8 Aug, 2013 @ 08:24
5 mins read

The Sotogrande season

belinda e

“So have you read the book?” I asked polo star Jack Kidd when I met supermodel Jodi’s hunky elder brother at Santa María Polo Club.

I was referring to Jilly Cooper’s raunchy novel, Polo. After all, Jack’s in it! He’s one of ‘The Heavenly Twins’, described as: ‘vastly brave, blonde and stocky like two golden bear cubs, it was said that any girl in the twins’ lives, and there were legions, had to play second fiddle to polo and the other twin.’

“I don’t need to read the book, I live the life,” Jack retorted, not flattered to be a chick-lit hero.

Polo the book may be a work of bad fiction but Cooper’s world of ‘bankable patrons and bonkable players’ is not so very far removed from what goes on during ‘the Sotogrande season’. (Aficionados really do joke that polo is also an acronym for ‘pants off, legs open’!)

On the field, too, it’s a fast-action game that knocks Sotogrande’s other top spectator sport – golf – into the watching-paint-dry category. Yet although everyone you know owns a polo shirt or six (selling for €4 in Carrefour this summer), most locals have
never seen a live chukka, although they’re free to watch. That’s an open invitation to ogle the world’s top players thrashing mallets about in the saddle (Princes Charles, Andrew, William and Harry, Spanish royals and sultans too, on occasions): cool
Germanic blondes, red-hot Argentineans, smooth, snake-hipped Frenchmen – take your pick, most of them under 35 and 100 per cent fit – plus enough ponies to shoot the remake of Ben Hur.

One event in particular, introduced in 1971, has put Sotogrande on the map: the International Summer Tournament, a World Polo Tour fixture ranked among the top three in Europe. From 27 July-1 September, 30 teams of riders and 1,000-plus ponies will do battle at Santa María for Gold, Silver and Bronze Cups, watched by 50,000 spectators drawn from a Who’s Who of high society. Land Rover is this year’s tournament sponsor, with many other high-end brands linked to the trophies and après polo parties where the Taittinger will be flowing until la madrugada.

But it’s not only its 11 polo fields and high-net-worth summer residents that set Sotogrande apart from the hoi polloi. You won’t find it on most maps because it isn’t a town, or even a village. It’s an urbanisation run by the NH Hotels Group, albeit the
largest and most exclusive privately-owned residential development in Andalucía.

Wedged between Gibraltar and the foothills of the Sierra Almenara and sliced into two halves (Alto and Costa) by the coastal highway, it’s part of the municipality of San Roque in Cádiz province, although much better appointed. This postage stampsized, 20km2 community boasts:

  • a golf academy and five championship courses offering 350 holes of golf,including Valderrama of 1997 Ryder Cup fame
  • a top-rated equestrian centre which hosts champion show jumping, dressage, gymkhanas and teaching clinics held by Olympic riders;
  • a marina oozing the class that Puerto Banús, with its hen parties and ladies of the night, can only dream of; and a pukka sailing club where wind power is preferred to turning a key in a polished walnut dashboard;
  • a Raquets Centre for paddle, pelota and tennis where a hallowed Wimbledon atmosphere prevails;
  • the Cucurucho Beach Club whose curiosities include 7,000 metres of sunbathing lawn and a pool shower resembling a TV aerial struck by lightning that dates from its inception and still works, as does its annual Children’s Olympics;
  • dozens of chichi bars and restaurants including several Argentinean steak houses( to cater for beefy polo players used to eating it in its country of origin); the Ké Bar at the port, the social meeting place which publishes its own glossy magazine; and the new pastelería opened by Mariana who is to cake decorating what Michelangelo was to art.

With a nature reserve, its own church and international school and a private hospital clinic with the latest radio-diagnostic equipment, it’s got as much as any proper town, with bells on.

Just as its multi-millionaire founder Joseph McMicking promised in 1962 when he bought five fincas to create the ultimate family sports resort, Sotogrande has “matured like a good Camembert”. Well-considered planning has created an urban area of startling natural beauty surrounded by cork forests, golf fairways and protected natural parkland around the River Guadiaro estuary, crossed by a rickety boardwalk, that’s an ornithologist’s paradise. Along wide avenues spliced by pink and yellow oleanders, magnificent mansions peep from between lush conifers and palms (two of the original houses have been declared buildings of cultural interest,
along with the Real Club de Golf Sotogrande). Speed bumps preclude low-chassied Flash Harry sports cars (all you can hear is birdsong and the swish of garden sprinklers). This is green wellie country so you’re more likely to see mud-spattered SUVs packed with kids and dogs.

Sotogrande might never have existed if Swissair hadn’t sent a pair of complementary flight tickets to the Philippines-based Ayala Corporation (which gave its name to Sotogrande’s second polo club). McMicking was the CEO while the man he sent to scout for land to realise his dream resort was Enrique Zóbel, the founding father of polo in Sotogrande. His brief was to find an estate with good travel links and ‘an abundance of water’.

Gibraltar being the only ‘good travel link’ (Málaga airport consisted of one Iberia desk and the N340 didn’t reach this far) Sotogrande’s early settlers – wealthy families rom the Philippines, Belgium, Austria and France in the main – flew in via London.

In the early years they had to make their own fun, taking it in turn to throw lavish house parties. Soon the cream of European aristocracy was summering in Sotogrande alongside the Domecq sherry and Ford car families. The Spanish arrived en masse after 1969 when Gibraltar was cut off by Franco’s border closure.

In the Seventies, to attract the professional middle class and correct the estate’s ailing balance sheet, Sotogrande opened its multi-coloured port. Although quite densely urbanised, homes are still bijoux. Apartments at Ribera del Marlin showcase the last word in domotics and many come with a yacht mooring. Although it hasn’t escaped ‘la crisis’, Sotogrande’s snob appeal keeps property prices more stable.

But the development that was to be the jewel in the port’s crown is a sad sign of the times. Blue Sotogrande waterfront shopping village still stands like a jilted virgin bride, many of its bricked-up locales unbreached. The arrival of local décor Queen
Patricia Darch and stylish new restaurants, plus the very ‘up’-market Sunday market – hippy chic clothing and the best pepper grinders this side of Harrods, sold by Barry ‘the Spice Boy’ – are finally doing their bit to foster a Covent-Garden-Sur-Med vibe.

Despite the seasonal influx of wealth, Sotogrande’s 50th anniversary was not a golden year. The ‘seasonality’ of tourism here is half the problem. In 2012 the estate reported losses of €68 million, not helped by the axing of its big autumn incomegenerator, the Andalucía Masters Golf Tournament at Valderrama, another victim of the crisis. (Don’t even mention the Volvo Masters, now just a distant memory.)

So this month, do yourself and Sotogrande a favour. Go watch some polo (but not in your €4 Carrefour polo shirt, puleese). They might not need you in August but they will later on – and you’ll be back. Jilly Cooper says so!

“Polo is a drug only curable by poverty or death.” (From Polo by Jilly Cooper)

Belinda Beckett (Columnist)

Belinda Beckett is a qualified journalist and freelance writer based in the Campo de Gibraltar, specialising in travel & lifestyle features and humour columns.

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