Commanding the western gateway to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar has been a trading community for centuries. Now major new investment means it's looking better than ever
In recent years ex-pats living in southern Spain have nipped over the border to Gibraltar to buy British goodies like Marmite and Weetabix - patiently waiting if the road is closed to allow an aircraft to land. As a VAT-free haven, combining plenty of familiar high-street names and unusual individual shops, the miniature British overseas territory is a great shopping destination, with prices on jewellery, watches, electrical goods, perfumes and gift items significantly cheaper than back home.
Nowadays, though, it’s worth a lot more than just a fleeting trolley dash. Whilst some people might consider it an odd choice as a holiday destination, its inherent quirkiness is all part of Gibraltar’s charm. In the space of a day I saw an Egyptian mummy, viewed three countries and two continents from one vantage point, learned about the first-ever wartime gun capable of firing downwards, and had a close-up encounter with several of the only wild monkeys found in Europe – all on a tiny landmass measuring around three miles by two miles.
The peninsula clinging to the edge of southern Spain, has been the subject of many squabbles over the years, and was formally handed over to the British in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. It was once an important Royal Navy base, but in more recent times big business and tourism have replaced shipping and military operations as the number one industry. With the disappearance of the wall-to-wall watering holes that once catered for thirsty landing parties, any first-timers or return visitors to the Rock will be pleasantly surprised.
Huge investment means Gibraltar is starting to have more in common with Monaco, and that’s on top of being a tax haven and roughly the same size. On my first afternoon I walked around the new £350 million Ocean Village complex. On such a tiny piece of land, the ingenious Gibraltarians are used to making the best use of space, and part of the village has been built on reclaimed land. Connected to the famous Main Street shopping thoroughfare by boardwalks, the swanky village, with its waterfront al fresco restaurants, casino and upmarket designer shops, even offers free berthing for seafaring shoppers who want to drop anchor for some tax-free retail therapy.
Another canny development is King’s Bastion Leisure Centre, which opened only recently, housed inside the stronghold used to defend Gibraltar against French and Spanish invading forces during the 18th century. Cannonballs have made way for bowls, a skating rink, separate chill-out areas for children and adults and a host of other amusements at the £12 million complex.
Smart new attractions aside, no visit would be complete without a trip up the Rock for the views and an audience with arguably the most famous Gibraltarians of them all. Whilst it’s easy to catch a cab to the top, I opted for the £8 return cable car trip and reached the rocky peak in just under 10 minutes. On clear days the panoramic view takes in Gibraltar, Spain and Morocco.
Initial concerns voiced by several members of the group that we might not see the apes (or, to be correct, Barbary macaques) were quickly dispelled within minutes, when one jumped on someone’s back and tried to grab his camera. Be warned: the cheeky primates are undoubtedly cute, but they’re also as smart as the proverbial barrowload of monkeys and will make off with food and unsecured belongings faster than any member of Fagin’s gang. It’s also strictly illegal to feed them. Local folklore claims Gibraltar would cease to be British if the monkeys were to leave, and Winston Churchill took it seriously enough to ship over extra macaques from North Africa when the population dwindled.
Inside the Rock there’s another very different world waiting to be explored: a labyrinth of caves, internal roads and tunnels four times longer than those on the surface. The 18th-century Great Siege Tunnels were excavated to allow the mounting of a prototype gun capable of being fired downwards, and Royal Engineers added more than 30 miles of tunnels during the Second World War. As we donned hard hats and explored part of the warren of passageways that once housed an underground city of 5,000 men and 300 women from the WRAF, our guide, ex-Army serviceman ‘Smudger’ Smith, brought the tale of the tunnels to life with enthralling anecdotes. The changing face of Gibraltar is also highlighted in the museum, where exhibits include the Egyptian mummy found floating in the Bay of Gibraltar in the 1930s.
Back outside it was time to decide to go where for lunch. Whilst plenty of restaurants still offer time-warp British favourites such as prawn cocktail followed by steak and chips, there are plenty of more contemporary eateries. Café Solo in Casemates Square hit the spot, and after the generous selection of mezze-style appetisers a salad was all that was needed for a main course.
Beloved of cruise ships and visitors to Spain as a day-trip destination, there’s actually much more to Gibraltar once you scratch beneath the surface. Recent investment has definitely added to its appeal and it would be easy to while away a long weekend, or more, and find plenty to do. In short, the tiny territory may offer the reassuringly familiar face of bobbies on the beat, red telephone boxes, pound sterling, three-pronged electrical plugs, household name high-street shops, a taste of home and all the best things of a little Britain, but there’s plenty more besides – with the added bonus of an average of 320 days of sunshine a year.
Where to stay
The Caleta Hotel
, on the seafront in Catalan Bay, is located on the tranquil eastern side of the Rock, with views of the Mediterranean Sea and Costa del Sol.
The Rock Hotel
, overlooking the harbour in Europa Road, was built in 1932 and is an iconic landmark and the ‘grand dame’ of Gibraltar’s hotels.
Classic Collection Holidays offers short breaks and holidays in Gibraltar with prices starting from around £362 for three nights B&B at the Rock Hotel and £374 at the Caleta, including flights and transfers.
The cable car ride to the Upper Rock, interactive guide and entrance to all the Nature Reserve sites, which include the Great Siege Tunnels, costs around £16 for adults and £12.50 for children, depending on exchange rates.