By Ken Hegan for The National Post
My driver wants to kill me.
It’s the only explanation. We’re speeding along a cliff in Costa del Sol, Spain, in a shiny new Porsche Panamera GTS sports car.
He’s passing cars by inches. Palm trees whiz by like they’re running for safety.
“I like to deep sea dive,” he says, grinning. “I can hold my breath for three minutes underwater.”
Which is what I’d say if I wanted to drown someone in a car plunge.
Somebody I know must have sent him a manila envelope with my photo, description and known whereabouts. Then paid him to lure me into a Porsche, bully it to go 230 km/h, and then launch me off a Spanish cliff, as he floats away under his ejection parachute.
This is Gianfranco. A youthful 50, he’s a CEO, investment magnate, South African helicopter pilot and aerobatic stunt pilot. And unfortunately, he’s a prime example of my competition in the Marbella Club Spring Games.
We’re doing six sports today: skiing, golf, shooting go-kart racing, water skiing, and paddle tennis. My opponents are zillionaire counts, aristocrats and captains of industry who learned to shoot when their nannies were rocking their bassinettes.
The Games are hosted by the Marbella Club, a luxury resort boasting lovely, low-slung Andalusian-style bungalows and five-bedroom villas for ¤3,900 a night. Imagine a private pool, lush gardens and tiled patios to sip minty Sau Sau cocktails on and contemplate your fortune at being the 1%.
The Games started in the ’70s. The resort’s owner, German prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe, realized Marbella was one of the precious few destinations where you can alpine ski and water ski in one day.
So he invented the Games, which he called “Ski golf swim bang.” His drinking buddies — including Sean Connery — loved the idea. They tried doing all six sports. But gave up by dinner after too much Champagne at lunch.
It costs 450 euro to compete but it’s not for the great unwashed. It’s an invite-only mini-Olympics for counts and princesses. Sort of like a charming family event for friends who met back in private academies … plus me, the only Canadian-scribe-plebian.
Event 1: GO-KARTING
Circuito Campillos racetrack is 92.6 km north of Marbella. To get there, you roar past picturesque Andalusian hills and terrified pedestrians.
We race in gendered heats, wearing numbered yellow pinneys. Five laps, no kicking or gouging. I’m worried Gianfranco and his buddies will bump me off track. But turns out they’re gentlemen who are quick to give advice. A former F1 driver tells me: “Use the whole track, swing wide before the turn, tap your brakes before each turn, and never take your foot off the gas.”
Our karts line up. The lights flash green. Game on! I channel my inner Gianfranco and roar to an early lead. But my competitiveness kills. I drive too fast spin out, and finish ninth out of 16. Balls!
The winning male: luxury car dealer Mario Guarnieri.
TRAVEL TIP: I’m giraffe-y tall, which isn’t ideal. Go-karting favours short, compact drivers … so lose some weight and height.
Event 2: GOLF
We play six holes at the lovely Marbella Club Golf Resort. It has a sweeping hilltop view of the Rock of Gibraltar on the northern tip of Africa. A lovely, trap-filled demon.
I’m horrible at golf. A Danish exec, Pieter, helps me turn my swing from wretched to acceptably miserable. But Gianfranco, who’s never played in his life, is a natural. Is there nothing these men can’t do?
The winner, Rob, is a lanky entrepreneur who, judging by his bio, is superior to me in every way.
TRAVEL TIP: On one hole, you have to launch your ball over a valley big enough for the entire Occupy Wall Street protest. God won’t help you, but try a 7-iron.
Event 3: POLO
I came to Spain expecting to kick ass at slalom skiing. But it’s too warm (Costa del Sol gets 320 days sun a year). So the prince’s nephew, Pablo, replaces it with polo. I think it’s the sport where you ride a horse and swing swords at peasants’ heads. Sounds fun!
Pablo’s polo tip: “Stay on the horse.”
“No way am I doing this!” Pieter says. “I’ll break my spine. Remember: only the Top 8 get points.”
I count the riding boots. Ten pairs, including Gianfranco’s boots made of rich Corinthian leather. He rides his stallion like it’s growing from his body. Magnificent.
TRAVEL TIP: William Shatner told me horses are incredibly sensitive. If you don’t mount correctly, the horse won’t respect you. It’ll go rogue and stomp you. Learn to ride, then show the horse you’re boss. Note: this doesn’t mean punching your horse in the nose.
Event 4: SHOOTING
We race back to drink Champagne on the Marbella Club beach. Someone sticks a laser rifle in my non-drinking hand. Then we fire at flying saucers that go “ping-ping-ping” if you hit them. Young boys try to catch the saucers. I only hit four saucers but both boys.
TRAVEL TIP: Monarchs are skilled marksmen. That’s because they’re preparing for the revolution when the peasants storm their castles. To beat princes at their own game, practise playing shoot-’em-up video games with a glass of Veuve Clicquot in one hand.
Event 5: WATER SKIING
It’s cold and raining. The sea is angrier than a vengeful whale. Nobody wants to water ski. I’d rather jam my hand down a garburator than enter a cold sea without a wetsuit. Half the guys bail out of water skiing, but all eight women brave the choppy surf.
Winner: Gregor von Opel, heir to the German auto fortune.
TRAVEL TIP: On the Costa del Sol, it’s customary to give a stock tip to your Jet Ski driver.
Event 6: PADDLE TENNIS
Paddle tennis (a.k.a. “Padel”) is a wild mash-up of tennis and racquetball in a walled-in outdoor court. Spaniards chuckle when I ask how to hold the paddle. Then I DEMOLISH the competition. I’m like the idiot savant of paddle tennis!
My partner, Mario, and I win three straight games against increasingly excellent opponents, including one fella in a wheelchair. Woohoo!
In the semi-finals, I dive to make a thrilling, game-saving volley. My opponents were stunned but supportive. I’d won at a sport I’d never played before. Everyone wants a rematch.
TRAVEL TIP: Mayans invented Padel so it’s popular in Spanish-speaking countries. To win dirty, trash-talk your opponents in Spanish. Just as they return serve, yell “Callate el osico gordota!” which means “Shut your snout, fatty!”
The Games’ winners were crowned at an elegant, poolside awards ceremony. The victors: Gregor von Opel for two years running, and prince Alfonso’s niece, Flavia de Hohenlohe-Langenburg.
I spoke with Pablo, who relaunched the Games after his uncle passed away.
“Pablo,” I said, “next year, I want to win it all. Do I need to drop all my work, break up with my girlfriend, say goodbye to my family, sell my possessions and devote myself to training all year?”
“I’m afraid you are 30 years too late for that,” he said with a smile. “Winning the Spring Games is not difficult if you are a very good skier, excellent driver, if your golf handicap is 5 or less, you can slalom at waterski, and [rode] horseback as a kid.”
In other words, to quote my personal favourite noble, Lady Gaga, the Spring Games champions are simply born this way.
IF YOU GO
Marbella is an hour drive from Malaga, which is a 70-minute flight from Madrid. Marbella Club: marbellaclub.com