With a great climate, superb medical care and English-style education, there's much more to the island than the resort of Playa del Ingles, says the author of a new book, Matthew Hirtes...
It was not the lure of winter sun or an affordable island retreat that brought our family from Essex to Gran Canaria, but events of a rather less idyllic nature. For in February 2003 our second son Alex, at just eight months, was diagnosed with leukaemia.
My wife Cristina, 38, is from the capital Las Palmas so, following a half-year residency in London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, we took the decision to relocate to the Canarian island for the extra family support. My mother-in-law, one sister-in-law and five brothers-in-law live on the island – all within easy reach of Cristina's home town. Besides, we'd already spent countless summers visiting family on the island, so we knew that it was a popular choice for Brits to live as well as to visit. There are already about 5,000 Brits living on the island. So we promptly found a two-bedroom flat to rent in the central Arenales area of Las Palmas, and Cristina, who left a position teaching Spanish in David Beckham's old school in Chingford, east London, took a job working in her family's furniture firm in Las Palmas.
House husband, Canarian style
Meanwhile I accompanied Alex to his weekly check-ups at Las Palmas' Materno, the children's hospital after taking his elder brother, Dani, to school in the nearby Ciudad Jardin (Garden City) district of Las Palmas.
Because Alex couldn't mix with other kids, I became a house husband - which to my surprise I found a lot more hectic than my last job in the UK, as a subtitler at the Sky Sports Centre. Whilst adjusting to many aspects of island life, I continued to freelance as a journalist for Spanish and UK media and it was against this background that I wrote a book about life in Gran Canaria that is just being published. 'Going Local in Gran Canaria' (£11.99, Summertime Publishing) is as much a guide for the discerning tourist seeking delights away from the main resorts, as a handbook for the potential future resident looking at key issues such as education, tax, health and property.
For example, relocating with school-age children is undoubtedly more problematic than moving without them, but on the upside your kids won't have any problems finding penpals.
Education & Healthcare
If you want to follow an English-style education, your best bet are the private schools (colegios privados). Many of these are English establishments in Gran Canaria which follow the UK National Curriculum. The largest is the Canterbury School with an infants in Las Palmas, a primary and secondary in San Lorenzo, and a primary in Maspalomas.
Of course for us, one of the big considerations was also the standard of medical care. However we were assured by our consultant – one of the world's leading figures in childhood leukaemia – that Alex would follow exactly the same protocol as he had in the UK.
Indeed, people relocate from Gran Canaria purely for health reasons – and its favourable climate is beneficial to sufferers of varied diseases, including arthritis, MS, and SAD. Its impressive two main public hospitals – both located in Las Palmas – reflect the capital's status as the seventh-largest city in Spain.
You'll spot the older hospital, Complejo Hospitalario Universiario Insular Materno Infantil (Avenida Marítima del SurS/N) on your drive from the airport to Las Palmas. The spicker-than-span, newer Complejo Hospitalario Doctor Negrin (Plaza Barranco la Ballena S/N) lies closer to the GC2 which connects Las Palmas with the north and west coasts of the island. Then there's the wonderfully healthy outdoor lifestyle on the island.
Off the beaten track
Our doctor advised that while nursery was a no-no for Alex, the beach was a perfectly safe environment – which burgeoned my developing love affair with the island's warts-and-all north coast. Scruffier than the Sahara-sand beaches on offer at the famous southern resorts of Maspalomas and Playa del Inglés, we ventured there on a daily basis after dropping Dani off at school.
I used to phone my wife, who was stuck behind a desk at the factory, and ask “Guess where we are today?” She rarely guessed it right. After all, we were finding spots that few Canarians, let alone tourists, had ventured to, like Caleta Arriba where I had to be on guard as Alex acquired an almost magnetic fixation with the fishermen's knives, casually left on the rocks above the beach – with no one else usually about.
Expats, in the majority, live in the more arid south of the island. Here the younger ones tend to work in bars or restaurants, where their English is put to good use dealing with tourists while the older ones are more likely to run the restaurants. Those of us proficient in Spanish can work in schools, and when Alex was given the all-clear to attend nursery I found a job teaching English.
