VIVA True Stories - Living the dream
Working in downtown New York, textile designer Mona Arain Crites and her chef husband Stefan, often used to talk about leading a simpler life and working together to create a business that would reflect their talents…
...where Stefan would be cooking the rustic food he enjoyed and perhaps growing some of the ingredients, such as tomatoes for the bowls of Gazpacho they’d be serving to guests dining on the terrace of their very own restaurant. And each having already forged successful careers, it was no mere pipedream. They had a plan. Having kissed goodbye to the Big Apple in 2005, they rented an apartment in Marbella, and with Stefan hard at work in the kitchen of one of the Coast’s top eateries, the search was on to find the property that would literally turn their lives around.
“Stefan and I met in New York, where we both lived for 13 years,” says Mona. “He’s originally from Ohio and I’m from London. We were both making names for ourselves professionally and life was sweet. But when we decided to start a family, things changed. New York is no place to raise children, they spend virtually all their time indoors and the cost of childcare is astronomical. Life in general is far too expensive there if you only have one salary coming in and all our friends were moving out to the commuter-belt, to places like Westchester. We could have done the same, but to me, being in the States meant one thing and one thing only… and that was living in New York!
“We toyed with the idea of moving to Goa, where my Mum was born and where we’d had our honeymoon, but there was a lot of bureaucracy involved in starting up a business there. When I was growing up we spent all our family holidays in Spain, usually on and around the Costa del Sol. It’s a region I’d come to know and love and with its healthy, family-friendly, outdoor lifestyle it seemed the perfect place to bring up a family.”
“We could see in our mind’s eye exactly the property we were looking for, although it was hard to put it into words,” explains Stefan. “And over a period of about a year virtually all my days off were spent property-hunting from Tarifa – on the Atlantic Coast – all the way to Vélez-Málaga where we viewed a disused monastery, and Frigiliana where a mango farm caught our eye.
“But it wasn’t until we chose VIVA as our real estate brokers that we really started to get anywhere.”
“We viewed several promising places with them, including a fabulous old watermill in Guaro... I remember telling VIVA at the outset that even we didn’t know exactly what we wanted, but they never once gave up on us.”
And then one day they phoned to say they were sure they’d found us exactly what we were looking for. So that Saturday our property consultant – with whom we’re still often in touch six years on – drove us up to the beautiful white village of Zahara de la Sierra, roughly at the point where the Serranía de Ronda meets the Sierra de Grazalema. The moment we saw Al Lago, we knew our search was over and that we’d found the property we’d been dreaming of back in New York!”
“It needed quite a bit of attention, but nothing we couldn’t fix and it had masses of potential, so we decided to buy it there and then,” Mona recalls.
“VIVA negotiated everything for us, introduced us to an excellent lawyer and the transaction went through without a hitch. The day we moved in, we simply walked through the back door and took our suitcases straight upstairs to unpack.”
For Mona and Stefan the first priority was the kitchen. “It was in a terrible state. The first wet day we had, the rain actually fell inside the fridge! There was no professional equipment, just domestic appliances, so as we’d spent all our money buying the property, we simply bought everything we needed second hand from a catering supplier.
“To begin with we kept the menu pretty much as it was – only lighter and fresher – because it’s always risky to change things too quickly. But we also had our specials board, and the first time that more guests ordered from that than from the original menu was a very big day for Mona and me!”
The following year they refurbished the dining room, creating a snug and cosy winter alternative to the welcoming al fresco terrace with its stunning lake and mountain views. More recently the couple have transformed the first floor – where they and the children had lived when they first moved in – to create a bijou rural hotel whose four pretty bedrooms, complete with walk-in showers and flat screen TVs were, like the dining room, designed by Mona.
And all the hard work has certainly paid off. Al Lago Hotel & Restaurant features on Little Hotels and One Off Places as well as having an ‘excellent’ rating on TripAdvisor, and with Stefan at the helm – who describes his cuisine as ‘Andalusian contemporary Mediterranean Spanish’ – the tourist board have recognised their restaurant as one of the very best in the entire Sierra.
"From Indian feast weekends, flamenco dinners, farmers’ markets and sevillana workshops… to gourmet breaks, Mothers Day weekends, spring and Easter breaks as well as family activity getaways, Al Lago also hosts a full programme of events all year round."
Their fishmonger, who since Mona and Stefan’s arrival has opened a shop in the village, delivers them the finest Sushi-grade red tuna and exquisite shellfish from Cádiz three times a week, they serve prime meat – including wild boar in the winter – and the villagers, many of whom hunt, bring them fresh rabbits and partridge. Most of the fruit, vegetables and salad ingredients – yes, including those tomatoes – are organically grown on Al Lago’s own 11-acre smallholding. The most popular item on the menu? Yes, you’ve guessed it, Stefan’s mouth-watering New York-style Vanilla Cheesecake of course!
From Indian feast weekends, flamenco dinners, farmers’ markets and sevillana workshops… to gourmet breaks, Mothers Day weekends, spring and Easter breaks as well as family activity getaways, Al Lago also hosts a full programme of events all year round.
The biggest employers in Zahara, Mona and Stefan – both of whom now speak Spanish fluently – are pillars of the local community and totally immersed in village life. Their children, Casim (10) and Mahalia (6) are both bilingual and thriving at their school in Ronda, just a 30-minute drive and where the family live Monday to Friday during term-time. Their childminder is practically one of the family, and school holidays and weekends are spent at the farmhouse they rent just down the road from Al Lago. It’s the perfect balance for everyone and means that although Mona and Stefan work long hours, they also enjoy lots of quality time with the children, swimming and fishing in the lake and exploring the breathtaking countryside right on their doorstep.
Light years away from the city that never sleeps, Zahara de la Sierra gently dozes in the afternoon sun, where it’s early to bed and early to rise for its 1,200 inhabitants.
So, any regrets? Anything Mona and Stefan miss or would have done differently? “Only one thing,” Mona laughs, “I just wish we’d enlisted VIVA’s help sooner, it would have saved us so much time and effort. We’d never have found Al Lago without them!”