swanky indoor-outdoor gym, a hair and beauty studio, a smattering of onsite fashion boutiques (a Chanel pop-up during our visit), and a kids’ club that's cemented a far-reaching reputation of its own.

All of which is to say you couldn’t criticise the Marbella Club for not keeping up with the Joneses. See the Bluetooth Marshall speakers and Nespresso coffee machines in the pastel-toned bedrooms; or the catalogue of new-fangled ‘intelligent wellness’ programmes available at the trendy spa. Crucially, though, and here’s the real appeal for guests who return year after year, while pains have been made to adapt with the times, just as much effort has been put into preserving the Marbella Club as a time capsule to its 1970s heyday. You can see just how little has changed by comparing the images taken by high-society photographer Slim Aarons in 1976, with shots captured half a century later by contemporary fine-art photographer Stuart Cantor (both sets of prints are available to purchase online).

Where other areas of the Costa del Sol raced to roll out the red carpet to the cranes and concrete mixers – the arrival of mass tourism is credited as the main reason our Prince sold up to a consortium of Saudis in 1978, up-sticking it to Ronda where he spent the rest of his days making award-winning red wine from a former nunnery – the Marbella Club pressed pause, watching as all around it developers competed to do their worst (a game to which architects and planners continue to commit with gusto).

The club is now under the control of British-Iranian brother-and-sister business partners Daniel Shamoon and Jennica Arazi, their father, David, having acquired the resort in 1993. What started as a collection of modest, white-washed, terracotta-roofed rooms, some of which you could drive up to – Alfonso is said to have imitated motels he’d seen in America – remains a collection of modest, white-washed, terracotta-roofed rooms, some of which you can still drive up to.

The bougainvillea has spread and the palms and pines imported from Mexico in the beginning have matured into an avenue of trees that stretches from Bulevar Principe Alfonso von Hohenlohe – for putting Marbella on the map, our man had a major road named after him – to the hotel’s sun-splashed, Mediterranean-facing beach club. It is here, on a Sunday, that you’ll find a buffet capable of giving Bacchus indigestion.

Plants weren’t the only thing that the Prince imported. If you’ve recently found yourself on a padel tennis court – and, given that the sport is the fastest growing on the planet, according to the Lawn Tennis Association at least, there’s every chance that you might – you can thank our man in Marbella. After a friend in Mexico had conceived a squash-like game played with wooden paddles inside an enclosed court, in 1971 Alfonso instructed concrete walls to be built at either end of his own tennis facilities. He then, without ignominy, it seems, proclaimed to have invented the sport himself. Padel tennis, he prophesied, with a fair degree of clairvoyance, it must be said, would one day be played all over the word. Alfonso’s padel court, the first in Europe, was ripped up in 1995, the Club presumably unwilling to wait any longer for the sport to catch on. A plaque on a rock in front of the hotel’s herb garden marks the spot.

Handy, having an herb garden on site. It means the chefs at El Patio, a vibe-y indoor-outdoor courtyard restaurant designed by Spanish studio EMCI, don’t have to travel far to season your aubergine parmigiana. Hats off to EMCI, it’s done a terrific job creating a detail-heavy, ’60s-inspired sanctuary amid a garden of date palms and jasmine trees. Come for coffee and cocktails and salads and sandwiches and watch the hours unravel.

To The Grill for dinner, where all the men look like Gianni Agnelli (Alfonso’s uncle-in-law) and all women might be Ava Gardner (both were guests at the Club). ‘Dressing for dinner is like taking off the day’s worries and slipping into a relaxed and celebratory mood,’ the Prince is quoted as saying on the opening page of the menu. And at the Prince’s restaurant, people dress up. Manning the grill in gaucho garb is a man called Roque, who’s been flaming tomahawk steaks and searing slabs of seabass for the past 25 years. Roque Jnr took over from Roque Snr, whose knives still reside in the kitchen.

History, you'll notice, is everywhere at the Marbella Club. Connected to The Grill is Rudi’s bar, a low-lit Bohemian boîte where you can play backgammon during the day and listen to live jazz at night. It’s named in honour of Count Rudi von Schönburg, Alfonso’s cousin and the Club’s general manager for 50 years (who, like the Prince, also has a nearby road named after him). If the walls could talk they might tell you about the time Gunter Sachs joined Brigitte Bardot on the dance floor. Or when Hugh Hefner arrived with his Bunnies. Or when The Rolling Stones, er, rolled into town. More recently, at the bar, there was the case of a misty-eyed lifestyle hack boring his wife with a story involving something called the Marbella Spring Games. You had to be there, it seems.

One thing I do remember from a glitzy dinner during that first visit was asking von Schönburg which hotels he considered to be his direct competition (piercing question, I most probably thought). He pondered for a moment, then named a couple of properties in Miami and Antibes.

Then, as now, nowhere on the Iberian Peninsula can hold a candle to the Count’s club.

From approx. £850 per night for two sharing, marbellaclub.com

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