Discover this Hidden Gem of the Spanish Mediterranean
The hidden Spanish gem of Marbella
PHOTO BY MANFRED GOTTSCHALK/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
By Hannah Seligson, CNN
(CNN) –While there might not be any truly undiscovered parts of the Mediterranean, luckily there are still places that have not quite landed on the 21st century American traveler’s radar. One of those destinations is Marbella – which once drew Hollywood royalty such as Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant – in the Andalusia region of southern Spain.
In recent years, Marbella has become a popular vacation spot for Europeans, particularly the British, who enjoy easy access to the Costa del Sol (Sunshine Coast) from London. In June, United Airlines launched a seasonal nonstop route to Málaga, the closest airport to Marbella, putting the destination in the league of jet-set hot spots, such as the French Riviera and the Amalfi Coast, that have direct flights from the United States.
Marbella even has a popular hashtag on social media, “Marbs,” that has become shorthand to convey a certain upscale lifestyle (#marbslife). Still, it’s a place that can’t be lumped in so easily with other ritzy European seaside towns.
First and foremost, Marbella’s culture is influenced as much by its proximity to Northern Africa (the Moroccan port city of Tangier is within day-trip range) as by being in Europe, giving this slice of southern Spain a certain diversity and singularity that begs the question: Is Marbella the last great place on the Med?
Let’s start with the weather. Marbella is protected by the Sierra Blanca Mountain range, producing a microclimate that makes the blazing Iberian heat less oppressive in the summer and one of the sunniest destinations in Europe during the winter.
There is plenty of partying to be done, but heavyweight culture is also easily accessible. To the east, Málaga is home to Roman ruins and a world-class Picasso Museum. The Alhambra, often considered the eighth wonder of the world and one of the best-preserved palaces of the historic Islamic world, is a two-hour drive from Marbella in Granada.
What sets Marbella apart from, say, Capri in Italy or Mykonos in Greece is that its Old Town neighborhood feels like a real place that wasn’t built solely around the whims and price point of the 1%. Yes, there is much luxury shopping to be found — Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, to name a few — but there’s also a low-key beach-town vibe and sensibility.
Perhaps most striking is that there is still good value to be found. A night out doesn’t have to break the bank.
For instance, the highly regarded restaurant Gaspar, a favorite among locals, is a place where three people can order multiple courses of fresh seafood and drink a bottle of high-quality Spanish wine for around 80 euros total. (Conversely, there’s The Grill at the Marbella Club that serves haute cuisine and entrees that cost as much as an entire meal at Gaspar.)
Just outside the tony area of Puerto Banús, which is where many of the high-end brands are located, there’s a small, no-frills amusement park, a candy shop with barrels of gummies and various chain restaurants. This is all to say that the luxury bubble can be escaped easily.
A range of lodging
PHOTO BY KEN WELSH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Even on the highest end on the hospitality offerings, at the legendary Marbella Club, which is built on the grounds of Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe’s original villa, prices aren’t as sky-high as some comparable properties in other Mediterranean hot spots. During certain weeks of July and August, rooms can start at between 1,400 and 1,600 euros a night (in the $1,500 to $1,700 range). Those rates will soon drop by hundreds of dollars for many nights in September, when the weather is typically still spectacular.
At Puente Romano, a hospitality complex that has 20 restaurants, five gyms, five swimming pools, a Nobu hotel and a Fendi-designed beach, a suite that sleeps three is 1,850 euros (about $2,000) during peak season.
To put that in perspective, comparable luxury hotels in Positano on Italy’s Amalfi Coast can go for 3,000 euros (about $3,300) a night. At the family friendly Kalesma on the Greek island of Mykonos, a sea view suite starts at around 2,000 euros (about $2,200) dollars in August.
But what is also appealing about Marbella is that charming boutique hotels, such as Hotel Claude Marbella, start at around 350 euros ($385) in August. The hotel, which was fully refurbished in 2020, has a private terrace, patio gallery and library.
This rare mix of beauty, luxury and value isn’t going unnoticed. Last year, Marbella was listed among the European Best Destinations, which are chosen by hundreds of thousands of votes from the public.
“Marbella is the top year-round international destination in the Mediterranean, not only does it have all the top retail and restaurant brands you would find in London, Paris and Milan, but it has the best climate in Europe,” said Daniel Shamoon, the 40-something owner of the Marbella Club and Puente Romano properties and a London-based real-estate magnate.
Get there while you can
Playa de la Fontanilla
PHOTO BY MEDITERRANEAN/ISTOCK UNRELEASED/GETTY IMAGES
Marbella might not be St. Tropez (France) or Portofino (Italy) – yet. But that’s not a bad thing in an era of the over-yachtificaiton of the Mediterranean coastline that has priced out many travelers or just turned away many who feel that the inflated prices are offensive.
However, Marbella might not stay like this forever.
“Our aim is to transform it into the top destination in Spain to complete with the French Riviera and Amalfi Coast,” said Cristina Borges, the marketing director at Puente Romano.
One local disclosed that there’s already talk of the “next Marbella” because there’s little room left to build. (Bets, he said, are on the neighboring town of Estepona.)
Whether Marbella jumps the shark remains to be seen, but certain facets of the destination seem immutable and distinctive.
Marbella will always be about as close to Africa as you’ll get in Europe, giving it a blend of Moroccan and Spanish cultures that shows up in the cuisine, Moorish architecture, laid-back pace and warm climate.
On a clear day, you’ll always be able to see across to another country (Morocco) while swimming in the crystalline Mediterranean waters with the Sierra Blanca mountains in the background. Orcas will still gather around the Strait of Gibraltar waiting for the tuna migration, making the Costa del Sol a special ecosystem to view wildlife.
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. And a bustling city on another continent — in this case, Tangier in Morocco — will always be just 70 miles (113 kilometers) away as the crow flies.
With Marbella’s summer season in full swing, Borges says some of Puente Romano’s largest restaurants, such as Nobu and Cipriani, are packed every night of the week.
“They are doing hundreds of covers every day,” she said. “I have no idea where these people coming from, but they are here.”