For years Puerto Banús marina has been one of Marbella's best-known attractions. Its very name conjures images of luxury yachts, glamorous celebrities, heavy-spending Arab sheikhs, expensive boutiques and all-night parties. Today, it also symbolises the Costa del Sol's construction boom.
To describe building activity in Puerto Banús these days as "feverish" would be an understatement. As you read this, half a dozen new apartment complexes plus a shopping centre are being constructed in the vicinity of Puerto Banús, forming a belt around the original port and its marina. While the Costa del Sol in general is undergoing a property bonanza, nowhere is it as evident as in Puerto Banús.
All this activity is getting mixed reviews. Critics see it as an example of real estate development run amok, typical of controversial Marbella mayor Jesus Gil's laissez faire policy of encouraging construction no matter what the consequences. Won't one of Marbella's choicest spots be spoiled by too much building? And where, many ask, is everybody going to park?
That doesn't seem to worry the buyers, and there are plenty of them. On the plus side, most of the complexes incorporate an appealing design, ample garden spaces, large terraces, and modern, luxury fittings in keeping with the area's upmarket reputation. This should turn out to be a pleasant neighbourhood once the last brick is laid and the last cement mixer grinds to a halt.
Wandering around the construction sites, one is struck by the fact that some of these projects don't even have an on-site sales office or a printed brochure. The reason is that in most cases the properties are no longer available to buyers: buildings are completely sold out even before the foundations are laid, as purchasers rush to buy off plans. For example, homes were sold out some time ago in Tembo Banús, an apartment complex which is being built next to the Costa Marbella shopping centre, although there are still offices and shop premises available.
Construction is nearing completion on the newest phase of Playas del Duque, a complex of apartments on the western side of Puerto Banús whose first phase was built twenty years ago. Nearby, work is underway on the latest phase of Las Terrazas de Banús (the original complex was started 15 years ago), with 270 two- and three-bedroom apartments at prices between 25.2 million pesetas for a 113-square metre flat on the first floor to 52.5 million for a 234-square metre penthouse. Although the new project will not be ready for occupancy until the year 2001, 80% of it is already sold.
"Puerto Banús is a popular product among other things because our prices are reasonable, around 65% lower than what people are paying in their places of origin," says Estéban Lacoume of Terrazas de Banús. "Puerto Banús has grown into a town in its own right, with all the necessary services. Throughout history, every Spanish coastal town has arisen behind a port. It is only natural that the same should happen here."
The resale market for homes in existing complexes has also benefited from the boom, according to local real estate agents. One 450-square metre, three-bedroom apartment in the exclusive Gray D'Albion complex next to the entrance to the port is selling for 225 millions pesetas, while a two-bedroom, 300-square metre apartment in the same complex was advertised at 125 million pesetas. Apartments in the existing phases of Playas del Duque are going for anywhere from 27 million for a two-bedroom flat to 86 million for a three bedroom apartment.
Prices in the original Puerto Banús marina, which is of much older construction, are somewhat lower: front-line two-bedroom apartments there are advertised for around 24 million pesetas. With a foreseeable and dramatic increase in full- or part-time residents, the area is already being billed as "the new centre of Marbella". The catalyst was the opening in Spring 1996 of the Costa Marbella shopping centre, part of Spain's largest department store chain, El Corte Inglés. Marbella scored a major coup by enticing El Corte Inglés into building the 320,000-square foot complex here at an initial investment of 13,000 million pesetas, as this was the first shopping centre in the chain to be opened outside a major city, and something of a gamble.
A New Beginning
The superstore injected new life into the area just as the Costa del Sol's latest property boom was starting to take off. Still, the main attraction for tens of thousands of visitors (and potential property buyers) continues to be the yacht harbour itself.
This was the first marina-style yacht harbour to be built on the Costa del Sol, the original model against which all those that came later - nine marinas between Sotogrande and Marina del Este in Almuñecar - are measured. Some of the newer yacht harbours may be more intimate or more architecturally attractive, but none has been able to match Puerto Banús's unique atmosphere and trendy aura, thanks to which Puerto Banús has been a household name internationally since it first opened nearly thirty years ago.
In 1963 José Banús Masdeu, a self-made man who had accumulated a fortune as a real estate developer in Madrid, started building a new residential complex west of Marbella, called Nueva Andalucía. At that time Marbella was a fashionable and exclusive retreat for the rich and titled old families of Europe, but Banús envisioned something different: a resort not for the wealthy few, but for the wealthy many. His new development featured wide boulevards, spacious villas, immaculately landscaped gardens, and even its own bullring.
The crowning achievement was, of course, Puerto Banús, a yacht harbour on a scale never seen before, with a Mediterranean-style village attached. It was officially opened in May 1970, and in August that year Banús organised a party to introduce the world to his baby. The event was an indication of the scale on which Don José operated. The 1,700 guests included the Aga Khan, film director Roman Polanski, Playboy owner Hugh Heffner, Doctor Christian Barnard (pioneer of the heart transplant), and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. A still-youthful Julio Iglesias was contracted to sing for the guests for the enormous (at the time) sum of 125,000 pesetas. In all the bash cost Banús eight million pesetas, which included hiring an army of 300 waiters from Seville and flying in 50 pounds of Beluga caviar.
Ever since, Puerto Banús has been an obligatory stop for visiting celebrities and aristocrats. The Saudi royal family and the Arab zillionaire Adnan Khassogi have been among those who regularly berthed their super-yachts here. The port has nine berths for the big yachts of over 150 feet, which pay up to 110,000 a day during high season in berthing fees.
There is a total capacity for 915 boats of all sizes, which makes this one of the largest yacht harbours in the Med and also one of the most popular, boasting an average occupancy of 78%, though it is a standing joke that seldom do the boats actually leave the harbour.
"Puerto Banús is not really a sailor's port, unlike the other harbours along the coast, but rather a place where the idle rich park their yachts," says John Wood, a seasoned yachtsman who is familiar with ports from Barcelona to Venezuela. "Some of the skippers I've spoken to on the big yachts in Banús have admitted that they haven't put out to sea in two or three years."
For landlubbers, the port is a major tourist attraction. According to the port's own estimates, some 36,000 people visit Puerto Banús daily during the August high season, with a total of 4,400,000 visitors a year, and not all of them are yacht owners or film stars. Most are day trippers gawping at the floating palaces berthed next to the port's control tower or hoping to glimpse Bruce Willis, Antonio Banderas, Sting or "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince". Some even pretend to be millionaires for the day by renting a sports car (available at the quayside), chartering a boat for a day's tuna fishing, or spending some serious money in one of the port's 95 fashion boutiques.
After a morning's shopping they can eat at some of the coast's best restaurants, which include such well known names as Antonio, Taberna del Alabardero and La Dorada. In the evening the tradition is to head for Sinatra's or Salduba, two bars strategically-located next to the port entrance, to meet friends, make new ones, and decide where to go to next. There's plenty to choose from: in all, Puerto Banús keeps its visitors well fed, well fuelled and well entertained at 47 restaurants, 48 bars and 12 discotheques.
Buying a property in the neighbourhood is an interesting proposition for those who want to be in the thick of the action. It is also a limited commodity, for there is not that much space left for new developments. Even so, there are plans to extend the existing Port, tripling its size. And, although permissions are not forthcoming, Mayor Jesús Gil refuses to give up his scheme to build an entire artificial island off Puerto Banús, which would include hotels and berthing for ocean liners.
Now, that's one even José Banús couldn't have dreamt up.
- Mark Little
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