Family-friendly fun in the Costa del Sol
Popular with a party crowd, Marbella and the Costa del Sol are equally well set up for high-end family-friendly holidays, discovers Emma Love
The meeting point for my evening tapas tour of Marbella – outside one of the boozy beach bars on the main strip – doesn’t seem to be the most promising of starts. But within minutes of meeting Nancy Gomez Sanchez, founder of Tapa Experience, I am whisked away to the maze-like cobbled streets of the Old Town. It may only be a fiveminute stroll but it feels like a world away – palm tree-lined squares with tinkling fountains at their centre are flanked by whitewashed houses, hot-pink bougainvillea trailing over their wrought-iron balconies.
Laid-back restaurants, the kind you want to linger at, sipping wine until the early hours, are around practically every corner. Which is where Nancy comes in. Taking away the tricky decision about which to choose, she takes me to a handful of her favourite non-touristy spots, teaching me to order in Spanish not just traditional dishes but more contemporary bites, too, such as a delicious slice of summer lasagne with layers of crab and avocado.
This is symbolic of my entire experience of the Costa del Sol. On first impressions, it seems like solely one thing – endless sandy beaches and golf courses – but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a lot more to discover. As I quickly come to realise, this popular section of Spain’s south coast, which is backed by the Sierra Blanca mountains and stretches from Malaga to Gibraltar, is a win-win for families thanks to its adventure theme parks for little ones and high-adrenaline activities for thrill-seeking teens (the hope being that the latter will be so distracted by all the action that they will forget about their iPhones).
If you’re bringing the kids, it’s worth opting for a family villa at the Marbella Club (marbellaclub.com), which is about 4km west of Marbella town, at the heart of the “Golden Mile” and well positioned for exploring. Famed for the A-list guests who have partied and stayed here (Audrey Hepburn, Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot and the like), this is a chic hotel that combines old-school glamour with facilities ranging from a thalasso spa to a smart champagne bar.
There are two outdoor pools, a handful of excellent restaurants (the pizzas at MC Café will please even the fussiest of eaters) and a beautifully designed kids’ club. Here, a central pergola is surrounded by a kitchen for cooking classes, a vegetable garden, an aroma lab where children pick flowers and learn how to create their own perfumes as presents for parents, a dance studio with Spanish guitars, and an arts and crafts room.
Sportier types can sign up for lessons at the world-class tennis club at sister hotel Puente Romano (puenteromano.com), an easy five-minute cycle ride along the pedestrian-only beachfront Paseo Maritimo (borrow a bicycle from outside reception), or a round of
beginner’s golf at the Marbella Club Golf Resort, a 20-minute shuttle bus away in the Benahavis mountains. The neighbouring Marbella Club Equestrian Centre hosts Spanish showjumping and offers horse-riding lessons.
If you want to venture further afield, hop on a boat to flashy Puerto Banus, full of designer boutiques, sports cars and luxury yachts in the marina. Or hire a car and discover the tiny villages and towns dotted around the Andalusian countryside. Ronda is particularly special, with a stunning stone bridge, the Puente Nuevo, crossing the El Tajo gorge that splits the city into two.
Charming Mijas, which lies midway between Malaga and Marbella, is also worth a stop, especially at lunchtime on Wednesdays, when there’s a free flamenco show in Plaza Virgen de la Pena. For a dash of culture, don’t discount Malaga either – this was Picasso’s birthplace and is home to the fantastic Picasso museum, plus the Centre for Contemporary Art and a pop-up of Paris’s Pompidou Centre on the renovated waterfront, which has works by Magritte, Bacon and Kahlo.
Most children go wild for a water park, and the Costa del Sol has several of them. Parque Acuatico in Mijas-Costa has slides for all ages, while Aqualand in Torremolinos is known for its stomach-flipping Kamikaze slide, artificial surf beach and rubberring Boomerang ride. There’s also Aventura Amazonia Marbella, an adventure park with 20 treetop zip-lines spread across six circuits, from a “Minikids course” to the heart-pounding “Quick Jump” from a 12-metre platform.
But what of those beaches that the region is so famous for? One of the best by far is Playa Artola, to the west of Cabopino Marina and 14km from the centre of Marbella. It has clean shallow water, a curving bay of golden sand and is backed by dunes that are part of a protected nature reserve. Other must-visits include Real de Zaragoza – it’s far enough away from town that even in the height of summer, it doesn’t feel too crowded – and Playa Nagueles on the Golden Mile. However you like to spend time on holiday, it seems the Costa del Sol really does have something for everyone.
Clockwise from left: Marbella old town; Puente Romano; Marbella Club
Clockwise from top left: Puente Nuevo; Puerto Banus; tapas in Marbella old town