Sunday Times, 7 May 2006
Uncrowded, accessible and relatively inexpensive, the Costa del Azahar is everything that discerning British buyers could want, discovers Mark Stucklin
Most Britons capable of finding Spain on a map can also point out the Costa del Sol and the Costa Blanca. Far fewer, however, will be able to point to the Costa del Azahar — Spain’s Orange Blossom Coast. But in all likelihood, many of the Britons who have bought cramped, pricey flats on the Costa del Sol, or snapped up hastily built villas from dodgy agents on the Costa Blanca in the south, would have been much better off on the Costa del Azahar, the last remaining coastline still largely undiscovered by British buyers.
Visit the area, and you are immediately struck by how few sunburnt Brits are wandering around. According to Spanish government statistics, there were just 900 British residents in Castellon province at the end of 2005, compared with 26,256 in Malaga province (Costa del Sol) and 42,000 in Alicante province (Costa Blanca). Is this lack of interest among British homebuyers justified? Do canny Brits know something about the Costa del Azahar that others don’t? And are there good reasons why 41,100 more Brits choose to live in Alicante province, just 80 miles south? The answers to these questions don’t support our self-image as savvy investors and discerning tourists. Unless you are golf-mad, there is no compelling, knockout reason for choosing the Costa Blanca or the Costa del Sol over the Costa del Azahar. The real reasons why Brits aren’t in the Costa del Azahar boil down to ignorance, a tendency to follow the herd and a taste for the easy option.
If you do your research before deciding which coast to choose, you will discover that the Costa del Azahar in Castellon province is 75 miles long, running from the border with Catalonia in the north, where the mighty Ebro River flows into the Mediterranean, to the border with Valencia province in the south, just 30 miles from the city of Valencia itself.
Beside sandy white beaches and fragrant orange groves, the Costa del Azahar offers a pleasant climate, breathtaking countryside (both coast and mountains) and delicious local cuisine. While there may not be many golf courses — no bad thing on environmental grounds — the province has the highest proportion of land protected in parks and nature reserves in Spain. In short, this is an attractive, very Spanish coast with plenty of things to do — exactly the sort of place you would expect British property buyers to be all over.
Not everyone has made the mistake of overlooking it. For years, it was popular with German buyers, who had an extra reason for liking the Costa del Azahar: you can reach it by car in just one day’s drive from southern Germany.
For economic reasons, German buyers have largely disappeared from the area but, in contrast to Mallorca, where their properties were snapped up by advancing Brits, the market here has been left to the Spanish. This authentic Spanishness should make the Costa del Azahar irresistible to the British, many of whom claim to be looking for the “real Spain”. And a property market dominated by local buyers is always a good sign: prices in areas where foreigners are very active tend to become inflated, as visitors on quick inspection trips are easy prey for overcharging.
If most Britons remain ignorant of the Costa del Azahar’s charms, the heir to the British throne isn’t among them. Prince Charles has been on several short, low-key visits to the region, staying at the beachfront villa of the Colonques family, who run Porcelanosa, a successful ceramic tile company in the area. The house, in an exclusive residential enclave just outside the small town of Benicasim, has wonderful sea views and a pretty little beach.
Other Brits wise to the area’s attractions include Judi and David Simpson, both 48, from Sheffield, who bought a villa in the town of Alcossebre in 2001. “We heard about the area from a friend and went out on a long weekend break without any intention of buying a property,” says Judi. “Largely out of curiosity, we got talking to a Spanish estate agent. As luck would have it, they had a villa we just couldn’t resist.”
The Simpsons, who have two daughters, aged nine and 17, paid £190,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom villa with a lush, tropical garden and pool, just 10 minutes’ walk from the old town centre of Alcossebre and the beach. They spent a further £30,000 refurbishing the property, and it has turned out to be a worthwhile investment.
Recent capital gains in Castellon province have been some of the highest in Spain, with more than 30% growth in the past two years alone — somewhat better than in the provinces of Malaga and Alicante. The Simpsons’ villa is now valued at more than £500,000.
Judi and David use their new home about three months a year for holidays; the rest of the time it’s used by family and friends. They also rent it out via www.holiday-rentals.com, but only to people who they believe will take good care of the property. “We didn’t buy it as an investment, so we aren’t desperate for rental clients, but it’s nice if it pays its way,” says Judi.
