The cover of the 2016 book Slim Aarons: Women is one of the most famous photographs in the world: Poolside Gossip. Two blondes sit by the Tiffany-blue pool, while another woman sashays towards them. Mountains fade to mauve in the background, contrasting with the angular house in the foreground. It’s Slim Aarons doing what he does best, in his words: “photographing attractive people who were doing attractive things in attractive places.” If Instagram could come up with a filter anywhere near as flattering as Aarons’ eye, there would be no need for VSCO.
It is this sex-drenched, poolside privileged version of ‘70s glamour that Sotogrande is hoping to recapture – which is easy because Aarons actually did photograph many of his subjects here (though Poolside Gossip was shot in Palm Springs).
Founded in 1962, Sotogrande has always been the place for beautiful people. It was a firm favourite of Sean Connery’s during his shaken-not-stirred phase, and over the years it has attracted the likes of Hugh Grant and David Cameron (I didn’t say they were all beautiful).
A 20-minute drive from Gibraltar Airport, Sotogrande remains the largest privately owned residential development in Andalusia. It sits in the Spanish hills looking like an architect’s model of the Hollywood Hills.
There are big plans afoot, and one weekend last May was one of the many initiatives brought in by CEO Marc Topiol to restore the estate to its former glory. Like most of us, they’d prefer to forget the ‘90s ever happened, thank you very much.
I’m here for the inaugural Sotogrande Grand Prix. It’s the first exportation of the Zoute Grand Prix, which has been running for seven successful years in Knokke, Belgium. Participants in driving gloves and matching caps bring out their best-of-the-best – the Porsches, Daimlers, Plymouths and Rolls – for this. Compared to the flats and straights of Belgium, the five-day trip from Seville to Sotogrande must have tested the braking limits of these classic cars.
When the rally drivers finally arrive in Sotogrande, via Cordoba and Ascari racetrack, they finish with a Flying 1/4 mile by the marina, and a Concours d’Elegance at La Reserva Club. Fanned out against the green of the golf club, the yellow, red, black and silver of cars from bygone eras glint in the sun. Each marque is a time capsule made of gleaming metal and polished wood.
A Bonhams car expert, wearing a tweed jacket despite the heat, talks us through the line-up. This motor was a favourite of Alfonso XIII. And that vehicle hasn’t been shown for a decade. Over there, another curvaceous ride to ogle while you sip cold Champagne and try not to let your heels sink in the grass.
If you stand, just here at the foothills of the Sierra Almenara, you can see the Mediterranean stretching beyond the Rock of Gibraltar to Morocco. Turn your head a little and you see the hills, cork forests, and green fairways that bring the holiday-makers and third-home owners.
Sotogrande was a gated community once, but it’s shaken off that explicit snobbery. Instead, the idea now is one of barefoot luxury. It’s sea-salt-scented skin and beach hair that didn’t come out of a spray can. It’s watching a polo match, and then tucking into a polo-player-sized portion of mixed grill at the Argentine steakhouse. There’s no Michelin-starred restaurant – but why would you miss it, when you can get a fresh fish supper at the marina for under €15?
They’re entering into the next phase now, the chaps at Sotogrande. They’ve got starchitects and artisanal leather luggage tags embossed with La Reserva as leaving gifts for guests. There’s a private chef in our villa, but we’re out every mealtime. It reminds me of the kitchen in Beauty and the Beast, where the utensils sparkle and await a purpose.
On our final morning, we manage breakfast before a polo lesson. The kitchen all but stops short of singing Be Our Guest as platter after platter crowd our table by the pool. Hot, fluffy omelettes covered with chives jostle for attention next to freshly baked pastries and seeded breads. The cold tomato salsa is a local delicacy, we’re told, and is meant for spreading on toast before dunking in olive oil. We drink pots of coffee, and glasses of orange juice so fresh that they hit the back of your throat with zest.
Later on, at the beach club, talk turns to Sotogrande’s future. It’s gearing up for a renaissance. All the discrete wealth from London and Zurich needs a place like this where, as Topiol puts it, “the mask can come down”. They’re all waiting for something called The Seven, which sounds like the latest Netflix show, but is actually a complex of residential properties. Construction starts this year and the seven villas will be masterminded by Jean Mus, with architects such as Ben van Berkel and Philip Gumuchdjian lending their clout.
Actually, the designs look rather like the building in Poolside Gossip – the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs that became such a symbol of modernism. I look around and wonder who’s taking the next iconic image that will capture our moment, our decade, our millennium’s teenage years. Then I realise, it’s probably already on Instagram.