I have a revolving travel wish-list which I mentally update every time I’m stuck on the number 38 bus in East London. Today it reads: rent a beach house in The Hamptons and spend a fortnight barbecuing fresh lobster and stalking the Barefoot Contessa; revisit Australia’s magical Byron Bay as a thirty-something whose budget stretches further than the Arts Factory Lodge hostel; and devour the history and food of Vietnam. But these are once-in-in-a-lifetime trips that require long, dedicated hours of iPad research to ensure not one pop-up restaurant, dreamy beach or cultural must-see eludes you. Sometimes, though, you crave something lazier, something a little more like a ‘holiday’. Guaranteed sunshine, plenty of fresh seafood, a flight which lasts less than two magazines, and a spa so beautiful you could happily move in. And I found that in Marbella.
The glitziest of the Costa del Sol’s resorts, Marbella’s an area that has fallen out of favour with ‘serious’ travellers because of holidaying footballers, reality TV stars and the superyacht-studded marina of Puerto Banús. But, like a lot of Spanish hot spots right now, it deserves a second look. There’s no doubting the picture-perfect setting, between the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the Sierra Blanca mountains to the north, which gives Marbella its famed micro-climate (320 days of sunshine per year). And, like most things in life, it has another side, a thousand miles from yachts, streaky fake tan and overpriced wine bars.
Many British tourists never stray far from the water, but Marbella’s charming casco antiguo (old town) is well-preserved and surprisingly untouristy, with narrow lanes where flowerpot-strewn balconies lord over tiny galleries, cafes and boutiques. Casanis is an authentic French bistro with cartoon murals on the walls and pot plants everywhere, a favourite with locals, who shun the pricier restaurants at the marina. A five-minute walk north takes you to the beautiful gardens of the Parque Arroyo de la Represa, where you’ll find the gloriously quirky Bonsai Museum (cue hilarious ‘I’m a giant!’ Instagram opportunities). But getting lost in the galleries and boutiques of Calle Ancha and Calle Bermeja is the best way to understand Marbella’s long-standing appeal for artists, writers, designers and chefs.
And when you’re done pounding these pedestrianised streets, there’s a sun lounger with your name on it. Just ten minutes from Marbella’s old town is the whitewashed, low-rise hideaway of Puente Romano. I expected something glitzy, showy, a little bit Marbs, but what I found was a lush, green oasis dotted with fuchsia flowers and banana trees, and swans gliding along streams. Dispersed among the greenery are 264 suites and bedrooms, in traditional Spanish buildings decked out in ice-cream shades of vanilla and pistachio.
Everything about Puente Romano subtly encourages the kind of relaxation it’s hard to achieve on more intrepid getaways. Three minutes’ walk from my bedroom and my toes are being tickled by the Andalusian sea, on the golden sands of a private beach. Five minutes takes me to Rachel’s Organic Cafe, to sip cold-pressed carrot, apple and fennel juice poolside. The resort is big enough that you rarely see the same person twice – a plus in my book, no-one wants to make small talk in their bikini – yet you can roll from sun lounger to restaurant to bar without raising a sweat.
I settle into a morning routine of a beach stroll, three-course breakfast on the terrace under the orange trees, and lounging around one of the three pools binge reading Luckiest Girl Alive (am I the only one who measures holidays by the number of books they devour?). Had I been a very different person (ie. not intrinsically lazy) I would have taken advantage of the ten clay tennis courts (where John McEnroe and Boris Becker have played), or the gleaming gym. I might even have contemplated leaving the resort for dinner. But with nine restaurants there’s no reason to exert yourself. We ate lobster spaghetti overlooking the waves at The Sea Grill, sourdough pizzas at Serafina, and on night three we opted for Bibo, a ‘concept’ restaurant by the Michelin-starred Dani Garcia… words which normally fill me with terror. But the BBQ pork rib steamed bun, tuna tacos and guaca-peas were so good we went two nights running.
But none of this really explains my yearning to return to Marbella, every time I take my seat on the number 38. Last year saw the opening of the long-awaited Six Senses Spa Marbella at Puente Romano. And now I understand why beauty editors, spa industry insiders and R&R-craving A-listers return to Six Senses’ spas time and again. My happy place is on one of the huge white space-shuttle beds that hug the infinity pool listening to the sea. And whoever invented heated toilet seats that play relaxing music to mask ‘sounds’ deserves applause. After a Holistic Signature Massage (products are by The Organic Pharmacy), I eased from the hydrotherapy pool to the shower (complete with mood lighting and 20 different water settings) to the herbal steamroom with a smug smile on my face.
It may not be as hip as Myanmar, but if you want total relaxation, there’s nowhere finer than Marbs.
Stays at Puente Romano (puenteromano.com) start at £180 per night.
Save Your Pennies: Finca Los Angelitos, Marbella
Lap up those sunshine hours at a tranquil finca overlooking Marbella and the Mediterranean
Finca Los Angelitos sits high above Marbella, with beautiful views of the coast. Owned by Marie, a Belgian photographer, this serene finca makes for a perfect base if you’d rather avoid the chaos of the city. On a clear day you can glimpse the Pillars of Hercules while you breakfast on homemade pastries, bread and jams on the breakfast terrace, and the pool is the perfect place to flop after a day hiking in the National Park Sierra de las Nieves (you can reach the trails on foot from the finca, and Marie will happily prepare you a picnic). Most British visitors never make it into the hills, but Spanish tourists come to Marbella for hikes, horse riding and day trips up to the gorgeous historical town of Ronda, with its cliff-hugging bodegas overlooking the dramatic El Tajo gorge. Beaches and the restaurants and bars of Marbella are just a five-minute drive away from the finca when you feel the urge, but the pretty terracotta-tiled bedrooms and sea views of this hillside hideway will be beckoning you home.
Doubles at Finca Los Angelitos (sawdays.co.uk) start at £65 per night