October 25 2011
Simon de Burton
The reputation for hard partying that helped make the Marbella Club famous suggests it might be more usual for guests to be returning to their rooms at dawn, rather than preparing to leave them. So it seemed wrong on many levels to be woken at 5.30am by the vile peeping of the alarm and to look out on the dark silhouettes of the garden’s palm trees before rising reluctantly from the Egyptian cotton sheets (500-thread-count, naturally) to get dressed. For skiing.
What on earth had I let myself in for? The Marbella Club Spring Games – a madcap challenge in which participants attempt to slalom ski, motor race, take in a few holes of golf, target shoot, water-ski and play padel tennis (more on that later) between sunrise and 10pm in a single day. At that time of the morning, the mere thought of it was exhausting.
So who had this bright idea? It dates back to the early 1970s, and the Marbella Club’s flamboyant, party-loving, multilingual and generally accomplished playboy founder, Prince Alfonso zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg.
Prince Alfonso, as he was always known, opened the Marbella Club aged 30 in 1954 in a run-down farmhouse on 12 hectares of land his father had bought for 150,000 pesetas eight years before to use as a private home. At the time, Andalucia was still peasant country, an unfashionable place where donkeys outnumbered cars and where the idea of a holiday was still an alien concept.
But the well-connected Prince Alfonso – who was named after his godfather, King Alfonso XIII of Spain – had compiled a remarkable contacts book during visits to New York and California, returning to Spain with a list of new best friends that included Cary Grant, Howard Hughes, James Stewart, John Wayne and Gloria Swanson.
Together with some of the grander families of Europe, these A-listers heard about the delights of Marbella’s climate, food and relaxed lifestyle, and decided to visit Prince Alfonso’s quaint home (by then enlarged to a 20-room hotel), where they discovered a whole new world – one in which they could really let their hair down without anyone apparently caring.
Alfonso added a few more useful connections to his list just a year after opening the Club, when he married the 15-year-old Fiat heiress Ira von Fürstenberg, with the help of a papal dispensation. The union lasted just five years, but by then the reputation of the Marbella Club as Europe’s chicest, most exclusive, most fun venue for well-heeled party people was sealed.
Count Rudolf von Schönburg-Glauchau, who arrived from Lausanne’s prestigious Swiss Hotel School in 1956 to help Prince Alfonso run the place (and subsequently became a vital fixture), was central to the Club’s 1960s and 1970s halcyon days, when a typical evening crowd might include Sean Connery, Tony Curtis, Brigitte Bardot and Bob Hope – and occasionally the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Now a fabulously dapper septuagenarian and still one of the hotel’s greatest treasures, Count Rudi fondly recalls how the prince never fell out of love with Marbella’s unique location. “He marvelled that there were 325 days of sunshine, and that you could bathe in the sea while being within striking distance of snow-capped mountains. That is what gave him the idea to hold a day-long sporting event starting with a ski race, followed by a shooting competition, a golf match and a water-ski challenge.”
Due to the Club’s golden-era reputation for esteeming after-dark sport as much as the more mundane daytime sort, the proposed event was quickly nicknamed “slide, putt, bang, bang” (or words to that effect, depending on which old stager relates the story). Prince Alfonso and a few pals twice attempted to get it off the ground sometime during the 1970s. On both occasions, participants travelled to the mountains and skied with gusto before heading to the shooting grounds. The Prince was both a brilliant skier and a crack shot, but legend has it that after the second discipline the companions found themselves stopping for lunches that proved so protracted the prospect of getting in a round of golf and making it down to shore before dark became slim, to say the least – so they ordered another round and opened up the humidor instead.
Prince Alfonso died in 2003, by which time the Marbella Club had grown to 85 bedrooms, 36 suites and 14 villas spread across 42 hectares. The twice-aborted “spring games” were nothing but a footnote in the hotel’s history; until the little knowledge of them that remained inspired Alfonso’s 48-year-old nephew, luxury brand product designer Pablo Hohenlohe, to upgrade the idea for the 21st century.
