Marbella, not for adults only

By Charlotte Seligman, May 10, 2006
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This exquisite tourist resort on the Costa del Sol is friendly and accessible — even if you have kids in tow

Most people have wonderful memories of their childhood holidays. Mine are of the many summers I spent on Spain’s Costa del Sol at my grandparents’ apartment in the Marbella urbanization of Guadalmina.

With all my cousins, aunts and uncles, there were often 13 of us and I remember the mornings I got up early to help my grandpa squeeze jugs of fresh orange juice for the rest of the family; the outings we were dragged on, in the name of culture, to the hilltop villages of Ronda and Mijas; and the Friday night dinners where we all squashed around the table enjoying roast chicken — bought, I’m afraid, freshly cooked from the (completely unkosher) chicken lady in neighbouring San Pedro De Alacantra.

Then as a teenager there were the trips with my friends to Puerto Banus and the promises to my mother that I’d be home by midnight and wouldn’t travel alone in the back of the taxi “no matter what anyone else does.”

And so it was, with a nostalgic heart, that I packed my bags and headed back to Marbella for my first holiday abroad with my nine-and-a-half-month-old baby, Toby.

Marbella has had a complete face lift in the years since I was last there as a teenager, and it helps that the transport links have vastly improved. Several airlines offer cheap flights and the E15 toll road from Malaga airport means you can drive to Marbella in a little less than 30 minutes. It still has that stylish elegance about it, and you won’t find the hoardes of tourists that frequent the towns down the road like Fuengerola and Torremolinos, but I have to say that the changes and accessibility have, to some extent, been its downfall.

I lost count of the number of hen parties making their highly visible (and audible) way through the arrivals hall at Malaga Airport wearing T-shirts with “Sharon’s last weekend of freedom” and similar phrases emblazoned across surgically enhanced chests. But maybe I’m just showing my age.

And you won’t find me criticising much else. The thing I love most about Marbella is how at home I felt when I was there. It helps that English is widely spoken, but Spaniards know how much their livelihood depends on tourism and they want you to feel welcome. Even at 8am as I walked to the supermarket to buy fresh croissants, the locals engaged me in conversation. It didn’t matter that after “Hola!” I could no longer understand what they were saying, they always made Toby smile and that was good enough for me.

There’s no shortage of property in the Costa del Sol and nowadays the average UK visitor has money in his pocket — or her handbag — and tends to prefer the Costa del Sol’s 300 annual days of sunshine to the often miserable climate we are used to. Many own second — or sometimes first — homes, and as a result residential tourism is booming. New apartments, villas, townhouses and luxury hotels line the coastal roads from Malaga to Estepona and whether you’re choosing a hotel or a place to buy, you’ll be dazzled by the choices.

What with the classically chic Marbella Club Hotel (Paris Hilton was staying there days before we arrived), the avant-garde Kempinski with its beautifully landscaped gardens (and expensive coffee), the smartly refurbished Hotel Don Carlos — all with superb restaurants, golf courses and luxury spas — it’s a wonder they all do such a roaring trade. But they do.

With a nine-month-old baby in tow, my priorities about where I like to stay have changed. I used to love the exclusive, romantic hotels where they don’t allow any children.

Now I have to flick past those palaces and turn to the child friendly resorts that offer babysitters, high-chairs, cots and washing machines.

Which is why using a company like Marbella Options was far more helpful than spending hours poring over holiday brochures.

Based in Marbella, the company doesn’t just offer good accommodation. With its unrivalled local knowledge, it provides all those little extras that can make a great holiday. When I told the agent I had a small baby and I needed more space than just the confines of a hotel bedroom, he pointed me straight to Vasari Resort, which is close to Puerto Banus, within the exclusive La Alzambra urbanization.

The fact that it was five star was an added bonus. Sadly, despite our tight budget these days, motherhood has done little to dampen my taste for luxury. What I really liked about it was the fact it offered all the facilities of a hotel (24-hour reception, daily cleaning, pool-side bar and gourmet restaurant), with the convenience of your own apartment.

As well as an enormous bedroom and beautiful marbled bathroom, we had a huge living room (great for plonking the baby down with all his toys) and a fully equipped kitchen so we avoided the embarrassment of feeding him in the smart hotel restaurant and clearing up what he’d thrown on the floor.

And everything is on your doorstep. You’re about four miles from the centre of Marbella and some of the best golf courses are close too. That’s not so great if, like me, you don’t play golf, but while hubby is teeing up, you can shop, which, let’s face it, is a far better option.

Shopping on the Costa del Sol is a new passion — though not necessarily for me — with Marbella a focus for excellent stores. From the quaint shoe shops of the Old Town to the designer labels of Puerto Banus, all tastes are catered for. La Canada — the largest shopping centre — and the relatively new Marina Banus (opposite the Cortes Ingles) have local and international chains that offer an alternative to Puerto Banus’s designer price-labels.

And no trip to Marbella would be complete without a visit to Puerto Banus. The port is as much about food and social life as it is about boats. It’s packed with eateries, from the cheap-as-chips to the very extravagant, as well as trendy bars attracting locals and tourists in a nightly parade of flash threads and over-tanned flesh.

The place buzzes into the early hours — most Spaniards still like a siesta, remember, so it’s not unusual to sit down to dinner at 10pm. You don’t even have to worry about having a baby with you. They’re so geared up for children, waiters will even set aside a larger table so you have room for a buggy. Toby thoroughly enjoyed his night at Tikitano’s beach bar — at Las Dunas hotel — watching his parents sip too many cocktails.

Eating out is not as cheap as it used to be, but I don’t think we had a bad meal in 10 days, so you get good food for your money.

Tango, in Puerto Banus, is well worth a visit. We ate there twice, even bumping into James Hewitt, Princess Diana’s former love, on one occasion, though he seemed to have more of an appetite for the lady on his left than the food on his plate.

A drive up the mountains to the lovely village of Benahavis will guarantee you a cheaper meal, but if it’s the Marbella buzz you’re after, stick to places like Italian restaurant Regina at the Andalucia Plaza Hotel. Home-made pasta and ice-cold Kir Royals make for a great evening. Once the champagne’s taken effect, you could even try your luck next door at the casino. If, like us, you have friends who stake all their money on one number and win, you may even get the babysitter paid for.

I’ll remember the holiday for lots of reasons: Toby eating his first ice-cream, his delight when we sat him on the sand and built a sandcastle, not to mention the two hours he screamed on the plane.

But it also took me back to my own memories of childhood holidays in Marbella. And made me realise how special they’ll always be…

    Last updated: 1:56pm, September 10 2008