Grand Family-Owned Hotels Keep Elegance of Yesteryear Alive

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The summer terrace at the Marbella Club Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa. Marbella Club Hotel

Ours is a world that prizes novelty. Something is always the new something else. We want to be early adopters, explorers, pioneers, whether of the latest social media app or smartphone, diet fad or contemporary artist. But there are times when one craves the comfort of familiarity. We need landmarks to guide us through life, otherwise we would find ourselves adrift in a featureless ocean of neologisms, changing course as the siren song of the modern comes first from here and then from there.

That is one of the reasons I like family-owned hotels. The best of them stand like stoutly built lighthouses, against which the waves of fashion crash harmlessly. I am sure that a psychoanalyst would have fun unpacking my affection for these places, their links with a glamorous, elegant past, and their essentially unchanging nature.

Recently, I spent the night at the Château Saint-Martin, a hotel and spa in the almost-mountains of southeastern Provence, France. I had never been before but had been told it was rather nice, and so it was. But what struck me was the familiarity of the place: the marble, ormolu and tapestries seemed known to me. All became clear when I was told the hotel was under the same ownership as Le Bristol in Paris and the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes. (I have yet to stay at the Hotel du Cap, but I have been to enough parties there to have absorbed the aesthetic.) All three hotels are owned by the Oetker family, and in the case of the Bristol, they are only the second family to do so.

It is the same with Switzerland's Gstaad Palace, where in the winter season it is standing room only in the famous lobby bar: The Scherz family has managed the Palace since 1938 and has owned it since 1947. Although it has changed to a certain extent, the hotel remains recognizable as its mid-1970s self, when it was the glamorous location for—and, I would argue, the co-star of—the film The Return of the Pink Panther.

My favorite family-owned hotel—perhaps my favorite hotel, full stop—is the Marbella Club in Spain. Here I must declare an interest. I wrote a book about the history of the Marbella Club, but then I also contributed a chapter to the history of the Gstaad Palace, so you could say I have a weakness for the genre.

The Marbella Club was founded just over 60 years ago, and the story of its creation has the ring of legend and fairy tale. Young, handsome and, if not penniless, then certainly down to his last family palace, Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe-Langenburg built a small wayside inn, a little like the motels he had seen in the United States. He built it about halfway between Málaga and Gibraltar, along a rutted track of a coastal road on which donkeys were more numerous than cars. By the 1960s, pretty much anyone ever photographed by the society portraitist Slim Aarons was spending summers at the Marbella Club.

Alfonso was like a jet-set Prospero, conjuring an enchanted realm out of little more than an abundance of charm and a few monastic rooms with hip baths and painted headboards. Like Prospero's island, the Marbella Club was cut off from the world. A few years after the club opened, Alfonso did install a telephone, and sometimes it worked. But on the whole, guests were insulated from the less-agreeable realities of life. Some, such as the Cuban missile crisis, passed them by completely: They had not seen a newspaper, the club had neither radio nor television, and not a night had passed without a party.

Today, the hotel is owned by the Shamoon family, and they have, mercifully for those who stay here, upgraded the facilities to include a half-dozen bars and restaurants, a spa, a wellness center, a kids' club, a golf course, an equestrian center, some select shops, a real estate office, the mandatory blanket Wi-Fi coverage so one can check emails when swimming and all the other appurtenances of the modern hotel. But to Alfonso's son, Prince Hubertus, it is still recognizable as the old club where he grew up, and where he still returns every summer to run an open-air, late-night lounge on the patio.

Modernization is important, but family ownership of a hotel provides the continuity needed to ensure that facilities are not improved at the expense of charm and familiarity—the very things that made a resort popular in the first place. There is a personal connection that, however well-managed they may be, the chains of hotels that garland the world seldom offer. Too often such hotels lurch into change with the backing of focus groups and marketing studies, losing their authenticity and individual character, and alienating long-standing visitors without attracting new ones.

The genius of the great family-run hotels is to change imperceptibly, to give guests what they never knew they needed but are delighted to have. And all the while feeling that everything has stayed exactly, and splendidly, the same.