Which is how I, Hohenlohe and 22 other participants came to be staggering, bleary-eyed, towards the Club’s portico at 6am on an April morning in order to climb inside one of a fleet of top-range Audis for a high-speed drive to the Sierra Nevada. Alfonso’s delight at the mountains’ proximity was certainly justified, but even with his nephew piloting our car at white-knuckle speeds (he’s a racing driver on the side), it still took a couple of hours to reach the slopes where we were to compete in the first event: slalom skiing.
I was confident of notching up a few points here, until I watched the first members of the party make their descent, shimmying effortlessly between the gates at prodigious speed. My attempt resulted in an ignominious faltering on turn three, in what was the biggest wipe-out I’ve experienced in almost three decades of skiing.
Well, I’d be sure to make it up with my driving talents at the next venue – the Ascari Race Resort, in high-performance karts. Or, rather, I could have done all right had the competition not included former Formula Two and Three racer Dominic Chappell and another man called Gregor von Opel, whose great grandfather Adam established an eponymous and rather successful car marque. I made it to the final, but after being rammed in the first chicane by Ignacio Infante, a Marbella lawyer, the best I could achieve was a feeble seventh.
Next, onto the lush fairways and pampered greens of the Club’s golf resort at Benahavis. Time constraints meant we could only squeeze in three holes – but, my goodness, were they competitive. Much to my relief, Chappell (who effortlessly took the laurels in the karting) claimed never to have played before – though he proved suspiciously handy with a nine iron. But I bested him in the end with what I must say myself was a rather spectacular birdie on the second hole.
By then it was late afternoon, and time to head down to the beach for the shooting competition. The idea of loosing off live rounds as holidaymakers frolicked in the sands seemed a little too sporting, so it was a relief to learn that we would actually be using infrared guns. My excuse for missing almost every target was therefore that infrared guns just don’t work like real ones.
Bearing in mind that we’d by now been “spring gaming” for more than 12 hours and had driven around 300 miles at ten-tenths, many competitors were becoming a bit jaded, and the event’s slogan – “to finish first, you must first finish” – was beginning to make sense. But, with the sun dipping towards the horizon and the water-ski boats warmed through, we pulled out into the steely April waters of the Mediterranean (quite refreshing so early in the season). Fortunately for me, the awarding of points was not based on style but on the number of times a skier managed to cross the boat’s wake and remain roughly vertical while being dragged from one pier to another near the Marbella Club’s private beach.
With that punishment over mercifully quickly, all that remained was to walk, damp and shivering, to the sixth and final contest: the padel tennis. This was the one I had least hopes for, not having heard of the game before, but this odd Mexican version of tennis, in which stunted racquets are used on a truncated court with walls and fences off which to ricochet the ball, proved my most successful event (no small thanks to my expert partner, Matias Villarroel).
Once the last ball had been struck, we finally downed tools at around 9.30pm – bang on time for the post-games dinner and prize-giving. Von Opel tied for first place with Hohenlohe’s fellow organiser, Alejandro Crespo, while the women’s title went to von Opel’s wife Julia, an economist and demon skier.
It was a true privilege to be part of the group that realised the inauguration of Prince Alfonso’s Spring Games. The good news is that those who wish to do the same can put their names forward for next year’s event (although there are no plans to extend the number of competitors beyond 24). “If the games prove popular, we may increase the number of days over which they take place, but the participants will always be restricted to a manageable number,” explains Hohenlohe. “We welcome entries, but they have to bring something to the games. And one thing we will never do is make this a celebrity event; we don’t want personalities to overshadow the meaning of it, which is a truly fun and competitive day.”
And a charitable one too, it transpires. The Games raised funds for the Spanish Cancer Association and the Fundacíon Deporte y Desafío, which helps young, disabled people become involved in sport, through a lavish lunch held the following day. The likes of Ghurka, Chloé, Dunhill, Hackett and Purdey provided auction lots for which the 200 guests bid to raise €20,000.
What I hadn’t bargained for was the said lunch demanding more stamina than the games themselves. It started at 12.30pm and was still going strong nine hours later. But this was the Marbella Club, after all.