Twelve months on from that, we opened a language academy for children aged from three to 12 years, teaching English through the medium of song, story and craft to make it more fun. There are also jobs in medicine, though these will depend on language skills as well as qualifications.
Jobs for ex-pats
Husband-and-wife team, Dr David and nurse Mary Beresford-Jones – originally from Carlisle and Brighton respectively – run the British Medical Clinic in the south-west's Puerto Rico. “It's the sheer diversity of the island that appeals to me,” says Mary, 49. “Especially the small coves, long sandy beaches, British breakfasts and Spanish beach bars, five-star hotels as well as lovely old fincas and lemon trees in mini grand canyons in the centre of the island.
“Many expats' nickname for the island is paradise, but being here on holiday should not be confused with living here full time. “If you're moving here, come with enough money to support yourself for at least a year and don't break all ties with the UK just in case the move doesn't go as planned.”
Then there's Alison and David Beecham who are very much living their dream following their move from London in the early noughties. David, a keen angler, spotted a gap in the market and Carp Fishing Gran Canaria was born. They currently live in a lovely duplex in El Valle, Puerto Rico. To follow in their footsteps in setting up your own business, Alison warns aspiring entrepreneurs not to overlook the smallprint. “Check all legal requirements and paperwork before going ahead with anything,” she advises.
Although this is not Spain's version of Florida (that would be Tenerife), expats do retire in Gran Canaria, and the healthcare is good. Fifty-something West-Midlanders Roy and Kim brought a one-bed apartment in Puerto Rico six years ago while on holiday. Three years later, Roy retired from his teaching position and Kim from her decorating manager job in the UK, and they decided to move here for good. They find living in Gran Canaria cheaper than the UK – especially for food. The couple recommend budget supermarket Mercadona – where you can pick up a litre of milk for 60 cents (50p), or a hefty loaf of bread for just over a euro (about 85p) - they've noticed the savings on their weekly shopping bill.
Roy raves about the local produce. “With excellent-quality fresh food we eat in most nights,” he says. “But then again we live here and aren't on holiday (although with the sun shining everyday, it certainly feels like we are).” We can certainly relate to this too. As for us, Alex, despite requiring tri-annual check-ups, is well and playing for the same football club as big brother Dani. We have since bought a three bedroom apartment near to our old fl at. It was a bank sale and cost €140k (£116k), reduced from €240k (£200k).
Who says it's not the time to buy property abroad! We bought mainly to accommodate the new member of the family, Tom, who joined us in 2010. Which goes to prove the only way doesn't have to be Essex.
The lowdown on the grandest Canary
National hero – Manchester City and Spain's David Silva. He learnt his trade by juggling oranges with his feet in Arguineguín and “ wishes Manchester's weather is more like Gran Canaria's”.
National dish – Papas arrugadas, baby wrinkled potatoes boiled in salty water, accompanied by mojo – a sauce which can be orange, red, or green and either mild or spicy depending on the combination of olive oil, vinegar, paprika, thyme, oregano and coriander.
Where to party – As the venue's name suggests, Seven (Centro Comercial Plaza de Maspalomas) comes alive every night of the week to the sounds of R ´n´ B and the funkiest Latin house this side of Havana.
Property in Gran Canaria
The last few years have seen Gran Canaria's property market take a hit from the credit crunch or la crisis as it's known locally.
The upside, however, is that with a surplus of property – albeit with fewer bank repossessions than the Spanish mainland – prices are typically down 25 per cent from 2007. So even in this relatively expensive buying area, compared to mainland Spain, you can now pick up an apartment from as little as €100,000 (£83k) – and the majority of the islanders tend to live in flats.
One and two bedders dot the south coast (peaking at around the €200,000/ £166k mark) with duplexes – priced from €230,000 (£191k) to €750,000 (£622k) – more common in the newer developments in and around the capital, Las Palmas, and posh neighbour of Maspalomas, Meloneras, which claims a greater concentration of five-star hotels than anywhere else on the island. Head to the mountains above the southern resorts, to Monté Leon for instance, for larger chalets and villas. This is the Beverly Hills of Gran Canaria, with high-end prices reaching the €1,000,000 (£829k) mark, though you'll still be able to buy a three-bedroom detached villa there with a pool for €450,000 (£373k).
