As shameless as it sounds, I have always loved a good secret. The excitement of being in-the-know injects a little zing into my day. However, years of uncovering gossip and scandal have left me a little numb to it all. Mere tittle tattle no longer cuts the mustard; I need a bigger hit from a tête-à-tête. So, when a perfectly coiffed pearl-strung neighbour lowered her voice to a whisper and talked of a mysterious under-the-radar community, my eyebrow instantly rose in intrigue. Anthropologists can switch off now, I haven’t unearthed a long-lost African tribe or a saucy cult. However, I have discovered one of Europe’s most secretive millionaire playgrounds: Sotogrande.
Established in the sixties by a Filipino-American philanthropist, this curious gated community sits within Andalusia’s Cadiz province. Bordered by Los Alcornocales Natural Park, Sotogrande’s impeccably manicured hills slope their way down to the Andalusian coast and the area’s flashy marina. Looking towards Africa, the hush hush enclave poignantly turns its back on the rest of Spain and its neat palm-lined avenues and upscale homes create a decidedly Californian vibe. An alphabetical zone system further adds to this the toy town spirit (we were staying in Zone F, where every road begins with… yep, the letter F) – although the few ‘Soto’ locals we met were unaware of this theme, which made us feel frightfully in-the-know.
Today, despite its apparent non-existence, the luxury villas which hide within its densely wooded hills have become a magnet for the rich and famous. Each summer, royalty flock to its world-famous polo fields, film stars conduct sub rosa meets in its showy marina and politicians relax on Valderrama’s world-class fairways. Promising peace, privacy and exclusivity, what happens in Sotogrande, stays in Sotogrande. “That’s the difference between here and Marbella: we come here to hide, not to be seen,” reveals one local.
Unable to find any form of guide to this mysterious gated community (Google only throws up juicy news results when you add words like prince, heiress or polo in to the mix!), I packed my bags and headed off to our home in the hills: Villa Artea. Part of The Luxury Villa Collection’s flashy portfolio the ultra-modern Ibiza style residence marries white-on-white minimalism and glamorous furnishings with statement glass walls which open to create a striking indoor-outdoor setup.
It didn’t take long for us to realise that the 7-bedroom villa was a serious party pad, “our neighbours have never complained about the noise, so have fun!” signed off the welcome book…which sits in the lounge alongside the guitar, the disco ball, the microphone and the bongos. “Oh, and if you find any alcohol, it’s yours.” A quick scan revealed unopened premium spirits at every turn.
With a wonderfully rebellious streak evident in everything from the grown-ups’ playground kit to the artwork (Blondie, Amy Winehouse and Kate Moss egg you on from their glittery pop art prints at mealtimes), Villa Artea is certainly equipped to host an epic house party or two. Upstairs the bedrooms are decked out with oversized leather-studded headboards, playful contemporary art and DJ decks with plenty of vinyl to work your way through. My master bedroom was fringed with oversized windows looking out across Sotogrande’s sloping fairways, with a large private balcony and an outdoor gym.
Downstairs, free-flowing dining and living areas melt in to the lush grounds, with glass walls transporting you to the Instagram-worthy pool and pristine lawns. Various terraces house additional gardens and lounge areas – it even has its own games-filled pub beer garden: The Sunburnt Arms. If you’re hosting skills are up to it, the main roof terrace holds 80! I think that should keep this year’s Love Island villa envy at bay, don’t you?
Foodies are well catered for in this neck of the woods, too. The marina is handy for day-to-day dining and a spot of people watching (particularly in summer when the yachtie hub is brimming with VIPs). Those happy to drive further afield will find Michelin-starred Kabuki Raw offering world-class Japanese cuisine and more authentic local tapas in the ramparts of ancient hilltop castles. However, our favourite meal came courtesy of the villa’s concierge partners. Keen to cater to guests’ every whim, they have pulled off all manner of bizarre requests, from having the new McLaren sports car waiting in the drive to finding a golden retriever for a guest’s children to pet daily. Despite there being just two of us dining the dream team quickly found a talented local chef who put together a bespoke menu in response to our brief.
Two hours before dinner Chef Curro appeared, brandishing a smile and a bowl of raw ingredients which had been presented with a florist’s eye. After a teasing amuse bouche of fresh anchovies with a tangy tomato dressing he presented us with a spectacular roasted octopus on a bed of creamed potato. Then came the main affair; a succulent rice dish heavy with freshly caught squid, prawns, langoustines and clams. No sooner had he presented our dessert and he was out of the door, leaving the kitchen even cleaner than he had found it. That is so Soto.
During our early Spring fling, Sotogrande was virtually empty. This was partly due to the uncharacteristically bad weather (although England was in the midst of a battering from the Beast from the East, so we were happy to swap crampons and flares for anoraks) and partly due to the fact that most of the multi-million-pound villas are second, third or fourth homes, with the community awakening from hibernation for the polo season.
When the weather allowed, we enjoyed exploring the area’s historic hillside villages – think cobbled streets and white-washed houses with a lively dawn chorus for a soundtrack. Castellar de la Frontera was a particularly peaceful spot, with endless vultures circling overhead. Dating back to the bronze age it has commanding views of Los Alcornocales Natural Park’s dense forests and towards the rock of Gibraltar.
Unfortunately, our tour of Mr Henderson’s Railway was rained off. (You may have seen Mr Portillo wax lyrical about it on the BBC – if you weren’t too distracted by his clashing clobber.) The famous Victorian railway, named after the Englishman that built it, winds its way through verdant hills up to the top of El Tajo’s dramatic gorge, where the whitewashed town of Ronda awaits. Like Villa Artea, rocky Ronda also has a rebellious undertone; the proud home of bullfighting has played home to countless outlaws and smugglers over the years. During the Napoleonic wars the surrounding mountains were particularly popular with Robin Hood style bandits, desperate to readdress the balance of wealth by robbing the rich.
I think I know where they may be hiding.
Villa Artea is part of The Luxury Villa Collection’s portfolio. Prices for Villa Artea start at £3,475 for a week in low season, rising to £6,950 in high season. For more information, or to book Villa Artea, visit www.theluxuryvillacollection.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.