MOUNTAIN ESCAPE: How Benahavis on Spain’s Costa del Sol became an exclusive paradise for the rich and famous

La Zagaleta Casa 1

IT is the place to be if you want to get away from it all – just ask a string of the rich and famous who have visited or have homes in Benahavis.

The people who have it all recognise a kindred spirit in Benahavis, the pueblo that also has it all – from mountain seclusion and nature to buzzing Costa del Sol restaurants and nightlife within incredibly easy reach.

While they may never want to leave the exclusive gated estates like La Zagaleta or Madronal, celebs including Hugh Grant, Cristiano Ronaldo and Princess Diana have all chosen the leafy enclave as the perfect base from which to enjoy the brighter lights of nearby Marbella, while being able to retreat to privacy and seclusion just a few minutes drive away.

The most recent visitor was the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who the Olive Press first revealed, came for a week last Autumn to take a few hikes and dabble in a bit of painting, one of his favourite pastimes.

Staying in the amazing home owned by the UK’s wealthy Goldsmith family, he was only spotted once by an eagle-eyed photographer as he stood by his easel on a sunny west-facing terrace.

La Zagaleta Casa 2
Benahavis, the pueblo that also has it all

His visit came in an auspicious month for the pretty town, with the producers from Netflix, also in situ filming a famous holiday of Lady Di for the hit series The Crown.

Renting out a villa in the exclusive enclave of Zagaleta, they portrayed the mid-1990s holiday Diana took with her friend Jemima Goldsmith at her family estate, Tramores. 

The cast and crew were regularly seen around the village, both filming various scenes, as well as enjoying their time off.

“It was the ideal way to promote the village,” explains councillor Scott Marshall, a British expat, who grew up in Benahavis.

“And you could call it the ‘Boris bounce’ as it brought global attention to us, promoting the village in a different way, especially its green side and it definitely brought more tourism.”

He added that both visits were thanks to the village’s connection to the Goldsmith family, who have ‘worked hard for years’ to protect the local environment, in particular planting trees.

La Zagaleta Casa 1 1
Celebs including Hugh Grant, Cristiano Ronaldo and Princess Diana have all chosen this leafy enclave

“The Goldsmiths do a lot for the area and we are proud to have their links here. They work hard to look after the landscape and Ben is especially focussed on nature,” adds Marshall, whose artist father David, owns a gallery in the town.

“But it is one of the greenest places to live in Spain with 75% of our land being protected and non-urbanizable, so the quality of life and nature is high.”

The focus on nature and high profile visits have certainly enhanced Benahavis’ fortune. Since the pandemic began the town has seen a staggering growth of 12% population growth.

And it is ‘quality not quantity’ stresses Marshall with most of the growth being wealthy professionals, most from abroad, who came to tele-work from home utilising the high-speed fibre optics in Benahavis.

Some 60% of the local population of 10,000 is now foreign, with 101 different nationalities and a sizable British population of 1,400.

The influx has helped the town hall to improve its famously good sporting facilities, that are mostly free to residents.

“We are modernising and upgrading all the facilities and installing a full size running track,” continues Marshall, adding that they have widened and upgraded all the country paths, particularly either side of its famous gorge.

And it doesn’t stop there as next year the village will be holding the prestigious Ping Junior Solheim cup 2023 at Zagaleta golf club next year.

Benahavis, Malaga

Tucked into the southern slopes of the Serrania de Ronda above Marbella, 20km from town as the Porsche flies, it’s no wonder the hills of Benahavis boast some of the swankiest homes in Spain.

And COVID has barely put a dent in demand. It is still one of the best performing property markets in Spain, as well as one of the wealthiest per capita. 

Yet despite being a playground for the well-heeled, the municipality has the lowest property tax in the country. 

And being one of the wealthiest municipalities in Spain means there are all sorts of subsidies that don’t exist anywhere else.

Becoming resident Benahavian comes with all kinds of fringe benefits you wouldn’t get anywhere else – including your photograph immortalised for posterity in the town hall records! Registering on the town hall padron gets you free access to language lessons, arts classes and a variety of sports including padel, tennis and basketball. 

And crime is almost unheard of thanks to the security cameras snapping every car registration that comes through its pearly gates. 

And the heavenly parallels don’t end there. Zigzagging up from the coast’s sandy beaches along a gently winding mountain road following the Guadalamina river is like entering a Garden of Eden: every twist and turn reveals another gleaming mansion peeping between the foliage, each more opulent than the last. 

Other benefits are either finished or on the way, including a bigger medical centre, better transport links connecting Benahavis to Marbella, and a new school for 1,000-plus pupils is planned for 2024. 

Golf fanatics will also be thrilled to hear about the development of a spectacular 18-hole golf course, which will see the famous Marbella Club Golf resort doubling in size. 

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The most recent visitor was the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

At the heart of the community is the quaint village with its retro postcard appeal: sun soaked bars and coffee shops sit alongside bijou art galleries and quotes from Shakespeare, Blake and Sabines resonate in script on the sides of whitewashed buildings. 

It’s a reflection of this cosmopolitan community –  with generations of Brits, Americans, Asians and Europeans adding to the rich heritage of the town. 

“There’s a place for everyone here and we are proud of that,” adds Marshall whose remit is tourism, immigration, communication and local development. “We have a cultural hub here which has its own library and seminar room that can be used for meetings and lessons and upstairs we have photographs of everyone who has lived here over the years. There’s a real sense of community. Families look out for each other.” 

He continues: “People always talk about Marbella and Estepona, but I think Benahavis is the real hidden gem of the coast,” he says.

Come and find out for yourself. Year-round, its alleyways, restaurants and leafy courtyards are always buzzing and you can catch a real Babel of languages ringing out across the squares, popular with families late into the evenings. 

Follow the smell of tapas and enjoy food at popular haunts like Bodeguita El Chico, La Escalera and Los Abanicos. 

Walking off the calories isn’t exactly a problem, with padel courts and football pitches free for residents. Golf is also big here, as is hiking into the mountains along the well-signposted trails.    

“There has been huge investment in sports facilities and miles of walking and cycle tracks,” says Scott. “It’s really a great place if you like to keep fit, particularly when the sun is shining.” 

Amenhavis, Benahavis

And it almost always is – the Costa del Sol sees an average 320 days of sunshine a year,  making it an obvious place to settle, especially for those fed up with lockdown in Britain. 

“We’re seeing a lot of people looking for more outdoor space than ever before,” says Scott. “People are really keen to have as much space as possible and are turning away from flats to bigger properties.” 

Nor should Brexit put British buyers off, Scott believes. “We have lots of ‘floating residents’ here, many of whom are from non-EU countries, so we are very familiar with the process of helping people settle in from outside the EU. 

“The town hall is definitely here to help.

“I don’t see Brexit or COVID changing people’s mind about Benahavis. We don’t see big price swings, rather a slow, steady increase, year after year,” Scott adds. “It never goes out of fashion!”

Jon Clarke (Publisher & Editor)

Jon Clarke is a Londoner who worked at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday as an investigative journalist before moving permanently to Spain in 2003 where he helped set up the Olive Press. He is the author of three books; Costa Killer, Dining Secrets of Andalucia and My Search for Madeleine.

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