Marbella is one of those destinations whose very name evokes a certain sort of jet-set glamour. Once a sleepy fishing village in southern Spain, it became, almost overnight, the sort of place that Slim Aarons would immortalize in photos. Legend has it that the transformation began in the 1950s, when Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg got stuck there when his Rolls-Royce broke down. He made the most of it and invited some friends, and soon enough, movie stars, aristocrats and captains of industry made it their playground. Aarons turned up with his camera.
Now, of course, resorts all along the Costa del Sol show off that first heyday with archival, black-and-white photos (by Aarons and others) of the rich and famous cavorting in the area. What makes Puente Romano stand out is the fact that its old-school glamour shots were taken within its own historic grounds.
Today’s resort got its start in 1979, and its Sea Grill (along with the Marbella Club) quickly became an epicenter of Marbella chic at the time. In 2023, many traces of that era remain, in the white-frescoed, village-style blocks of accommodations—each one named for a city or village in the surrounding Andalusia region—the blue doors, the terra-cotta tile roofs and the vintage pottery adorning some of the walls. The impossibly lush, fully grown, impeccably manicured gardens that surround the weaving pathways and lend privacy to the accommodations and swimming pools.
It feels like a village. But it’s more discreet. And also very much in style.
And it’s a welcome departure from much of what one finds in today’s Marbella. It has none of the senseless bling or cheap mass-market-ness that tend to come along with the EasyJet set. Instead, it’s an oasis of old-school elegance, which is seen both in the 162 guest suites (plus three villas) and in the stylish gathering spaces like La Plaza—next to the 1st-century Roman stone bridge that gives the resort its name—where resort guests and old Marbella hands gather for alfresco aperitifs or after-dinner drinks.
Puente Romano is “highly curated,” says PR and communications director Isabel Wittmann. “We’re always adding creative improvements,” ranging from the vaguely nautical theme—lots of knotted rope—in the accommodations and certain restaurants after a 2018 renovation, to the lavish wine cellar and restaurant rebrands that are currently in the works.
“Our goal is to be the best resort in the Mediterranean,” says marketing director Cristina Borges. “We want to be better than anything in Mykonos or St. Tropez.” But as a year-round destination, “we’re really more like [something you’d find in] Miami, Los Angeles or Dubai.”
And while Puente Romano more than holds its own against resorts on today’s private-jet-set radar, it still has its retro soul. The tennis club is one of the most renowned in the Mediterranean, having hosted the Davis Cup and the ATP World Tour and attracting the likes of Novak Djokovic. While there are a couple of new padel courts along with the 14 traditional tennis courts, there’s no sign of pickleball—even though the US has recently become the resort’s main market.
The rest of the wellness offerings are very much of the 21st century, especially the sexy, low-lit gym (not unlike New York’s nightclub-like David Barton Gym of the early 2000s), where a DJ spins and a boxing ring beckons. A tricked-out Pilates studio and an outdoor, nature-based “jungle gym” round out the fitness offerings, and the spa is the first outpost in continental Spain from the powerhouse holistic pioneer Six Senses.
Brand names also appear in the boutiques and among the more than 20 restaurants and bars within the resort. But look closely: They’re famous names, but also names that are associated with quality. No one is slinging salt or posing for selfies.
And look at the dining rooms: Each one is a fully realized environment, with a granular attention to detail. Wallpapers and lighting are spot-on, and tables have an abundance of space. Exotic plants and flowers (fresh, dried and silk) hang from ceilings—there’s almost as much lush greenery as in the gardens outside. Even as DJs turn up the music and glitter-bedecked performers wander through certain venues on stilts, the service remains thoughtful, thorough and professional. (Overall, the resort has a nearly 1-to-1 staff-to-guest ratio, something virtually unheard of in Europe, especially these days.)
Even though the dazzling environments could compensate for lackluster cooking, the food is generally excellent. The offerings span quite a range, from the Mediterranean to the Middle East, Asia, northern Europe and the Americas. Andalusian three-star Michelin chef Dani García signed the award-winning steakhouse, Leña. The elegant Cipriani Marbella serves classic pastas from northern Italy and that world-famous cake topped high with meringue, without the exclusionary practices of some of its big-city hotspots. And Coya, an outpost of a brand with a foothold in some of the world’s most prestigious capitals, offers top-quality Peruvian ceviches and pisco sours.
There’s also a typical Spanish chiringuito (beach restaurant and club) serving grilled fish to guests with their feet in the sand, a healthy smoothie bowl joint, a less-healthy burger joint and many others. But perhaps the most emblematic of Puente Romano’s blend of quality and cool is Nobu Marbella, the first Nobu restaurant to open in Spain and the first to have a female executive chef. In the heart of the resort, right next to La Plaza, Elena Manousou and her team turn out all the Nobu classics like rockfish tempura and miso black cod, as well as dishes inspired by Andalusian ingredients.
Star chef Nobu Matsuhisa and celebrity restaurateur Robert De Niro didn’t limit their involvement to the resort’s restaurant. They also opened a Nobu Hotel on the grounds of Puente Romano in 2018. (Photos of the celebrity business partners in the hotel’s fabulously decorated private members club prove this to be the case.)
While the hotel-within-a-hotel concept is a bit played out, this one works. The hotel has a separate entrance, its own pool, and a design aesthetic all its own: a little bit Asian sophistication, a little bit rock ’n’ roll. While it was envisioned to attract a younger, more party-driven clientele, guests have access to everything Puente Romano has to offer, from the booming nightlife to the early morning tranquility of the gardens and the nearly empty beach beyond.