Marbella, Spain: a family holiday with bling

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Marbella, Spain: a family holiday with bling
An impressive array of yachts line Marbella harbour

When did you last hear of anyone going to Marbella on a family holiday? Quite possibly it was when straw donkeys were still in vogue and entire herds of the creatures would be disgorged and carried aloft amid a sea of sombreros from charter planes on the tarmac at Gatwick. Since then, Marbella has been rather bypassed by the middle classes, in their tireless (occasionally tiresome) search for “the real” Spain, as though sweating it out in a remote mountain parador is somehow more authentic than having a lovely day at the beach followed by some light retail therapy and gambas al ajillo.

At the high end, celebrities have always flocked to this sunspot (at 300 days a year, it’s a dead cert for topping up the Eurotan), with its swanky designer emporia and megayachts in the harbour at neighbouring Puerto Banus. If it isn’t the cast of The Only Way is Essex hanging out (sic) in tiny swimwear, it’s Ivana Trump selflessly partying on behalf of Children for World Peace, or Eva Longoria, or Calum Best. You can read all about it at, if you must. The region also has a booming cosmetic surgery industry, as attested by the soft-focus clinica cosmetica billboards.

The tide of fashion turned with the arrival of the altogether classier Michelle Obama, who turned up for a summer break with one of her daughters, Sasha. She was swiftly followed by yet another arbiter of unassailable good taste; yes, me with my two daughters, aged nine and two. My husband even came too, because unlike the Leader of the Free World he wasn’t needed to stabilise plunging global markets or clash ideologies with the Senate.

And what I discovered was that Marbella is as realista as it gets; it is where Old Spain collides with New Spain, and the result couldn’t be more fascinating. First, our hotel, which was a perfect choice; never in my life have I enjoyed such marvellous people-watching as I did at the Marbella Club.

Yes there was sun and sand, beach bars and a great children’s club (more of which later), but there was also elegance and tradition; dark wooden panelling, heavy furniture, rich woven wall tapestries and wrought-iron grilles. It felt properly Spanish, and properly luxurious; built in 1954 by Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg as a private home and beachfront playground for his A-list buddies, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Laurence Olivier.

Set on the Golden Mile, the stretch of beach between Marbella town itself and the gaudier delights of Puerto Banus, The Marbella Club still retains an air of exclusivity and indeed, formality; no jeans in the à la carte restaurant, nobody wandering about public areas in bathers or bikinis, small boys in freshly pressed Tommy Hilfiger at breakfast and little Italian girls in bright white Esprit dresses.

A mixture of private villas and generously proportioned rooms set in lush gardens led down to the sea, past The Three Lions children’s club, run by a Briton who used to be a teacher and his polyglot staff of girls and chaps. There was an indoor area and an extensive garden, with a mini swimming pool. My two brought back plenty of artwork and stories about the English author who visited with her dog, giving each of them a free copy of her book; they were taken to the beach, too, to collect shells and make sandcastles.

Marbella is known for its reliable weather

The hours were 10am to 2pm – long enough for the parents to have a leisurelycafé con leche, a swim and a read, but not so long that the day was over by collection time. On most days my elder girl, Lily, had already sorted her own playdate with other girls at the club – there were plenty of British and Irish children – and we would sit by one of the pools and watch them all splashing and shrieking as even nicely dressed children are wont to do.

Most evenings we took a €10 (£8.30) taxi into Marbella old town to wander through the winding streets, browse in the shops and enjoy an aperitif. We ate outside, so the children could wander in the pedestrianised square between courses, where the greatest peril they faced was being squeezed to death by overattentive grandmothers.

As every parent knows, there’s nothing like a few hours apart to emphasise the simple pleasure to be had in togetherness; in shopping for fans and the mandatory flamenco dolls. My husband was initially sniffy that while Lily’s was made of china I insisted on the naff plastic one for her little sister, Tabitha, but as she’d wrenched the arms off it by bedtime, it turned out (as per) that mummy really did know best.

While Marbella was relaxed and relaxing – and I freely confess I’d have turned up my nose snootily, if anyone had suggested this – my favourite outing was our leisurely stroll along the esplanade to Puerto Banus, the bling capital of the Costa del Sol, with its cacophony of designer brands, Versace blondes with pricey trout pouts and toyboys in tow, Fendi handbags, Missoni frocks, Chloe belts and Dior sunglasses. I could have stood all day shamelessly slack-jawed, rubbernecking, had it not been for a preposterously unseasonable downpour, when we were soaked through to our smalls in seconds.

‘Most evenings we took a taxi into Marbella old town’

We tried to shelter by squeezing with the throng underneath Caroline Herrera’s sun awning. On the superyacht opposite, a permatanned silver fox sitting under cover toyed with his Rolls-Royce car keys and idly (or possibly, pointedly) raised and lowered his Spirit of Ecstasy statuette as his waiter fetched him another drink. As a symbol of the ennui of wealth it was unsurpassable, but I couldn’t help feeling he’d have more fun if he bailed out of his gilded cage and came back to the Marbella Club with us, even if he did have to walk there in wet underpants.

After a hot bath to warm us up, one of the children’s club staff came to babysit and we went to the gourmet restaurant, which was unforgettable. It was like being on the set of a Buñuel movie, peopled by the most extraordinary, verging-on-absurd characters: oligarchs surrounded by leggy lovelies young enough to be their granddaughters; four generations of the same family solemnly celebrating the birthday of a small boy on the verge of falling asleep by the sixth course; hipsters in Jean Paul Gautier; and the gran señora with the aristocratic posture in her original Chanel suit, seated alone at a table in the middle of the restaurant, round whom the waiters – craggy faithful retainers to a man – pirouetted and fussed with such deference.

My husband and I sat, agog, silent apart from devising back stories for the other diners: the discontented trophy wife, the oil-gas-and-minerals billionaire, the smitten newly weds with a secret.

I wouldn’t have been at all fazed if Penélope Cruz had strolled in, arms linked with Antonio Banderas. But actually, I’d venture that they were the ones missing out, for this was Spain at its most magnífico. Even without the straw donkeys.