She has visited other coastal areas of Spain and is very clear in her mind about the strengths of the Costa del Azahar.
“First, it’s down-to-earth and authentic, free of the glitz and pretensions you see elsewhere,” she says. “Here you can just relax and be yourself in a friendly, Spanish environment. Second, it feels very safe, the sort of place where you don’t worry about your kids all the time. Third, there’s plenty to do — at home, at the beach or on excursions, and the kids are never bored. Lastly, it’s easy to get to — we can fly to either Valencia, Reus, or Barcelona, and then drive or take a fast train to Benicarlo, which is just 12 miles away.”
Despite recent capital gains that have outperformed most other Spanish coastal areas, property prices on the Costa del Azahar are still attractive.
According to Juan Luis Gasco, marketing director of Onofre Miguel, a leading local developer, property prices are still 25%-30% below those of the northern Costa Blanca, and research at Spanish property websites reveals that roughly 70% of apartments for sale on the Costa del Azahar cost less than £140,000, compared with just 23% in the province of Malaga.
According to Spanish government figures, property in Castellon is more expensive than in Almeria and Murcia, as you would expect of a more prosperous region, but is cheaper than in the Canaries, Cadiz, Alicante, Malaga and Catalonia’s Mediterranean provinces. Property in the area is not a steal, then, but it is a good deal.
So where does one buy on the Costa del Azahar? There’s no denying that there are some pockets of heavy-handed development along the coast; for instance, the stretch between Castellon de la Plana and Benicasim, and the ghastly-looking Marina d’Or development just north of Oropesa del Mar. But even in those areas, development tends to be limited to a narrow strip along the coast and doesn’t sprawl inland. Part of the reason for this is that the hills of the Serra d’en Galceran rise quickly behind the coast, discouraging everything but beachside development.
Attractive towns on the coast include Benicasim, with its air of gentility and its world-famous jazz festival, and Peñiscola, with its imposing castle on a headland that juts out into the sea. The majority of resale flats along the coast are in the £100,000-£140,000 price bracket, though penthouses and luxury apartments with sea views will go for considerably more than this.
Semi-detached properties are often in the £140,000-£200,000 range, while villas start at about £240,000. There are also some outstanding new developments, with luxury specifications and impressive sea views as standard, such as the Portocala resort just outside Benicasim, being offered by British-based estate agency Jackson-Stops & Staff.
“And there are always the villages in the Maestrazgo mountains,” points out Lionel Westell, the Jackson-Stops & Staff associate in Castellon. “These have been depopulated, and if I turn up at one of them with British buyers, the mayor is over the moon.
“In this spectacular countryside, rural tourism is just beginning to take root, with rafting, hiking, mountain-biking and so on, although the lack of good roads in the area is still a big drawback.”
Westell says houses in stunning inland villages such as Morella go for between £27,000 and £110,000, while old farmhouses with some land start at about £140,000.
“It’s not for everyone,” Westell cautions, “but if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the coast, don’t mind the cooler temperatures in winter and want to be close to nature, then this might be the perfect place for you.”
Married to a Spaniard, Westell has lived in Spain for 20 years and has witnessed the dramatic transformation the country has undergone in that time.
“I think the Costa del Azahar has managed to conserve its Spanish identity and civility better than other coasts further south, which makes it enormously appealing to many British buyers, who crave traditional charm and decency,” he ventures. “I also think that the popularity of the region is going to surge when people realise what it has to offer, so now is the time to buy, before it gets any more expensive.”
One thing is certain: the Costa del Azahar’s access disadvantage will soon be history. Work has begun on the province’s own international airport, located near the town of Vilanova d’Alcolea. Once the airport is in operation — it is scheduled to open in 2007 — and once the high-speed rail link from Madrid to Castellon is finished, the Costa del Azahar will have been transformed into one of the easiest Spanish coastlines to reach, with access from Barcelona, Reus, Castellon and Valencia airports, along with TGV-style fast trains from Madrid and Barcelona.
The Costa del Azahar might well be just about to blossom for British buyers.
© Mark Stucklin (Spanish Property Insight)