With its 200-mile-long Mediterranean coastline, balmy climate — the region has an average of 320 days of sunshine a year — and villages of white houses perched on ridges overlooking the sea, Andalusia’s Costa del Sol has long been a seductive destination, especially for sun-starved Northern Europeans.
The busy airport of Málaga-Costa del Sol is the gateway to the region, with regular flights from Madrid, Barcelona and other large European cities. Until recently, most arriving travelers would bypass Málaga and go to beach towns like Marbella, or luxurious resorts in the countryside. Now, though, a growing number of visitors head into Málaga itself. This is because the ancient and atmospheric port city (and birthplace of Pablo Picasso) has followed in the footsteps of Bilbao and Valencia in reinventing itself as an avant-garde art destination. Within the past decade, several great museums, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, have opened satellite museums in Málaga.
We spent a week on the Costa del Sol early last March, just before the COVID travel bans took effect. Arriving at the 190-room Gran Hotel Miramar, a lavish wedding cake of a building in the Caleta district at the heart of the city, we were surprised by the intimate atmosphere of the property. At its center is an elegant atrium with a glass canopy roof and teardrop chandeliers. We couldn’t help but appreciate the splendor of this space in an era when so many grand hotels have converted their public areas to revenue-generating boutiques.
Inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII in 1926, the Gran Hotel Miramar launched the Costa del Sol as a stylish seaside destination and a rival to the French Riviera.
Designed by Spanish architect Fernando Guerrero Strachan and originally called the Hotel Príncipe de Asturias, the property was inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII in 1926. Arguably, it launched the Costa del Sol as a stylish seaside destination and a rival to the French Riviera. The good times were ended by the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War. The hotel became a field hospital before reopening in 1939, but it never succeeded in recovering its beau monde clientele and closed in 1967. For 20 years, the building housed the Palace of Justice. In 2007 it was acquired by Spain’s Hoteles Santos group and reopened after a total renovation nine years later.
Escorted upstairs to our Deluxe Sea Suite, we immediately loved its spaciousness and wonderful views. Both the bedroom and separate lounge came with white marble floors, white walls and neo-Moorish fretwork. Several pierced-metal lamps further emphasized this Moorish theme. The lounge was furnished with a cream canvas sofa and matching armchairs, plus a table and chairs next to the French doors that opened onto the large private balcony. Sliding pocket doors led to the bedroom. The white marble bath provided a soaking tub as well as a glass-walled shower and Hermès toiletries.
Having unpacked, we headed down to the shaded terrace of the hotel’s Príncipe de Asturias restaurant. There, we enjoyed an outstanding lunch of cold coconut-and-garlic soup with soy-marinated tuna, grilled prawns on creamy rice with saffron, and sea bass cooked in a crust of salt.
In the afternoon we went out to explore. We began at the city’s formidable Alcazaba, the 11th-century citadel with toast-colored stone ramparts that is perhaps the best-preserved Moorish fortress in Spain. Perched over one of the great harbors of the Mediterranean, it was impregnable for centuries, until it finally succumbed to the Spanish in 1487. Today, it is a peaceful place, with gardens filled with palm trees, twittering birds, spattering fountains and blazes of purple bougainvillea. From the walls we surveyed the arms of the harbor backed by the azure sweep of the Mediterranean, the city’s ruined Roman amphitheater, the bullring and the Renaissance belfry of the Catedral de la Encarnación de Málaga, which was built on the site of the former Aljama mosque.
From the Alcazaba we strolled to the Calle Larios, the city’s main shopping street (now pedestrianized) and the Muelle Uno (Wharf One), a popular dockside development of restaurants, shops and bars. Later, we visited the Museo de Málaga, which opened in the city’s old customs house, the Palacio de la Aduana, in 2016. And finally we spent a tranquil hour wandering around the city’s 56-acre Jardín Botánico Histórico La Concepción, one of the largest botanical gardens in Europe.
Back at the Gran Hotel Miramar, it was a pleasure to dive into the pool and then relax on the balcony of our room. The hotel has a Sisley spa with an indoor pool and a fitness center, but we were feeling too tired to take advantage of either. Eventually, we decided not to go out, opting instead for a room service dinner. This arrived promptly and was impeccably served.
The spacious, light-filled rooms and public spaces; the gracious service; the beautiful swimming pool.
The sun loungers on the terrace around the pool are too close together.
It’s imperative to specify a sea view, since only a quarter of the hotel’s rooms have one. Book spa treatments in advance, as it is often busy.