You'll find traditional fincas in the centre of the island, in the likes of Vega de San Mateo. You'll be able to purchase a renovated one for around €150,000 (£124k) and one that requires plenty of work for half that.
For a quirkier choice of accommodation, there are the cave houses, with hikers' favourite Artenara boasting the majority of these. They don't often come onto the market, but cost around €130,000 (£108k) when they do. The traditional resorts of Playa del Inglés and Maspalomas remain good investments for those looking to rent out holiday accommodation, with one bedroom apartments typically costing from €80,000 to €150,000 (£66-124k) and two-bedders from €125,000 (£104k) to €200,000 (£166k).
However, those looking to relocate may do better to look further west, to the rather more residential Puertos Mogán and Rico. Although they are resorts in their own right, they have a greater service infrastructure such as schools and feel less transient than Playa del Inglés. They're also as competively-priced as the better-known Playa del Inglés.
An increasingly popular choice to buy is Arguineguín in the south-west – a working port and holiday destination with an established Swedish community and a growing number of Brits, encouraged by the family-friendly feel of the place and its good transport links. “You'll have no problem renting out any properties in this area as they're popular with the Scandinavian market,” says Ramon Sanchez Bruhn of Cardenas Real Estate (www.cardenas-grancanaria.com). Because of their continued oil-rich status and non-involvement in the Euro, they're still looking to escape their winter here. “There are Scandinavian churches and schools in Arguineguín, but there's more diversification with emerging Dutch and Italian communities. It's certainly an exciting place to be right now.”
How do the other Canaries weigh up?
Best for culture vultures: Lanzarote
Painter (but no decorator), sculptor, and architect Cèsar Manrique (1919-1992) convinced the Lanzarote authorities to ensure any new developments were built no taller than two storeys high. He also convinced them that residential properties should be painted white and draped in bougainvillea, the ornamental clambering plant typically fl wering into a shock of pink.
Although prices have increased as the island continues to shed its undeserved Lanzagrotty tag, you'll still be able to find apartments under €100,000 (£83k). Don't expect any change from a cool €1,000,000 (£833k) however, if luxury villas are more your thing. Rentals are best in the main resorts: Puerto del Carmen, Playa Blanca and Costa Teguise.
Best for beaches: Fuerteventura
Tenerife beaches need to import sand from the Sahara, and whilst Lanzarote has some stunning shorelines, the likes of Caleta de Famara for example, Fuerteventura boasts kilometres of tropically-white sand beaches flanked by turquoise waters. Indeed so idyllic is this island, holidaymakers have been known to put down a deposit on a place to live during a short break. Expect to pay as low as €70,000 (£58k) for a one bedroom apartment or bungalow in a residential complex with a shared pool.
The expat communities tend to be concentrated in the holiday resorts of Corralejo and Caleta de Fuste where you'll find a range of property, extending from studios up to luxurious villas backing on to the island's two golf courses.
Best for nightlife: Tenerife
Although Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said a late team night out on the Veronica strip wasn't to blame for the FA Cup upset against Brighton, it wouldn't be the first time this lively neon-lit area, a panoply of dazzling bars and clubs, caused a hangover. A miniature continent because of its microclimates like its neighbour Gran Canaria, sun shines over the southern resorts whereas the sky is distinctly cloudier over the north including the capital Santa Cruz.
Prices in touristy Playa de las Americas start at €90,000 (£75k) for a one bedroom flat with swimming pool. In more residential (northern) areas you can buy a villa from a knock-down €180,000 (£150k) rising to over €1,000,000 for larger, more exclusive properties. Rentals are generally very strong in these resort areas.
Top tips for a happy relocation:
Register with the local authorities: so you can vote in local elections, access welfare services and get 50 per cent discount on travel within the Islands.
• Healthcare: register with your local health centre: your EHIC will only cover you for emergency treatment during a holiday.
• Consider private Health Insurance, especially if in the event of serious illness or death, a policy covers repatriation back to the UK.
• Export a pension or benefit from the UK: register with the INSS. Visit www.seg-social.net
• Learn the Language. Obvious but important; don't worry about making mistakes, that's the learning curve!
• Go Local: try local restaurants and shops instead of expat hangouts.