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THE SIREN SONG OF SOTOGRANDE

March 06, 1967
March 06, 1967

Table of Contents
March 6, 1967

Fighting Illini
Boxing
Track & Field
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE SIREN SONG OF SOTOGRANDE

A resort may begin with little more than the lure of the sunlit sea—a glitter that draws the traveler and developer in equal measure. But if it is to be located on the crowded shores of the Costa del Sol, and if it is to attract those who loathe Cannes and despise Torremolinos, it needs more than the Mediterranean to make it sparkle. An investment of $10 million must be made, a huge piece of land purchased, the most famous golf architect commissioned and an internationally famed hotelier put in command. When all that is done, and Windsors come to commune with Fords, and Biddles build $1 million homes—suddenly, there is Sotogrande.

This is an article from the March 6, 1967 issue Original Layout

Sotogrande, the golf-resort colony that is being built on Spain's Costa del Sol, is like nothing Western Europe has ever seen before, so staggering in its quiet elegance that one international visitor, accustomed to the backward rhythms of Spain, looked around the resort's 3,200 lush green acres by the sea and murmured, "What hath golf wrought?"

Gibraltar looms on the horizon as the golfer plays in a rolling valley on 6,947 yards of green velvet, handsomely outlined by rustic stone fences. The course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, has been cut through a forest of gnarled cork trees. The golfer winds from tee-off at the low-slung Andalusian Club de Golf—glistening white in its sprinkler-fed landscape near the Mediterranean—inland toward the rugged foothills of the Sierra Almenara. The sand traps are filled with glittering marble dust, and the grasses are the hybrid Bermudas never used in Europe before. All along the course extravagant villas are springing up, with views that stretch to the Atlas Mountains of North Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Sotogrande is one of the latest and lushest examples of the siren syndrome in real-estate development: build a magnificent recreation facility and then sell the land around it—for a high-priced song. In the next 20 years the resort will swell to a town of luxury homes and deluxe apartments, super-markets and shops.

Careful planning will avoid the plague of high-rise hotels crowded down at the shore Miami Beach or Puerto Rico style. In time a community of 2,000 families will buy, build and live within Sotogrande's vast acreage. The chalets and cortijos already being created around the golf course boast unsullied views, with as much privacy and natural landscaping as possible. Diplomat Nicholas Biddle's $1 million home, designed by Javier Carvajal, who created the Spanish Pavilion at the World's Fair, is a series of dramatic, wide-open spaces under Moorish arches. The property alone cost $160,000.

England's Edward VII once remarked, "I go to Maxim's because, though everybody knows who I am, nobody recognizes me." A man who sympathizes with this point of view is Sotogrande's creator, Joseph R. McMicking. McMicking, however, is quick to discount the idea that Sotogrande might better be spelled Sotogrande, or that it is a snobbish private preserve for the rich. "Sooner or later the Costa del Sol is going to be mobbed," says McMicking, "but Sotogrande will be an island of order in the chaos."

McMicking insists that a middle-income family can find happiness at Sotogrande. Says he, "Deluxe condominium apartments will cost $30,000. It will be nice to have a professor from Oxford around here to visit with some celebrity like General Lucius Clay. They contribute to each other's enjoyment. To have a Sotogrande based on money would be the most horrible society I can imagine. It was first suggested that only landowners could join the Club de Golf. I said, 'That's crazy.' A club is a thing people join because they are friends, or potential friends." (The Club de Golf is only open to guests who belong to other recognized golf clubs. The tennis club, however, nearly as posh, is public and its guests may use all Sotogrande's sporting facilities.)

McMicking is the sort of man whose highly varied and complicated career is often dismissed with "but that's another story." His history is that, indeed. A tall, well-tailored, balding man with a close-cropped almost transparent mustache and dancing brown eyes, McMicking resembles nothing so much as your favorite debonair character actor.

In a lifetime of being where the headlines are, he has assiduously avoided publicity. "I am Scotch—with lots of water," he likes to joke. Born in the Philippines, where his grandfather created the municipal transit system, he was educated in California at Stanford. One of 12 officers who made the dash by PT boat with General MacArthur from Corregidor to Australia, McMicking became an intelligence officer on MacArthur's staff, and when the war ended he retired with the rank of colonel.

He has indulged in such diversities as supporting an agricultural college run by Jesuits in the Philippines and helping arrange Stanford's cultural summer festivals. His most talked-about venture, however, was the backing of a small electronics firm that started with 27 employees. It turned into Ampex. He also built the well-known satellite city, Forbes Park, in Manila. Four years ago McMicking joined forces with a group of friends, including the vice-chairman of the largest shipbuilding company in Spain and a retired army general, to organize Financiera Sotogrande.

"After my first visit, in 1936, I was always interested in Spain," he says. "You must remember, my wife is Spanish. But it was not until 1960 that I did anything about my interest. Then my brother-in-law, Fred Meliàn, had a leave coming from his work in the Philippines, so I told him to take extra time, drive around Spain and look for an investment—any kind. We bought the land at Sotogrande without having seen it, like a pig in a poke. Paid $750,000 down and had to pay another third in six months and the rest in a year.