After an exceptionally pleasant two-night stay, we transferred to the 68-room Palacio Solecio, the latest project of trendsetting hotelier Pablo Carrington, who grew up between Huntington Beach, California, and San Sebastián, Spain. His innovative Marugal company specializes in creating hotels that capture the essence of their cultural and geographical environment. These include Torralbenc in Menorca (which I reviewed in February this year); the Cap Rocat hotel in Mallorca; the URSO Hotel & Spa in Madrid; and the Relais de Chambord, opposite the château of the same name in France’s Loire Valley.
In Málaga, Carrington spent some 40 million euros reinventing the Palacio Solecio, built in 1789 for a Genoese papermaker whose factory used paper pulp from Andalusian mulberry trees. The Palacio del Marqués de Guadacorte, an adjacent 18th-century mansion, was also incorporated into the project. The renovation was overseen by architect Antonio Obrador, who artfully revived original features such as a sgraffito façade.
On arrival, I was immediately impressed by the deft mixture of antique furniture and gilded mirrors with modern touches and contemporary furnishings. Tipped off by a friend in Madrid, we’d booked the Tower room, the only one on the hotel’s top floor, for its private terrace and superb views. The friendly receptionist offered to send us a text message when housekeeping had finished its work, so we went out for lunch at the stylish Michelin-starred Restaurante José Carlos García, located about a five-minute walk away. There, chef García impressed us with delicious modern Mediterranean and Andalusian dishes, such as his riff on traditional ajo blanco, a white soup made with almonds, bread crumbs and garlic, and hake with uni in saffron broth.
Returning to the hotel, we relaxed on our private terrace. Our light-filled room came with Castillian oak parquet floors, oak wainscoting under white painted walls, a pair of Andalusian wood-framed armchairs on either side of an ebony-finish desk and a bed with a headboard upholstered with a blue-and-oyster zigzag pattern. The compact white-marble-lined bath included a single vanity and a spacious shower stall.
Chef García also oversees Balausta, the Palacio Solecio’s relaxed and attractive dining room. In contrast to the innovative cuisine at his signature restaurant, the menu here runs to imaginative Spanish comfort food. I thoroughly enjoyed an appetizer of sea bass tartare with green apple, followed by red tuna with grilled eggplant, and banda rice with grilled vegetables. And a delicious dessert of candied egg yolk with passion fruit and almonds was a clever take on the convent sweets that are so popular in Spain.
The charming and attentive staff; the stylish décor; the ideal location; the excellent restaurant.
The lack of a spa or plunge pool.
Kelipé Centro de Arte Flamenco, one of the best flamenco clubs in Málaga, is an easy walk from the hotel.
After four days of museum-going and sightseeing, we were ready to relax, so it was a pleasure to reach Marbella after a 45-minute drive. This resort town, which is rather like a Spanish cousin of Cannes in the south of France, has an array of luxury resorts. However, preferring somewhere more intimate, we opted for the seven-room Hotel Claude Marbella, which occupies a 17th-century mansion that was once the summer residence of Eugenia de Montijo, the wife of the French emperor Napoleon III. The property, which is located in the pedestrianized Old Town, was completely refurbished and redecorated this year.
On arrival, we were charmed by the library-style lounge with travertine floors, velvet sofas and shelves of volumes about Marbella and Andalusia. The front-desk staff were warm and welcoming, and obviously proud of working at this distinctive property.
Wanting outdoor space, we’d booked the hotel’s Chic Suite, which comes with a small private balcony and views over the rooftops. Its colorful décor was inspired by a Moorish aesthetic, with a motif of Arabic fretwork between the exposed wooden beams of its ceiling. A well-lit green-tiled bath came with dual vanities and an oversize rainfall shower.
There is no restaurant at the hotel, but the à la carte breakfast is excellent and meals can be ordered in advance. A selection of light tapas is available at any time, and an honesty bar is open to guests on the rooftop terrace. The Claude lacks an on-site gym, spa and pool, but guests have access to a well-equipped athletic complex nearby.
Since the Costa del Sol has an array of full-service beach clubs that are open to the general public, this charming little hotel is an excellent choice for anyone who prefers local character to the anonymity of large resort hotels. And shopping for a beach picnic from the colorful and tempting stands at Marbella’s superb covered market is an indelible experience.
Overall, the Claude is private and elegant, with exceptionally friendly and thoughtful service. It embodies the best of Marbella, and offers a distinctive experience of Andalusian hospitality and charm.
The intimate and historic atmosphere; the attractive and comfortable rooms; the convenient location in the Old Town of Marbella.
The lack of on-site parking.
Aside from breakfast, meals are by advance request; a 24-hour room service menu is available. Many restaurants are nearby.