Puerto Banus isn't all reality TV stars and champagne spraying parties. Lisa Haynes discovers the glossier side of Marbella.
A swarm of excitable tourists has formed around a super-yacht moored at Puerto Banus; some take pictures, others record YouTube clips and the rest point in disbelief. One of the multiple decks is kitted out with two giant flatscreen TVs and six on-board spectators are flanked by waiting staff serving gold jeroboams of champagne.
Hundreds of spotlights illuminate the boat's ceiling like it's a modern art exhibit.
With Ferraris roaring past the glamorous marina every five minutes, it takes something extraordinarily luxurious to make people stop and stare here.
It's an intriguing lifestyle that's given rise to fly-on-the-wall TV show Life On Marbs, which follows a bunch of ex-pats living (and very occasionally working) in this millionaire's playground.
We're whisked away from Malaga airport in a chauffeur-driven car for our own taster of super-luxe sunshine. The suited driver - impressive in 30 degree heat - is blase about picking up stars like Lady Gaga, Paris Hilton and Enrique Iglesias for Marbella stopovers.
"They perform and then they love to relax here," he says, noting that Gaga checks in to the Marbella Club Hotel.
Along with Hollywood stars, the 60-year-old hotel is famed for hosting European and Arab royalty. The palatial six-suite Villa del Mar private residence? Yours for an eye watering €15,000 a night.
Undated Handout Photo of the Gran Hotel Gualdapin rooftop room, Puerto Banus, in Marbella. PA Photo/Ocean Club.
Our own VIP experience begins at Ocean Club - a vision of Instagramable white leather beds and cornflower blue parasols. We're led to a circular VIP pool bed (they start from €295 in low season) and are offered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne.
But the pinnacle of Ocean Club luxury is the 'Super VIP' bed that seats an entourage of 12 with a waiter on tap to pour your three bottles of Dom Perignon.
Overlooking the beach, Ocean Club's restaurant is more 'fine dining in flip-flops' than 'cafe club sandwiches'. We take a break from the sunshine to gorge on a triple tiered silver tray of sushi and sashimi and then graze like kings on the royal seafood platter, piled high with Maine lobster, Alaskan king crab legs and North Sea shrimps.
Despite sitting relaxed in our beach sarongs, we're treated to five-star service all the way. The in-house sommelier visits our table to recommend an ice-cold rose from the seven varieties on the lengthy wine list.
"Marbella is often misunderstood," Ocean Club's VIP manager Ana Lucia Alonso tells me, topping up my glass. "Yes, there is glitz and glamour, but it is also an authentic town with wonderful restaurants and beautiful scenery.
"I especially love the Old Town and historic area, which is full of charm and character."
Taking Ana's advice, the following night we leave our heels behind and head to the more subdued - but no less vibrant - Marbella Old Town, a quick 6km (€20) cab ride from Puerto Banus.
We drive down a pristine, palm-tree lined road dubbed the Golden Mile. Home to some of the most opulent addresses in the Med, it links Puerto Banus and Marbella town and is pure property voyeurism, with the opportunity to glimpse row-upon-row of millionaire mansions overlooking the beach.
Currently a 10-bed villa sits on the market at €65,000,000.
The Old Town leaves behind the uber-yachts and superclubs and instead, focuses on quaint courtyard dining and narrow cobblestone streets.
Roaming around, we stumble upon Zozoi (zozoi.com) positioned in a square of al fresco restaurants. We're so distracted by the colourful mosaic tiling and decorative walls of Zozoi's pretty outdoor courtyard, it takes us some time to select dishes from the seafood menu.
As with most European countries, dining out can easily extend past midnight, but surprisingly, so too does the shopping in Puerto Banus.
Alongside the busy bars on the front line of the port, I'm shocked to find glossy stores like Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni and Jimmy Choo open into the early hours, so tourists can get their designer fix around the clock.
While some buy gelatos, others splurge on It bags as a post-dinner treat.
The sandy beaches are almost deserted until around 11am, when Puerto Banus surfaces bleary-eyed from its hedonistic nights. One morning, I stroll along the beach before breakfast and my footsteps are the first impressions in the sand outside the five-star beachfront Guadalpin hotel.
It turns out certain beaches have early morning machine combers that iron out the sand so it's pristinely sheet-like.
Massage tables complete with real-life waves soundtrack are also a regular sighting on Marbella's sands and Mistral Beach (mistral-beach-marbella.com) is one of the most impressive. I count a row of 20 plush white leather massage beds symmetrically lined up towards the sea.
But we head to the the newly-opened and breathtakingly beautiful Six Senses Spa, which overlooks Puente Romano beach on that prestigious Golden Mile (puenteromano.com).
On the treatment menu, I spot lymphatic facials with rose crystal (€175), pure oxygen facials (€210) and a top-to-toe Royal three-hour ritual (€365).
For anti-chill-out days, there's Plaza Beach (www.plazabeachbanus.com). It eases guests in gently at noon with relaxed beats, but cranks up to become a full-blown beach party by 5pm.
Majorly revamped last year, it features a VIP decked area with private Jacuzzis, white curtain cabanas, dedicated waiter service, and even roped off zones for extra exclusivity in the sand.
On our last night, we sip champagne at the iconic Sinatra Bar in the port, with line after line of polished white yachts as our vista. Invites begin to pour in for Puerto Banus' late clubs, like Aqwa Mist, Funky Buddha and Cavalli Club.
"You can party there until 6am?" one eager club promoter explains. "I'll give you wristbands anyway, in case you change your mind..."
No cheap plastic festival bands here, but a collection of sparkling wrist-wear resembling jewellery, just in case. In Puerto Banus, it seems even the disposable is distinctly desirable.
Get me there
Lisa Haynes was a guest of Ocean Club (oceanclub.es).The black and gold annual closing party takes place on September 26 with tickets €200pp. Double rooms at the Gran Hotel Guadalpin Banus (granhotelguadalpin.com) start from €150pp.
British Airways (ba.com/londoncity) flies from London City to Malaga up to six times a week. Travelodge (travelodge.co.uk) rooms start from £49 in London.