This smart private enclave on the Costa del Sol counts royalty and A‑listers as fans – so why have most people never heard of it?
There is no excuse for missing a polo match in Sotogrande, as each game is announced on the vintage signs that dot the tree-lined avenues of this grand private estate on Spain’s Cadiz coast.
Matches are family affairs, mostly free of charge and open to everyone, apart from the glittering International Polo Tournament, which brings the great and the good of the equestrian world to Andalusian shores each summer.
If the local polo matches being advertised roadside sounds a tad eccentric, then it is just another quirk of this unique Iberian hideaway, dreamt up as the ultimate high-end resort by the Filipino-American businessman Joseph Rafael McMicking in 1962.
IT’S not a town, nor a village… and it’s definitely not a city. However, it boasts half a dozen championship golf courses, a top equestrian centre, a marina to rival anywhere else in Spain and a world-renowned Polo tournament.
Throw in miles of beautiful beach and a teeming nature reserve and you have the unique world of Sotogrande. With a scene-stealing location and near-perfect weather, it’s not surprising that this is one of Spain’s most desirable places to live.
Head down the Costa del Sol west towards the famous pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar and Jebel Musa in Morocco) and you will eventually come to Sotogrande. Roughly 100km from Malaga, Sotogrande is where business moguls and A-List types move to upgrade. This is an enclave of privilege, where most people have a yacht (or at least a rhib) and many can work exactly when they want to.
Think the family behind Gonzales Byass, the Botins who own Santander bank and the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, this is where they all come to rub shoulders… but very much stay in the background. And then there is the super wealthy Ayala family – who own their own private polo fields – and sporting superstars including Eddie Jordan, Glen Johnson and Glenn Hoddle, who have bought property here. Throw in a dash of royalty, with Fergie and (shhss, don’t mention her ex) coming most years and the visits by former PM Tony Blair, and you have a heady mix of stardust, particularly come summer time.
But don’t expect to bump into them. They come and go in chauffeur driven cars and live in the comforting knowledge that theirs is one of the most discreet and highly sought addresses in the country.
Welcome to the Spanish Riviera
Welcome to the Spanish Riviera which for more than half a century has attracted wealthy expats from all over the globe through many of the same pleasures and distractions as its original Palm Beach counterpart.
Although the streets are lined with identical palm trees and perfectly colour coordinated homes, this is Spain and not the Floridian coast, so the preening smugness that usually accompanies celebrity lifestyle is tempered by an easygoing nature and disarming charm.
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).
The CEO Joseph McMicking sent Enrique Zobel – the founding father of polo in Sotogrande – to scout for land to realise his dream resort. Zobel’s brief was to find an estate with good travel links and ‘an abundance of water’.
Gibraltar was the only ‘good travel link’ at this time and so Sotogrande’s early settlers – wealthy families from 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 the Ford families. The Spanish arrived en masse after 1969 when Gibraltar was cut off by Franco’s border closure.
Work hard, play hard – that’s Soto’s unofficial motto.
In the Seventies, to attract the professional middle class and correct the estate’s ailing balance sheet, Sotogrande opened its multi-coloured port. It has never looked back.
The beaches are a huge draw as well. Playa Sotogrande at the front of the estate, is 2km long, and playa Guadalquiton – its bigger, less accessible but more tranquil brother – lies to the west of Sotogrande estate.
Laidback portside restaurants serve up smoothies and salads under umbrellas, overlooking the impressive yachts that line the shore while the rolling hills in the distance welcome hikers and cyclists – which is why so many locals have such a healthy glow and ridiculously good abs.
Just as they work hard to stay toned in Sotogrande, great effort goes into keeping the place beautiful. As pretty and as promising as a box of fresh paints, the port’s eye-catching architecture and perfectly pruned fountains are near utopian in their presentation.
From the moment you enter the palm tree-lined streets of the port, you are instantly transported to a kind of grown-up Disneyland.
This is the undisputed playground of the Costa Del Sol, and boy, is it fun: you can spend your income on practically anything here, from polo to a game of golf on one of the best courses in the world.