Marbella is one of those destinations that sounds infinitely more glamorous than it actually is. Marbellla’s Old Town is perfectly charming, if in need of some world-class cafés and shops, but it is difficult to maintain the illusion that the town’s Puerto Banus is still glamorous.
Around 15 years ago, in its heyday, you could not open the Daily Mail diary page without seeing cash-splashing sheikhs or an Alaia-clad fake-tanned model/actress/whatever “frolicking” there.
But today, the yacht marina’s perimeter is a seedy mix of hyper-expensive designer boutiques, tourist-trap pizza restaurants, tacky bars and a shopping mall which wouldn’t be out of place in any medium-sized Midlands town.
Torremolinos — though much rebuilt and renovated in the last decade — is unlikely to hold huge appeal for JC readers, and Benalmadena does not exactly qualify for chic destination of the year. So what these days — apart from the Andalusian hinterland, which may as well be on another planet — is likely to make us fly to Malaga, Marbella’s local airport?
The answer could well be the Kempinski Hotel Bahia Estepona, 20 minutes west of Marbella, and just reopened following a £5.5 million refurbishment. Always popular with a certain type of UK visitor — we Brits constitute 40 percent of the hotel’s guests each year (followed by 30 percent Spanish; 20 percent German and 10 percent rest of the world) — the property is one of those European hotels which has been attracting the well-heeled and family-orientated since it first opened almost 10 years ago.
Located just off the main coastal highway, barely two kilometres from the now nicely gentrified and manicured Estepona, the hotel is an oasis of tranquillity thanks in no small part to the 45,000 square metres of landscaped gardens in which it is set.
And while grounds of this size might indicate a vast hotel, in this case they do not. The building is sprawling, providing spacious, airy lounges, lobby and restaurants, but there are just 133 rooms and 15 suites, so even fully occupied, the hotel never feels crowded. And the generosity of space extends to the rooms and suites. Every room —whether standard, deluxe or diamond — is a sprawling 42 square metres, since the designation is based on the view, not the square footage.
And it is in the guest bedrooms and suites where most of the £5.5 million has been lavished. Carpeting, wall covering and furnishings have all been renewed in a cool, classic style blending dark wood — in a modern take on traditional Andalusian furniture — and a symphony of pale fabrics. All rooms have big marble bathrooms, with double sinks and separate bath and shower, as well as seating area and balcony or terrace for lounging. Techno gizmos include flat screen TV (at least two in the suites), high-speed internet and wifi. For those holidaying with children, there are a series of inter-connecting guest bedrooms.
Outside, there are three large pools, some with bridges and waterfalls, surrounded by sun-bathing areas as well as those vast gardens and, of course, the beach which, lacking travel brochure-quality sand, is having more pleasingly soft stuff shipped in from the costas where the sand is finer. A new kids’ club, which opened just last weekend, features a large room for out-of-the-sun crafts and games, as well as an additional shady pool for tinies. Those who want to sun-bathe without interruption can have lunch at the pool bar, or repair to the Cabana del Mar. Breakfast at the hotel — a delicious feast of top-quality fresh fruits, juices, eggs made to order, smoked salmon, cheeses, breads, cakes and home-made preserves — can be taken in the restaurant or al fresco on the large terrace. If you wish to dine at the hotel, there are a number of options — including the Cabana del Mar and the Italian La Brisa, both al fresco in summer — and the fine-dining Alminar, which showcases the skills of chef Jordi Bataller. He does good things with seabass, hake and cod as well as, of course, many non-kosher ingredients.
The hotel also has a brand new Eminence Spa, with indoor pool, fitness room and 18 treatment rooms where therapists use the Hungarian organic, all-natural, fruit- and vegetable-based Eminence products.
It is worth hiring a car while staying in this part of the Costa del Sol, so that when you have had your fill of sunbathing and relaxing you can check out what the coast has to offer. You could head east to Marbella for its multiple Zara branches (where prices are euro for pound, remember — though with the current strength of the euro, that is less a bargain than it once was), or head west to Estepona for a stroll along the broad, spotless promenade with its cafés, restaurants and jolly play areas for kids.
Or you could head 35 miles inland into the hills, to spend a day strolling the picturesque and ancient mountaintop town of Ronda. Don’t miss its bullring or the jaw-dropping Puente Nuevo bridge, spanning the Tajo Gorge.
Alternatively, just five kilometres inland you will find the picture-postcard-pretty village of Benahavis, crammed with restaurants and cafés and offering superb views of the coast and mountains.