"A foreigner isn't permitted to buy land in Spain without the military's permission, so we took a three-quarter-of-a-million-dollar gamble, not knowing if we could get an okay to hang in there. We finally managed it." McMicking relishes the story of Sotogrande's beginning. He is a warm, knowledgeable man. A little shy, he usually prefaces his sentences with a modest, slow pause, saying, "Well...." But he is eloquent when he draws a diagram of Sotogrande and explains why it is no run-of-the-mill project. "Developing land is like mining coal. When you take out a ton, it's gone. When you sell a piece of land you've developed, it's gone, too. You've made your profit on the sale, and that is a short-term operation. So, generally when folks develop land, they deal with very little capital and 90% bank money. The secret then is to do it quick or the interest will wipe you out. But at Sotogrande we decided not to work on this short-term concept. We predicted what the end result would be in, say, 20 or 25 years. We have a very large community center. As we sell off each piece of land, the value of what is left does not diminish, but remains the same. Why? Because we have the community center. When all the land is sold, the center—essential to all the people at Sotogrande—will still be ours and very valuable. We will have a sort of "captive audience" in the fine people we've sold our land to, so to speak. But, of course, we have to sit around for at least 10 years while this thing matures, like a good Camembert."

The superior things Sotogrande has make the other developers on the Costa del Sol tear their hair. For instance, the major road into Sotogrande, after one turns off the coastal highway to Algeciras, is a wide-lane, landscaped affair. "It is the best road in Spain," says a worker proudly, and after touring the countryside you don't doubt it.

The director at Sotogrande is the most famous lady in the European hotel world—Do√±a Carmen Guerendiain, who for 16 years made the Ritz in Madrid one of the best hotels anywhere. (When Nick Biddle learned that Do√±a Carmen had been engaged, he rushed down to Sotogrande and bought property one hour after his arrival.) The $500,000 golf courses, which in any other country would have cost $1.5 million, boast an innovation new to Europe—a pop-up system of 472 automatic sprinklers and 100 miles of underground cable for daily electronic watering of the Tifgreen and Tifway fairways and the Penncross Bent greens. Walking the course, one has the impression of being at Palm Springs or Pebble Beach, except that there are no golf carts. The course offers golf rock-bottom cheap by U.S. standards. Lessons from Francisco (Mike) Lopez, the club pro and a promising Spanish newcomer to international golfing, cost $1.67 a hour. Greens fees are $1.67 ($2.50 on weekends). One of the engaging pre-teen-age Spanish caddies gets $1 a round. These caddies also give lessons, whether the player wants them or not. "Beautiful" is the one word most of them have picked up for good shots. For bad ones they say nothing, though their grins are eloquent. When a drive heads for the water, they shout gleefully, "Agua, agua," and jump up and down.

What could you do on a typical Sotogrande day besides kill a few caddies? Wake to the unceasing "whish" of whirling sprinklers and the gurgle from big, outsize hoses as maintenance men water the palms, pampas grass and flower beds. (Your double room is costing only $10 a night or—if it's a single—only $6.42, so you can hardly afford to leave even if you dislike sprinkler music.)

Breakfast is brought to your bungalow and served on a private terrace overlooking your own lawn. After a bit you stroll to the clubhouse and drive a bucket of 50 balls. It costs only 42¢, so you drive another bucket. Then you walk down to the Beach Club and take a dip in the sea. You can have a genuine hot dog or hamburger here. Ready for an actual game of golf, you may be able to latch on to some good companions, such as Dr. and Mrs. Rudolph Light of Nashville, Montego Bay and Palm Beach.

Dr. Light is a member of the PGA National Golf Club, a retired professor of surgery and was awarded the O.B.E. by the Queen for his services to British education. At night he wears a blazer with the insignia of the St. Catherine's College boating club of one of his alma maters, Oxford.

"We heard about Sotogrande two years ago. Everyone was so enthusiastic we had to come to see for ourselves," says the doctor. Ann Light (who was previously married to Jean Paul Getty) taps her club on the handsome tiles that are set close to the ground and tell what par is and the distance in both yards and meters. "Wherever we go there is a golf course within spitting distance and sometimes I don't spit very well, but these fairways are better than most greens."

At the 7th Mike Lopez, who is playing with the Lights, tells us that this is one of Trent Jones's favorites—"one of the great holes anywhere." The sloping par 4 is not only challenging but beautiful No rugged, unbarbered St. Andrews, Sotogrande was created U.S.-style, with wide fairways and little rough, as the perfect haven for holiday golfers. Yet its challenge is so great that in the 1966 Spanish Open only four professionals equaled or broke its 72 par.

It's getting on toward noon and down the road behind the stone fence come the women of Guadiaro, the nearby town that supplies most of Sotogrande's labor. They are bringing lunch to their men, and soon, under the cork trees, the families sit eating, in a scene right out of Goya.

