Seeing the light on the quietest of costas 04 April 2005 John Carey/Telegraph
Andalusia’s best-kept secret is out. John Carey discovers why the little-known Costa de la Luz is fast making friends and good profits.
A warm, sunny morning in the middle of winter. Down by the sea, the beach stretches literally for miles – soft, golden sand, empty but for a few gulls and a four-wheel-drive vehicle chuntering slowly into the distance.
Up in the town, a few miles inland, a stork stands proudly in its nest on top of a telegraph pole, awaiting the imminent arrival of its mate. Motionless, the bird seems oblivious to the gang of builders hammering away on a new block of townhouses that is rapidly taking shape immediately below.
A few weeks on, these two images linger in the memory – the gentle, unflustered rhythms of nature side by side with man’s restless demand for progress. It is a potent combination, and it helps to explain why this particular part of Andalusia is emerging as one of the hottest property spots in Spain.
This is “the Spanish Algarve”, the western end of the Costa de la Luz, slap bang on the frontier with Portugal and a world away from Spain’s other, better known costas. For the past few years it has been attracting increasing numbers of visitors and investors both from other parts of Spain and overseas. Today, the question is: can its quiet development continue or will it go the way of the Costas del Sol and Blanca, its spoiled, brash, big brothers to the east?
The signs are encouraging. “I’m very hopeful,” says Robert Schmidt, of Fisks International(former business partners of Homes & Fincas, Ayamonte), an Essex-based estate agency. “People here have learned the lessons from what has happened elsewhere and they’re determined not to let it be repeated here.”
Romanian by birth, Mr Schmidt settled in Isla de Canela , on the fringe the border town of Ayamonte, two and a half years ago after giving up a successful career as a film-maker in Lisbon. “I loved Portugal but I prefer it here,” he says. “Spanish people are much less reserved than the Portuguese and you make friends easily. And it’s a lot cheaper.”
Mr Schmidt is an eloquent advocate and he makes a convincing case for his new home. Mind you, I was in no fit state to argue. On the morning I was due to meet him for a guided tour of the Ayamonte area, I had woken with a raging toothache. My cheek was swollen like an overfed hamster’s and every movement was sending shock waves of pain stabbing through my head. In the circumstances, he could have sold me the bummest deal in the world and I’d have leapt on it, weeping with gratitude.
He did not. Instead, he drove me to his home, where he gave me some antibiotics. Within an hour, the pain was receding. But even then, in my restored state, I was inclined to believe him. Because Ayamonte – and the whole “coast of light” – does indeed have a lot going for it, not least the fact that it is the “Johnny Foreigner-come-lately” costa.
In development terms, it is 20 years behind its more established rivals: less crime, less prostitution, fewer real-estate sharks or cowboys. Consequently, it has a much better chance of getting things right. Some Hispanophiles remain a bit sniffy about the area: only those who cannot afford the prices elsewhere in Andalusia contemplate buying there, they say.
Which may be true. But if so, more fools them. The countryside is green and gentle and the climate arguably a lot more benign.
Opinions differ as to what constitutes the Costa de la Luz. But to the Spanish Ministry of Tourism, at least, it stretches from Tarifa in the east to Ayamonte in the west, with a hinterland that includes the provinces of Cadiz and Huelva.
The area is served by four international airports, offering cheap flights from Britain now that Ryanair has a service from London Stansted to Seville. You can also fly to Faro, in Portugal, Jerez and Gibraltar, as well as the main Andalusian base of Malaga, a comfortable drive away.
In reality, what is loosely described as the Costa de la Luz is made up of two separate and distinct chunks, split by the Coto Donana national park, a world-famous haven for wildlife.
For the western segment, it is best to fly to Faro and cross the border at Ayamonte. Alternatively, you can come at it from the eastern end, which begins at Tarifa, an increasingly lively and fashionable town.
Robert Schmidt took me to see the plans for Costa Esuri, a massive complex overlooking the Guadiana river that will eventually comprise three hotels, two golf courses, shopping and sports centres, a marina and homes for about 12,000 people, built in varying styles at prices ranging from about €165,000 (£113,000).
The developers, of course, stress that they are avoiding the sort of excesses that have ruined similar projects. And it is hard not to be impressed by their overall plans and by the quality of the show homes on view.
Mr Schmidt is convinced enough by their claims to have bought into the scheme himself. But as winter turns to spring, and spring to summer, those empty beaches will fill up with the annual tourist influx. And as the years go by, hotels, apartments and the inevitable golf courses will mushroom to cater for the invading hordes.
For today’s hard-headed property investor, that has to be good news. But at what cost tomorrow for this quietest of costas?