LIKE many others, Marbella was my very first taste of Spain.
My family and I celebrated my 16th birthday in a charming little restaurant tucked away in the winding streets of the Old Town.
Our table was heaped with local Spanish delicacies – prawns pil pil, succulent garlic rabbit and cold rice pudding (yes, cold) while my uncle made sure I always had a large, frosted glass of San Miguel beer to hand.
Fast forward six years and I’m back. But there’s no San Miguel in sight at the VIP launch of the outrageously extravagant Roberto Cavalli Club.
It’s €30 for a glass of champagne, half the cast of The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE) is on the dance floor, while I’m trying to chat up one of the stars – the extraordinarily beautiful Chloe Lewis – in the courtyard.
“I take it you’re a big fan of the Olive Press,” I joke, receiving a suitably vacant stare.
Deciding this is one girl I will never get near, I rejoin the raucous party where a bejewelled fire-eater is wowing the crowds, while a midget dressed as a viking troll walks between my legs.
It feels like a million miles from my first ‘pil-pil-tastic’ experience of Marbella – but that’s what makes the undisputed queen of the Costa del Sol tourism scene so special.
One moment you can be enjoying the peaceful shade of an orange tree or the simple pleasure of licking a pistachio ice cream; the next, you’re hobnobbing with a Who’s Who of TV celebrities, getting showered with champagne at some soccer supremo’s pool party, or turning heads in Puerto Banus in a louche Lamborghini (ED: if you’re lucky)!
The resort oozes drama and excitement for every age and inclination.
Even the world’s most expensive footballer holidays here, not to mention many of his team mates.
The perfect antidote to a tiring season at Real Madrid, Welsh wizard Gareth Bale rolled up this month in Marbella to enjoy jet skiing, golf and the Puerto Banus party scene.
But it’s the guys and girls from Essex who’ve added the wow factor and put Marbella on the map for the hard-partying Brit set.
Every summer the TOWIE stars descend on ‘Marbs’ to film simmering ‘specials’ of the hit reality TV series, with drama and romance unravelling at a supercharged rate, and sexploits galore set against a Mediterranean backdrop.
Hotel bookings increase when the series is aired, as does the number of sun-seeking Brits on Malaga-bound flights.
However, the Russians, Scandinavians, French, Germans, Dutch and almost every other nationality you can think of who come to Marbella don’t get TOWIE on TV. They come for other reasons.
Marbella is also now on the radar for Americans, ever since a certain Michelle Obama holidayed in Marbella in 2010.
There really is something for everyone.
The Marbella beach club has almost become an international blueprint, with places like La Sala Beach and Nikki Beach turning a day at the seaside into an all-day dance party fuelled by a heady cocktail of sun, sand and dance music.
The pool parties are also legendary, especially those held at Sisu Boutique Hotel, as well as the Ocean Club.
Meanwhile in the party port of Puerto Banus, an international jetset crowd lets its collective hair down along the infamous ‘second line’ of the port, way into the early hours.
It’s here you will find celebrated Lineker’s Bar – with its legions of hens and stags – not to mention a host of strip clubs and more.
But frontline, and the millionaire’s playground struts the swankiest shops, the flashiest yachts, the hottest cars and some of the most beautiful people in the world, preened and polished to the max.
However, visitors without pockets as deep as the Med might be left gawping at the eye-watering price tags in the designer shops, including Gucci, Versace and Armani.
But that really is just Marbella’s shop window – there’s much more to the resort than Banus and the Golden Mile (the ultimate Marbella address), as local residents know.
Geographically and historically, the beating heart of Marbella is the Moorish Old Town, where its true origins lie.
Here, you will find a maze of leafy squares hemmed in by whitewashed houses, trendy boutiques and charming narrow streets which all wind up in Plaza de los Naranjos.
Orange Square, named for the canopy of orange trees that shelter every bar and restaurant is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by, sip sangria or a coffee – all while the renaissance fountain, built in 1604, plays a relaxing background symphony of water music.
Three historic buildings are found in the main square, the Casa Consistorial, housing the town hall; the Renaissance palace Casa del Corregidor; and the Ermita de Santiago, which predates the plaza.
Food-wise, the old town is rammed with top quality restaurants, once you know where to find them.
Across the road, leafy Parque Alameda is a cool oasis in the heat of summer, where you can climb aboard a carriage and horses for a tour of the town.
Beyond lies the port, more down to earth, less riotous than Banus, and a 7km promenade, lined with luscious palms, beach showers sculpted in the shape of elephants.
Apart from the ocean lapping the beaches, there’s little trace, now, of the fishing village Marbella was before German Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe triggered the transformation in the 1950s, when he began developing and selling land to wealthy friends.
His crucial move was to convert his house into the Marbella Club, the town’s first luxury hotel which has hosted a galaxy of stars, like Audrey Hepburn, Sir Laurence Olivier and – just this year – Lady Gaga.
A lot of different people come to Marbella for a lot of different reasons. And, whether you’re table-top dancing at the hippest rave in town, or eating cold rice pudding on your 16th birthday, you’ll certainly never be bored!
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