Back at the Club de Golf the treats of Chef René Boneil await—a cold buffet with a pale orange gazpacho, eaten near the pool in an atmosphere of modern simplicity. For a special treat the waiter brings crisped chanquetes (fresh anchovies). No trace of the frenetic commercial atmosphere that afflicts so many resort hotels is seen here; it is as if you are in a great private home where the servants have been with the family for years. The person responsible, no doubt, is the incomparable Do√±a Carmen. You are subtly reminded of her years at the Ritz everytime you approach the Club de Golf's front doors and they are sprung open by a young majordomo whose sole duty is this. A ramrod-backed, imposing lady with the elegance of a hidalga, Do√±a Carmen says, "I am very un-Spanish. I don't like gazpacho, Sangria or bullfighting." In fact, she is one of the true Spaniards—being Basque, and the Basques being the nearest to Spain's disputed prehistoric inhabitants, the Iberians.

After lunch there is siesta by the pool or a visit to a nearby breeding stable to see the bulls. Their coats the color of bland iced coffee, they stand, each in his place at the feed trough, like some parody of a pub. Also nearby is a lovely old house that was one of Sotogrande's original farm homes. It is called Valderrama and has been transformed into the riding club. You wait here, swinging your boots on a wide porch, sniffing the lemon blossoms, the enormous fig trees, while they bring an Arabian with a high-backed Spanish saddle and the iron stirrups of Andalusia. Riding through the forests you can even rip away a giant hunk of cork and take it home to carve your own bottle stoppers. Some of the tree trunks are brick red where they have been stripped of their cork. The Spanish say they are blushing "for being naked."

At night, sitting in the glass-and-white-brick golf club bar with its highly polished wood-lattice ceiling, you watch the purple light fade over the empty fairways and faraway mountains. You step out on the pebbled mosaic balcony to catch the sound of cicadas and turn to watch the moonrise shining on the sea. There is Gibraltar, gray and impressive, to the left, and Africa lies straight across the water, only two hours away by ferry.

Inside, the nut-sized diamonds look very fine on tanned wrists and fingers, with subtle little pink sleeveless linen dresses and two-toned Chanel pumps. The talk flutters around the room about the Paleys and the Fords and Round Hill and Cap d'Antibes and Van Cleef and which titles are now bartending in Marbella.

"I hear someone just paid a million for an acre on the beach at Torremolinos," goes the talk. "Yes, Torremolinos, a place where an English couple teach flamenco dancing." Laughter. The Lights arrive. She says, "If a hotel is as good as this one, why would anyone want to build a house?" A big, bluff hearty man with white hair, white mustache, white flannels, a blazer and striped tie comes in. "I think it's a bore," says the Earl of Hardwicke, fingering his tie, "a bore to have to wear this at night. In Marbella, they're wearing St. Trop gear, but here they make you put on a tie to come to dinner. I deliberately haven't put any socks on." He shows a bare ankle and wins a laugh from his companion, Mrs. Anne McDonnell Ford.

Belgian Banker Ludo Peten begins to rave about the 360 days of sun a year. "I've got a château in Belgium, hunting forests in France, but the weather is so lousy everywhere I never go to any of them. A Scotsman told me this was the most beautiful golf course in the world, so I came and bought property. My rheumatism has vanished." Later you see him dance off to try the "skate" with a nubile blonde on the parqueted floor of Sotogrande's fin de siècle discothèque, the Bagatelle. But over and under the sound of the Tijuana Brass one thing still nags about Joseph R. McMicking's financial plan. So much money tied up for such a long-term development. The question is natural. Where does $10 million come from if one doesn't borrow it from a bank?

McMicking twinkles, hesitates, speaks quietly and slowly: "Well...you might have it."

Oh.

PHOTOERNST HAASGibraltar looms on the horizon as Sotogrande guests finish off the day on the clubhouse driving range. The course was designed by America's Robert Trent Jones.TWO PHOTOSERNST HAASPrince Alfonso Hohenlohe wields a cape at a "tienta," at which the guests fought young cows. Another guest tries his hand at croquet on club's Tifton grass court.PHOTOERNST HAASMaite Domecq, of Spain's sherry-making and bull-breeding family, lakes the sun with friends on the coarse pepper-and-salt sand of Sotogrande's mile-long beach.PHOTOERNST HAASChristine and Roderick Hall of San Francisco wear the classic Spanish "traje corto" on a canter through the cathedral-like rows of Sotogrande's ancient cork forest.PHOTOERNST HAASSotogrande's clubhouse pool is surrounded by a lush carpet of putting-green grass. On the far side of it, a polo field is being constructed right beside the Mediterranean.TWO PHOTOSERNST HAASJoseph McMicking, Sotogrande's founder, drives on the favorite 7th hole, while two young residents of Ronda, a nearby hill town, practice a more traditional Spanish sport.