Little Black Book

Summer Without the Crowds on Spain's Costa del Sol

by California Chaney
The glamorous seaside landing of the Marbella Club. Photos courtesy of the Marbella Club.

This slice of heaven — happily flying under the typical American radar — offers the best of luxurious Mediterranean living without the crowds.

MARBELLA, SPAIN — Southern Spain’s Costa del Sol is a long stretch of glistening Mediterranean coastline between Málaga and the Strait of Gibraltar, with the resort town, Marbella, being the crown jewel. This playground for the rich and famous began in 1954 when Spain's Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe-Langenburg fired up his Rolls Royce in Madrid and traveled the coast in search of his own summer hideaway. Sheltered by the peaks of La Concha Mountain, he found a stretch of coast — the Golden Mile — with a unique microclimate offering 320 days of sunshine a year and mild winters. Soon after he settled with his family in a charming estate, the Prince began inviting European nobility, royal families, and Hollywood movie stars (Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Brigitte Bardot) to the Marbella Club for decadent weekends under the Andalusian sun. Today, the resort remains a charming and chic gem, continuing to draw jet-setters who want the glitz and glamor of the Med without the Cote d’ Azur and Amalfi Coast crowds. Cue the thriving yacht scene, champagne-fueled parties, designer shops, and golf courses.

Lay of the Land

Geographically, Marbella is as close to Africa as you’ll get in Europe (the crossing to Morocco takes one hour), which is why you’ll notice a blend of Moroccan and Spanish cultures in the cuisine, Moorish architecture, and handmade ceramics. The unique Marbella microclimate, protected by La Concha Mountain, makes the blazing Iberian heat less intense in the summer, and offers one of the sunniest destinations in Europe during the winter.

The Scene

Posh Euros trade invites on yachts for bottle service at private clubs. But if that's not your vibe, you can escape the luxury bubble by venturing to the Old Town, Casco Antiguo, filled with winding cobblestone streets brimming with charming bistros, bars, and shops selling handmade jewelry and Andalusian ceramics. On the beach, lively chiringuitos (beach bars) serve chilled pitchers of sangria to wash down family-style platters of sardinas al espeto (grilled sardines skewers) before leisurely afternoon siestas.

Beach club dining at the Marbella Club.
The beach bar.
Rudi's bar at the Marbella Club.
Path to the Marbella Club spa.

Where to Stay

The Marbella Club
Pulling up to the iconic resort feels like stepping onto a movie set. A mix of sea air and vibrant botanicals hit your senses as you're whisked inside the open-air courtyard with white-washed buildings reminiscent of an Andalusian village. The clink of chilled wine glasses and happy chatter echoes throughout. While historic, the property feels just as hip as any buzzy newcomer. The Club's 121 rooms and suites, as well as its 17 Andalusian-style villas, are whimsical and playful, designed by Marbella-based Marie Caroline Willms. Each one is private and serene and spread throughout a 10-acre property filled with towering cypress, olive, orange, lemon, and avocado trees. The property gently slopes down to the ocean, where a colorful palapa-style beach club provides all the amenities for an idyllic beach day. The 5,000-square-foot kid's club, which occupies the original family home of Prince Alfonso, gives Disneyland a run for its money as the happiest place on earth, with a beautiful open-air lounge and workshop spaces for kids ages 4 to 14 (offers include gardening, cooking classes, candle making, dance workshops, and ocean canoeing excursions). The best part — it's open until 11p.m. with movie screenings and popcorn so grown-ups can sneak out for a candlelit dinner at The Grill and a nightcap at Rudi's bar.

Scenes from Puente Romano Resort.
Puente Romano Tennis Club.
Golden hour at Puente Romano Beach Resort.

Puente Romano Beach Resort
Following the success of the Marbella Club, Prince Alfonso Von Hohenloh needed more room for his high-profile visitors, developing a larger Andalusian village-style resort complex, a five-minute drive from the Marbella Club. There is very little that can’t be done at Puente Romano, with activities spanning cooking classes, a Six Senses spa, and boat outings on the 65-foot yacht exclusive to guests. The property is also home to 15 restaurants, including Nobu and Cipriani. La Plaza, the heart and soul of the resort, is centered in the middle of most of the restaurants and several outdoor bars, creating a lively ambience into the wee hours of the night (mind you, these are regular operating hours for the Spanish). Guests of the hotel can play tennis at Puente Romano Tennis Club, who's pristine clay courts have weathered the hardest of serves from Djokovic and McEnroe.

If You Only Do One Thing

If the secret to a happy life is balance, the Marbella version includes a healthy dose of spa treatments. Experience the royal hammam treatment at the Six Senses Spa at Puente Romano Club. You'll be scrubbed like a baby and leave feeling layers lighter — physically and mentally.

What to Do

Stroll the beachside boardwalk leading to the Old Town where the ancient city walls and two historic suburbs of the city meet: the Barrio Alto, extending north, and the Barrio Nuevo, on the east. The ancient walled city has retained nearly the same layout as in the 16th century, and its historic courtyard, Patio de Los Naranjos, is filled with lush acacia trees, Andalusian oranges, purple bougainvillea and hibiscus. The city's town hall, built in 1568, the Gothic-and-Renaissance style Mayor's House, and the 15th-century Chapel of Santiago, the oldest religious building in the city, are also worth a visit.

Souvenir seekers can make a trip to Cerámicas Ortiz for beautiful hand-painted Andalusian ceramics and whimsical tableware and gifts (all packed and shippable).

The adventure set can climb the peak of La Concha, a several-hour hike to the the tall and craggy mountain overlooking Marbella.

Rent a boat to go deep sea fishing and spot orca whales waiting for the tuna migration in the Strait of Gibraltar. Punta de Tarifa, the southernmost point of mainland Europe and about an hour and 20 minutes from Marbella, is one of the top kite surfing spots in the world.

The crossing to Morocco is only a one-hour voyage, so a day trip to Tangier to wander the Medina and hunt for antiques is also possible.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
United Airlines flies direct from NYC to Málaga, the closest airport to Marbella, with a 30-minute drive to the coast.

Getting Around
The infamous Golden Mile is walkable via a manicured beach boardwalk. All of the hotels offer transfers to one another.

When to Go
Sheltered by the peaks of La Concha mountain, with a unique microclimate, Marbella's coastline sees 320 average days of sunshine a year and mild winters. Summer is best to experience the lively scene; September and October see high-temps and low crowds.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.