IT is hard to imagine that JG Ballard’s cult novel Cocaine Nights is said to have been set inside the millionaire’s playground of Sotogrande.
Telling the story of a disgruntled upper middle class community living in a gated enclave hell, – called Estrella del Mar – it couldn’t seem further from the truth.
Taking a drive around the 4000 acre private estate – Spain’s largest – there is nothing vaguely downbeat or depressing about the place.
The clean, leafy streets, the beautifully kept mansions, gardens. This is a world of privilege, where Russian oligarchs sip cocktails with British debutantes, Argentinian polo players hang out with German ad men and London account managers take lunch with American media moguls.
This is an international scene, understated and mostly without a need to show off its wealth.
Quite the opposite of near neighbour Puerto Banus, where ostentation knows no bounds, in Sotogrande – the Bishop’s Avenue of Andalucia – people actively dress down.
“Sotogrande is a place for international, world travellers, who mostly have the best of everything,” says Argentinian Valeria Alfie, who owns Granate, one of the most fashionable boutiques in the port.
“My customers are from Paris, LA and South Africa, people who don’t come here to show off their money. These are low profile, understated people, who don’t wear Prada or gold Rolexes.”
But, that is not to say they can’t afford them.
This is, after all, where, according to the Sunday Times, Spain’s most expensive real estate can be found.
The paper based its claims, in particular, on one house, La Manzana, owned by the former boss of French brand Cartier, that two years ago went on the market for a whopping 24 million euros.
More of a small palace than a villa, it was described by local agents as “Andalusian neo-Palladian with a hint of Mudejar”, but really was just, well, basically large.
Set in five acres, the house counted ten bedrooms, a gym, walk in safe, not to mention a sauna, staff quarters and a 16m-long infinity swimming pool.
The sort of place the Great Gatsby would have bought and holed up in, it looks more like a hotel than a private property.
The childrens’ Wendy house in the garden looks more expensive than the average Fuengirola apartment.
While things have generally now dropped in price a little (perhaps as much as 30 per cent, according to local agent James Stewart), the average home in Sotogrande is still weighing in at 1.5million euros.
“Our cheapest house is on for 600,000 euros, while currently the most expensive is nine million,” explains Stewart, adding that La Manzana has actually been taken off the market, having failed to sell.
“Our cheapest house is on for 600,000 euros, while currently the most expensive is nine million.”
“They didn’t really need to sell and decided to take it off,” explains Stewart, who first moved to the exclusive enclave in the early 1980s.
Thankful that the “speculative bubble” has now popped, Stewart explains that the resort has fared better than most in southern Spain with the current downturn, due to the fact that it has seen less “distressed sales”.
He is also pleased that prices have come down a fair bit and his agency has certainly fared much better than last year.
“There is certainly a lot more movement this year and there is some good value to be had,” he says.
While there have been few British buyers, the Europeans and Spaniards have been saving the day. “I had an Italian buyer for two million, a Swiss buyer for one and a half, a couple of million euro homes went to Belgians and we have sold ten apartments to Spaniards.”
But by far the most exciting buyer over the last year must be Liverpool right back Glen Johnson. According to sources, the England player has just bought a 3.5m euro home in the area, known as Los Altos beside Almenara golf course.
The seven bedroom, seven bathroom palace, which counts a sauna, jacuzzi and infinity pool was designed by leading architect McLundie and has spectacular views.
He is certainly not the first footballer to buy in the area, with former England manager Glenn Hoddle, having bought just a few streets down some five years ago.
Numerous captains of industry have homes here, plenty of Spanish sportsmen and racing boss Eddie Jordan has had a home here for over a decade.
Other visitors in recent years have included Katie Price – aka Jordan – who was this summer promoting her new brand of polo-style clothing.
Unsurprisingly, with its connections to golf and polo, the place counts roving UK trade ambassador Prince Andrew as a regular visitor.
A frequent summer tourist, along with his ex-wife Fergie, the Duchess of York, this year he acquired a large house in nearby San Enrique, reportedly rent free.
Fergie normally spends a month in the resort with her two daughters Beatrice and Eugenie. This summer Beatrice celebrated her 21st birthday with “recession restraint” under orders from the Queen.
And, of course, one must not forget the princes Wills and Harry, who have often taken a turn on the green baize of the Santa Maria polo club, without a doubt the most famous in Spain.
With games taking place throughout the summer, it is a fantastic spot to see how the other half live, take a glass of champagne and step in the divots after each chukka.
“It is an excellent place to live if you have children with all the local sports,” explains James Stewart. “There are some excellent golf courses and the beach and marina are just around the corner.”
Sandwiched between the Rock of Gibraltar and the Sierra de Almenara, it was a real masterstroke to set this 4000 acre millionaire’s playground here.
Sotogrande’s origins started with the dream of a millionaire businessman Colonel Joseph McMicking, who “wanted to build Paradise”.
The Philippines-based entrepreneur had already created Makati, an exclusive satellite city for the affluent elite of Filipino society, and in 1962 he decided to try the same in Spain.
He sent his Spanish cousin to track down the perfect location and eventually managed to secure five adjoining estates fronting the Mediterranean which, rapidly amalgamated, became the basis of Sotogrande.
Back then there was practically nothing there apart from the odd cortijo and a few flocks of sheep and goats. Its strongest selling point was its location near to Gibraltar and the views towards the landmass of Morocco in the distance.
It was before the advent of mass tourism and land along the Costa del Sol was seen as cheap, unproductive land that could generally be acquired for next to nothing.
At the mouth of the River Guadiaro that originates in the hills above Ronda, the beaches were perfect, as was the rolling, but not too steep terrain.
This was the ideal spot to build a golf course, which was to be the main foundation of the resort.
They drafted in one of the world’s best known course designers and created what is now known as the ‘Sotogrande old course’.
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 began selling plots as high class, low-density residential developments. Employing the services of the well connected society lady Carmen Guerrendiain, formerly of Madrid’s Ritz hotel, it had soon become one of Europe’s hippest places to invest in.
Alongside Marbella a few miles east, suddenly the world’s movers and shakers, celebrities and sportsmen started to have an alternative to San Tropez, Positano and Deauville.
Further golf courses followed fast – there are now five – and by 1985 the resort also counted a tennis club, croquet club, not to mention polo, sailing, wind-surfing and beach clubs, as well as stables for 200 horses. McMicking’s paradise was taking shape.
There are those, of course, who argue that Sotogrande is a false paradise. Divorced from real Spain, with no real culture. A make-believe world for the idle rich and golfing bores.
JG Ballard was anything but flattering about the resort. In his book Cocaine Nights, he described Sotogrande as “a town without either centre or suburbs… little more than a dispersal ground for golf courses and swimming pools.”
Yes, there certainly are plenty of pools and golf courses here. But 16-metre infinity pools and a round at Valderrama golf course sure beats hanging out with tattooed timeshare touts and pie-eating footie fans just half an hour up the coast.
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