Scottish couple Shirley and Mark Graham, who moved to Spain 8 years ago were inspired by a weekend break in a traditional cave house so when the pair came across an old cave in Andalucia they decided to make it their dream home. They then decided to convert a second cave on their land into a 3 bedroom guest house which they named Cuevas Helena. The end result is stunning. We find out why they decided to open up their home to paying guests and all about their recent appearance on My Dream Hotel.
Tell us a bit about your backgrounds and what influenced your decision to move to Spain.
We are both from Edinburgh and met whilst at high school so have known each other 40 years now. We have 3 children and 3 grand-children.
Mark has been a self -employed Painter & Decorator for 30 years and my background is in sales. I have worked with British Airways, Coca-Cola & Unilever which was my last role.
We moved to Spain 8 years ago. We already had a holiday home in Murcia near Mar Menor which we used for a few years, then Mark had to have a back operation which unfortunately wasn’t a success and had to have a further 2 operations in the space of 3 months. This was one of the reasons we decided that we should look at possibly semi-retiring to our holiday home as at that time we were not sure if he could manage his job of going up and down ladders.
We decided to make the move over and thankfully Mark made a full recovery. Being the type of person who just can’t sit still he started up his own decorating business in Spain which was a great success. He enjoyed working on villas which were mostly outside in the heat and on various different golf courses throughout the Murcia Region.
As it was our holiday home we moved to we both know it could never be our forever home in Spain and one day we would move on.
Tell us how you came to purchase Cuevas Helena and your decision to create a B&B.
Sadly my mother-in-law Helen died in December 2013 and left Mark £50,000. We decided we wanted to do something really special with the money and not just use it for holidays or buying a car etc. We booked a weekend break in a Cave House as we had never stayed in one and we thought if we don’t like it we can always drive home as it was only 2 hours from Murcia . However we both enjoyed the experience but most importantly we loved this part of Andalucia; it was then we both said why don’t we look into buying a cave house? I contacted an agent in the area and we planned several viewings for various types of caves in several areas which was certainly an experience!
We knew right away that Cuevas Helena was the one for us – the views were simply stunning. The cave was originally an animal cave with no water or electricity but we both knew we could do something with it – how we didn’t know, but it just felt right. When we called the agent to put an offer in he was shocked as out of the 13 we looked at this was the one that required the most work but we could do exactly what we wanted with it as it was such a blank canvas.
Our agent Nick from Rusticom was excellent. He arranged all the legal works and recommended a local lawyer for us and some local Spanish builders who had experience in Caves building. We had a meeting and we decided which one we would use. The work began on our first cave which is now our home in September 2014 and we finished this in December 2014.
We had another small cave on our land and jokingly said we should one day convert it into a B&B/ Guest House. Mark couldn’t be a painter & decorator forever and we always said we would love to work together and this just made sense as it was already on our land. We asked the team we had used for our original cave to see if it was possible – they told us it could be done and we started the ball rolling in January 2016. We both planned everything as we had the experience from our own cave, we spent many nights sketching out room layouts which was at times tricky as with caves you can’t have a room wider than 3 metres but can be as long as you want!
What was the story behind your appearance on Channel5’s My Dream Hotel?
The project started in January and we got a call from TwoFour, the production company, to Mark’s decorating business asking if we knew any of Marks clients who were doing a reform on starting a new business. We honestly thought someone had told them about us but they hadn’t, it was just fate – well that’s what we all think, even the production company as they had been researching for months for a project in Spain. We had to go through an intense interview via Skype which lasted 1 and a half hours. They asked us several questions on ourselves and our planned project and said they would get back to us if we were successful. We got a call the following week to say they wanted to film us throughout our project and could they come out the following week!!!
In March 2016 the crew came over, so not only were we starting our project, we were also going to be filmed throughout it! The film crew were lovely, they made us feel very relaxed and it is true you honestly forget you are being filmed, it’s so strange. They filmed us from March until we welcomed our first guests in November. They captured every emotion of our project which was like a rollercoaster. As documented on the programme we hit problems with planning which we never expected and our works had to stop for 3 months and we never knew if we would ever complete our dream cave house.
After the programme was aired our website crashed – we got 40k hits in 1 week which was unbelievable and still getting enquiries daily. We were lucky enough to have lots of bookings prior to it being aired and we are fully booked for the next 10 weeks which is fantastic. We have lots of bookings throughout the year too as we are a winter destination as well as Summer as there is a lot to do in this part of Spain.
What activities are you able to offer your guests?
We are only 1 hour away from Granada which is just a beautiful city. You can also go skiing in the Sierra Nevada, and locally we have a few Lakes within 15 minutes of Cuevas Helena where you can go canoeing or hillwalking up Mount Jabalacon or even go paragliding if you wish.
We have our own swimming pool for guests use and also have free bike hire and an outdoor pool table and table tennis as well as lots of indoor games for children. As we are in the country we had an honesty bar installed for our guests which has so far gone really well. Most guests love our stone wine holder which is in the lounge and took 6 strong Spanish men to install but it is a great feature in the lounge area.
I have to say it all looks absolutely stunning – how is it all going now you have been up and running a little while – are you enjoying being a host?
Myself and Mark can honestly say we just love meeting people and we have met so many people that came as guests and left as friends, which is just amazing as we have had Spanish, Dutch, French and British visitors. We decided that if we were going to do this we wanted our Cave B&B to be special the minute you walk through the door and we are so happy when we see our guest’s faces. Most say it looks so much bigger than in the pictures and they are in disbelief that it is actually a cave which is what we wanted to achieve. All our linen & towels are Egyptian cotton and in our kitchen we chose Denby dinner plates.
We feel lucky enough to have created what we think is something special and we can work together on our dream project for years to come
What advice would you give to somebody thinking about relocating to a different country and setting up a B&B?
If we could give anyone advice on relocating to another country, our first thing is both of you have to want to do this. We have seen so many couples move over to Spain and one of them hasn’t settled for various reasons and want to go home. We feel you both 100% want to do it and be strong as a couple to go for your dream. It can be done, but it is not easy but the weather and lifestyle make the difference. We both miss our families, but we feel we get more quality time with them as when they come to see us on holiday we are with them 24/7, rather than just a few hours at the weekend or on special occasions like birthdays and Christmas. We are still making memories with our family even though we live in Spain now.
Also ensure that you do your research of what is on offer in your area – we stayed in several caves and realised there was a gap in the market as most cave houses were very rustic, which is great but we wanted ours to be ‘modern day cave living’ whilst still retaining rustic features. We have a few exposed areas in our cave as when we dug down we discovered fossils as this region of Andalucia was under water millions of year ago. We have some on display in the lounge and one exposed area in the Master Bedroom which is a great talking point with our guests.
Lastly, what are your plans for the future?
We still have plans to do an outside terrace at the pool area and we are also planning on a Hot Tub area which will give our guests the stunning views over the Cazorla. The stars here at night are just simply amazing, we should have this completed by the end of 2017.