As a cultured and worldly RIH reader, I’d forgive you for not having Marbella on the top of your holiday destination wishlist. After all, the small Spanish mainland which was once the reserve of international royalty has since become associated with hen-parties and the cast of (yes, cringe, really…) The Only Way is Essex. But if you can take a moment to look beyond the bodycon, Marbella is a glorious stretch of pristine beaches, secluded hotels, idyllic ruins and rugged mountains. Marbella sans the bling? You just wait…
Marbella is a 27 mile-long strip along the Mediterranean coastline of Penibético in Malaga, on the Costa del Sol. The second most populated region of Malaga, it has a population of around 246,000, reaching a peak of up to 700,000 in high tourist season – and with Puerto Banús the most lively area. Away from the fleshpots, the town is considerably more tranquil – not least at the Gran Meliá Don Pepe hotel which sits at the foot of the Sierra de las Nieves National Park.
Not that that means it is lacking in luxury, with guests treated to a cold glass of Champagne from warm hotel staff on arrival. The grand reception (water features and an Oyster and Caviar Champagne Bar included) leads out to the hotel’s gardens where the huge swimming pool sits surrounded by shady trees, sun-soaked loungers and Bali beds. Steps lead down to the famous promenade…
I was staying in one of the Gran Meliá Don Pepe’s Junior Suites; a 6th floor haven with a vast balcony and gorgeous views of the pool below, sea in front and mountains beyond. Clarins toiletries peppered the marble bathroom, the centrepiece of which was a vast bath tub with a Jacuzzi setting and a walk-in rainforest shower (the kind with so many taps and turns it takes a while to figure out how to actually switch it on. First-world problems, much?)
And the distractions don’t end there; the hotel also has an indoor pool, tennis courts, spa, gym and several restaurants. As a Red Level customer, we were given unlimited access to the first-floor lounge, including all its amenities, such as teas, coffee, soft drinks, fresh juices, wine, prosecco and snacks freshly made and served throughout the day. What better way to rejuvenate after a siesta than with a chilled Pinot on the terrace?
For dinner later that evening, we headed to the 16th Old Town (Casco Antiguo) in the north of Marbella. Quiet, cobbled streets wind into each other but for all that, it comes alive at night; not with revellers but families and friends of all ages dining outside in the square of restaurants, where tapas, fish and sangria flow over candle-lit tables. Truly delicioso. Marbella has an abundance of historical ruins, such as Roman baths, a castle and cemeteries dating back centuries.
The glorious mountains are alive with ‘flora’ – chestnut and cherry trees, pinyons, and ferns – and ‘fauna,’ golden eagles, hawks, falcons, vultures, musk cats, badgers, wild goats, deer and rabbits. Mountain hikes are popular. The five-hour Juanar Viewpoint isn’t for the fainthearted, but is magnificent. Trailing through bushes and prehistoric caves we passed the Cruz Juanar Mountain and wound our way up to the Puerto Rico Bajo where a water pipe comes down from the Puerto Rico spring. At the top, the view of Marbella was simply breathtaking.
For those craving less trekking and more treatments, The Marbella Club is a must. Opened in 1954, Brigitte Bardot and Prince Alfonso partied in the Champagne Room in 1962 and by 1970 the hotel and spa rivalled St Tropez and Monte Carlo as the resort for the rich and famous. While the decadence of the ‘60s is gone, the luxury has not. We sunbathed on loungers under trees and dipped into the heated seawater pool at the resort’s private Beach Club. Steps from the beach, it has an exceptional international daytime buffet of rainbow-coloured salads, grilled-to-order meats, paella and fresh fish.
The beachfront Thalasso Spa is the perfect way to unwind. We opted for the Marine Massage with Essential Oils. After de-robing I was handed a shower cap and told to lie on the massage bed with various shower heads just above it. For the next 45 minutes my therapist rubbed lavender oils over my body as seawater gushed down from the taps. The idea is that it relaxes and revitalises while detoxifying, removing dead skin cells and improving blood flow. Perfect whether you’re battling a hangover or just planning total relaxation…
And finally, to the parties. Marbella is renowned for daytime pool parties, and the best are at Nikki Beach. When in Rome, right? We enjoyed a lazy lunch of sushi while gazing at the pool. Ripped bikini bodies swayed to jazz-infused house music, which picked up pace along with the partying later in the day. Beyond the pool, you’ll find dozens of white beds on the pristine beach, with waiters scurrying between delivering buckets of Champagne and fresh coconut water.
The Puerto Banús marina is dotted with yachts and houses the best of Marbella’s bars and clubs, most notably Pangea. The club’s roof terrace has panoramic views overlooking the stunning harbour and you can party under the stars to some of the regions best DJs. We were hosted by Sintillate, the hottest party hosts in Marbella, who take over Pangea and the equally glamorous late-night club Tibu. We booked a table ahead, meaning a bottle of Belvedere and selection of soft drinks awaited. At Tibu we were welcomed with Champagne – and it’s a club’s that’s guaranteed reality TV-free.
It might be popular with the Essex crowd but Marbella really does suit every taste. Luxurious hotels, private villas in the hills, exclusive clubs, authentic restaurants, modern decadence and cultured history, outstanding sunshine, beautifully-maintained streets, a welcoming atmosphere and endless activities. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
NEED TO KNOW
Rooms at the Gran Meliá Don Pepe start from €200 per night, breakfast included. RIH flew to Malaga from London Luton with Monarch, which also flies from Birmingham, London Gatwick, London Luton and Manchester. Fares, including taxes, start from £64.99 one way (£81.98 return). For more information on venues mentioned see The Marbella Club, Sintillate and Nikki Beach.