Last week, as European borders reopened, I hopped on one of the first flights out of London. I headed to southern Spain, right where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet, to stay at the beautiful Finca Cortesin hotel—and to show support for the battered travel industry.
After going back home, I am calling it my “Return to Life” weekend.
Finca Cortesin has long been a favorite for luxury travel insiders. Marbella, which lies about a half-hour’s drive east, is known for its beaches, shopping, and nightlife, but Finca Cortesin, in the foothills of the Sierra Bermeja range, offers the quieter pleasures of high-end restaurants, an impressive spa, warm, seamless service—and nearby pueblos blancos (white villages).
It took exactly one drink on the hotel’s spectacular twinkly lit terrace, under the brightest moon, to remember why we travel in the first place.
Instead of closed borders and infection rates and quarantines, shouldn’t we be focusing more on this, that glorious feeling you can only get while traveling?
Finca Cortesin, a Preferred hotel, is only 10 years old, but with its 67 spacious suites built around two patios, hacienda-style, the 18th-century stone flooring, and the doors salvaged from old churches, it seems like it has been part of the landscape for hundreds of years. As I wandered the grounds, I felt like I was emerging from hibernation; every sense was on fire. The sun beamed on intensely white walls and blue tiles, bright purple flowers, and green hedges, I took deep breaths of the jasmine-scented air, and wise old olive trees presided over the whole scene.
Each night of our stay, we sat under that moon, so bright and close you could see the mountains and valleys on the surface. We drank signature negronis, enjoyed an alfresco dinner at El Jardin de Lutz, laughed until our stomachs hurt at the outdoor bar, danced to a three-person live band. I, the mother of a two-year-old, even stayed up after midnight. All of this made another Brit observe, “It’s not the new normal, it’s the glorious old normal.”
Yes, new cautionary measures are in place: The staff wore masks, which were optional for guests; branded hand sanitizer was available at every turn; the minibar was gone; before I ordered my meals, I scanned a QR code that popped the menu up on my phone; and tiny disposable salt and pepper shakers stood on each table. (Just when the hospitality industry was turning away from single-use plastics, along comes COVID-19.) The lovely hotel shop sold clothing and shoes, but the shopkeeper discouraged us from trying things on because anything we touched would need to be quarantined before anyone else could try it on. That wasn’t going to be a problem with the elephant-printed linen shirt I tried on. I bought it. Remember shopping in an actual store?
I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten as well as I did at Finca Cortesin—or did everything just taste better because I didn’t have to cook three meals a day myself? I’ll remember the turbot with mint chimichurri and baba ghanoush, grilled pineapple that had been macerated in rum for two days, and meltingly soft Iberico ham from Jabugo. At other meals, we indulged in the fruits of local fisheries: oysters, lightly fried calamari and anchovies, fresh seafood gazpacho, and the ultimate lobster paella. “We have the best seafood in the world,” said one of the waiters. I had to agree. (The hotel’s creative open-grill Japanese restaurant, Kabuki, was set to reopen after my visit.)
Breakfast under the wisteria-shaded tables on the terrace was its own special occasion each morning. As I perused the menu on my phone, fresh juices, pastries, cheese, and cold meats arrived. That felt like more than enough food given my other indulgences. But it meant passing on scrambled eggs with that Iberico ham again.
If you want to lounge at Finca Cortesin, you’re spoiled for choice: there’s the green-tiled pool next to the Grill restaurant; the Olympic-size adults-only pool; and the beach club, with its own delicious restaurant and cabanas, a five-minute shuttle ride from the hotel.
But I never cocoon myself in a hotel for an entire visit. From the hotel, you can drive to Gibraltar (not worth it, I hear), to the breathtaking Alhambra in Granada, to Cordoba, to stylish Marbella, and to the white-washed villages of Andalusia. For this short trip, I wanted something a little different and closer, so I spent half a day with Esteban Ferrón from Marbella Trips, who also makes his own olive oil.
We started with a photo op at the white village of Casares, where a church looks down from the top of a cliff on houses that spill down to the sea and a natural spring has drawn wellness-seekers for centuries. “You go to the spa at Finca Cortesin, but Julius Caesar came here,” Esteban said. (He actually did.) We wound our way through the hills, passing windmills that provide much of Spain’s electricity, and stopped at a small cheese shop and factory owned by the same family for 200 years. Later, at a vineyard overlooking the Mediterranean, where Esteban hosts outdoor dinners, we talked about the devastating hit that lives and livelihoods will continue to feel from undertourism.
Midmorning, we headed to elegant Sotogrande, a resort popular as a second home haven for Spanish city dwellers, with its own marina. We explored the area in a 1987 classic Mini Moke, an open-air all-terrain vehicle that looks kind of like a dune buggy, that we rented from the Jolly Mile, run by expat Brit Thomas Shield. We spun around Sotogrande then zipped off to one of the area’s many polo fields. We were greeted by a few dogs, several strapping polo horses, and Jamie Le Hardy, an international polo superstar. He told us that the region plays a big role on the world’s polo stage and attracts a global polo-obsessed crowd. (For now, the season is postponed.)
Returning to Finca Cortesin, I realized how alive I felt. Meeting new people, having conversations with “strangers,” and understanding a little part of the world that I hadn’t before had all reawakened my curiosity. It brought me back to life.
Corona-whiplash won’t end anytime soon. But my trip showed me that I can travel responsibly and that there is life beyond the relentless agony of the news. And just to remind myself of that, after I landed in London, I unpacked a small glass bottle filled with a ready-made negroni mixed by Daniele Maroni, head bartender at Finca Cortesin. I poured it over ice and was transported back to that terrace, under the biggest moon.
- I flew from London to Malaga, Spain. Prior to departure, I had to fill out a contact tracing form online for Spain, stating that I had not experienced any COVID-19 symptoms, and received a QR code to my phone that I scanned at the airport, a new stop after customs. Everything was fast and easier than I thought. Masks are compulsory at the airport, on the airplane, and in shops and public spaces in Spain. Before I boarded my flight home, I had to fill out another contact tracing form to show British customs officials upon arrival at Heathrow.
- At the hotel, the gym had open windows, a sign-up system in case it was full (it never was), and a key card system to indicate which machines had been sanitized. After you used the equipment, you removed the card, and it was cleaned. I booked a facial and massage at the spa, where there was plexiglass at check-in, and the therapists wore masks.
- In the travel industry, you always hear: “Oh, I love Rene and Javier.” General manager Rene Zimmer and director of sales and marketing Javier Rivadulla give Finca Cortesin a huge boost of heart and soul. For any guest, they are wonderful to talk to.
- I reached out to Eduardo Blanco, a private travel agent and concierge based in Seville. His emailed tips helped craft my day trip, though I couldn’t fit it all in: “I’d stick to a morning near Sotogrande, which is stylish and less crowded than Marbella, famous for its fancy summer polo, good restaurants, and impressive private villas. I’d add visits to small villages like Gaucin or Casares, and Ronda is always a must-do. Time permitting, hit the coast between Algecires to Tarifa for an absolute scenic winding drive with the best views over Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar. And Tarifa has the hip touch of a windsurfer’s paradise.” Will Kiburz, vice president of Coronet Travel, also recommends a visit to the white village of Vejer de la Frontera.