Turtle Bunbury

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Sotogrande, Spain: Paradise Reconstructed


Take a small chunk of desolate Spanish sierra, add sprinkler system and what do you get? Sotogrande is unarguably the most exclusive, up-market golfing resort in Europe.

Colonel Joseph McMicking had a dream. He wanted to build Paradise. The Philippines based entrepreneur and sometime ADC to Douglas MacArthur first proved his visionary prowess when, in the wake of World War II, he created "Makati", the world's first state-of-the-art satellite city for the affluent elite of Filipino society. In 1962 he initiated the search for a new location for a new Eden. He chose Franco's Spain, the poorest country in Western Europe.

And so it was to the parched, barren mountains of Andalusia that landscaped the poorest province in Spain, that McMicking dispatched his cousin Alfredo Melian to find a plot of land on which he could realize his dream. Andalucia had always been poor. Romans, Moors, Visigoths and Christian fanatics were amongst the many unruly hoards who previously passed through the land, plundering any chance of prosperity. In the centuries before the rain-sodden British middle classes came hunting for fish and chips, the only real hope for Andalusia's inhabitants was to start anew in foreign lands; many who set sail for South America with the Conquistadors hailed from the fishing hamlets and mountain pueblos of the province.

Melian rode his motorbike through the narrow winding roads of the coastal sierra for several months with a blank check in his wallet. Eventually he secured three adjoining farms fronting the Mediterranean which, rapidly amalgamated, became the basis of Sotogrande. The 4000-acre estate lies along the south Andalusian coastline midway between Marbella and Gibraltar. When Melian arrived, there was nothing here save a few ramshackle cortijos (sheep farms) and shepherd boys snoozing under cork oak trees, dreaming of alchemists, watching the mighty freight ships plow through the Straits of Gibraltar, the mountains of Morocco shimmering beyond.

Melian's choice was to prove highly fortuitous. Today it seems as though the entirety of Southern Spain is under construction. The number of cranes swinging over the sun-kissed coastline is simply staggering. Every day, Malaga Airport decants thousands of foreigners eager to take advantage of the relatively cheap prices and consistent sunshine. Many come to purchase a second home amid the countless apartment blocks erupting along the coast. The majority congregate around the infamous Costa del Sol, the fastest growing region in Europe, where canny investors have created an often frightening wonderland of neo-Butlins holiday camps.

But Sotogrande lies just far enough from the mayhem of the south east to rise above the now endless clatter of pneumatic drills and honking car horns. Indeed, its coastal setting is much improved by the fresh swell of the Atlantic which rounds the nearby cape of Trafalgar and dilutes the increasingly stagnant waters of the Mediterranean. Within the estate itself, the River Guadiaro, spanned by a bridge built in 1979, provides a welcome source of freshwater. The climate is well suited to European tastes - occasional cold spells that require winter fires, summers so hot its like walking inside a hair drier, a fresh sea breeze that bounces back off the mountains to the north.

Location secured, it was time to build McMicking's Paradise. The foundation was to be, like it or lump it, a golf course. Within a few months of the Sotogrande purchase, bulldozers were crawling across the foothills of the Sierra Almenara, uprooting cork trees and smoothing out rocky fields. Robert Trent Jones, the globe's pre-eminent course architect, was recruited to design the 18-hole golf course now known as "Sotogrande Old". It was the first course in Europe to have automatic sprinklers - 472 of them, discreetly serviced by 100 miles of underground cable.

Following the Makati model, McMicking then began selling individual plots as high class, low-density residential developments. Under the management of the formidable Dona Carmen Guerrendiain, formerly of the Ritz in Madrid, Sotogrande rapidly became the place to live. All of a sudden, like Croatia today, the once war-torn country of Spain with its virtually untouched Mediterranean coastline was looking highly fashionable. The global elite began to sit up, revise their Hemmingway quotes and talk glowingly of paella and bullfights. In due course, a hotel was erected at Sotogrande for potential property buyers to survey the land. Further golf courses followed fast. By 1985, McMicking's Paradise was fully furnished with tennis, croquet, polo, sailing, wind-surfing and beach clubs and stables for 200 horses at one of the original farms.

The 4000 full-time residents of Sotogrande live today in grandiose terracotta-floored courtyard villas. Computerized fridge's, luscious Moroccan fabrics and household servants that vanish with a clap. Trim lawns, bougainvillea smothered walls and busy blue swimming pools. The managers of Sotogrande pride themselves on their discretion. Their armour is virtually chink-less; a hint of a Duchess, a flash of a sporting great, a whisper of a rock legend. In August, the residents and their guests roam from house party to boat party, elegantly clad in slacks and pearls. Invitations mount on marble mantelpieces in escalating proof of ones' social desirability. Occasionally they break free of the estate boundaries and try something a little more native; perhaps some tapas in nearby Pueblo Nuevo, a flamenco dance in San Rocque, a fiesta in the mountain village of Gaucin. But mainly their days are spent in Sotogrande, lounging in sprinkler lush gardens, swooning over the chukka gallants on the polo field, vying for victory on putting greens and tennis courts.

But even in Paradise there are unfulfilled ambitions. Amongst the other early buyers was Jaime Oritz-Patino, the wealthy Bolivian tin magnate. In the late 1970s, he rounded up some friends, formed a company and purchased the golf course at Las Aves. The company didn't last long. "Jimmy likes to chair committees of odd numbers and he thinks three is too many", explained a friend. In 1986 Patino bought out his friends and renamed the course Valderrama. He sold his immense collection of Impressionist paintings for $70 million in order to pay for the subsequent renovation and upkeep. In 1997 Patino's obsession came to fruition when Valderrama was selected to host the Ryder Cup. From October 30th to November 2nd 2003, it will host the Volvo World Masters Championships for the ninth time since 1988. There are now five golf courses in total, as well as an exceptionally active new Marina at Puerto Sotogrande; the first port of call on entering the Mediterranean.

There are those who argue that Sotogrande is a false paradise; Jilly Cooper with driving irons and cork trees. It's not Spain, they argue. It's a make-believe world, only good for the idle rich and golfing bores. Perhaps. But was Paradise ever real? The only real difference between Sotogrande and all the other international resorts erupting along the once desolate Spanish costa is that Sotogrande is the smartest. Any visitor to the south of Spain can be pretty confident the sun will shine. But Sotogrande offers something more. It is an oasis for those seeking that elusively exclusive lifestyle; a sun-drenched Spanglish-speaking sanctuary on the Med, free from paparazzi cameras, traffic congestion, smelly water, fish n' chips and far, far away from the maddening crowds.

That said, the essence of McMicking's Paradise is in a state of metamorphosis. An urban centre, replete with swanky bars, clubs, restaurants, boutiques and its own outdoor market, has been developed at the Marina. And now the present owners have opted to cash in on the construction boom engulfing the south coast to build some 3000 new villas and apartments. This will greatly increase the present population of 4000 full-time residents, a number that already swells to 20,000 during July and August. Most are Spaniards, well-to-do migrants from Madrid and such like, but there are substantial numbers of other nationalities - including nearly a thousand British ex-pats working in Gibraltar and at least forty Irish families.

Sotogrande will always be a cut above the rest when it comes to Spanish resorts. Even with the new building frenzy, the resort's spacious ambience and carefully manicured greenery ensures visitors a peace of mind rare for modern times. It was Winston Churchill who once described golf as a game involving the hitting of a small white ball with "an instrument singularly ill-designed for the purpose". As one stands on the higher peaks of Sotogrande and gazes down at the lush, undulating fairways and sparkling villas, one hopes that the late Colonel McMicking felt that he himself had created Paradise, albeit his own tartan take on it, from a landscape that was also singularly ill-designed for the purpose.

Sotogrande is one hour's drive from Malaga Airport. I stayed as a guest of the NH Almenara Golf Hotel & Spa. (www.nhalmanara.com). For enquiries on membership, property or visiting see www.sotogrande.es


This article featured in The Irish Times Magazine in September 2003.