What better time to head for Gibraltar than February? Britain is bitterly cold, Heathrow is pleasantly quiet, and flights are cheap – half of the passengers on the three-hour flight from London seem to have bagged whole rows to themselves. The weekend break is off to a good start.
Oh, and there’s one more advantage to the timing: Brexit. They’re not too keen on it here (the locals at least), having voted by some 95 per cent to stay put. And whatever the merits of Brexit, it seems germane to acknowledge that – if anyone’s going to be shafted by ‘no deal’ – it’s the Gibraltarians. ‘Are you staying in Gibraltar?’ asks the border official, during the most fuss-free customs experience of my travel career – if the Spaniards play nasty, Easter’s holidaymakers might not have a choice.
Like a lot of mainlanders, I only really know Gibraltar from two things – the battle of Trafalgar (still keenly celebrated in pubs here) and the tax address on betting slips. Gambling, in case you didn’t know, is huge here: even my hotel, the impressively swanky Sunborn Yacht, contains its own 24-hour casino. Being off-season though, it’s only bingo (as popular with the Iberian grandmothers as it is back at home) which is really bringing in the punters.
The casinos and bars are probably the second biggest tourist draw here after the famous monkeys (Gibraltar being the most successful monkey/booze crossover since the Hangover film franchise). And the monkeys really are as fun as they say: when I catch the cable car to the top of the Rock (£15.50 for a return ticket, although much better to hike back down), a fearless adolescent vaults onto the stanchion and pokes his cutesy head into the car itself. I literally squeal with delight.
Like the humans living below, the monkeys have seen their share of political turmoil. According to a tourist information sign at the entrance to the nature reserve, their ruler and alpha male –Gregory – is approaching the end of his reign. Anyone hoping to catch a simian King Lear, though, might be disappointed: a local monkey expert, Brian Gomila, tells me that the changeover happened some years ago; they just haven’t updated the sign yet. And what about old Gregory? He still lives peacefully and is enjoying his retirement, Brian assures me.
The booze in Gibraltar is dirt cheap. When I buy two beers in the Algarve-esque Marine Bay resort, the barman waves away my credit card. ‘Sorry,’ he says – ‘£5 minimum on cards.’ Apparently two Becks is only half that. The food, outside of the hotel at least, is pretty dreadful: over the weekend, I chose three pubs/restaurants at random and each one is deeply disappointing. Back in my hotel room, I read a joke in Private Eye about Wetherspoons opening a Gibraltar outlet: if they do, it will pass as haute cuisine.
On Sunday, I walk just over seven miles, crisscrossing across the old town, and even managing to get a spontaneous tour around one of Gibraltar’s four synagogues (the Great Synagogue, erected in 1723-4, was the first to be built on the Iberian Peninsula after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1717). Walking up to the Moorish Castle, where the Queen looked over the Bay during her only visit here 1954, you can make use of the vast outdoor staircases – similar in style to a New York fire escape – which provide the best views as you scale the Rock.
Heading back to London on a Sunday night, it’s not hard to feel you’ve had your money’s worth: sunshine, exercise, al fresco beers, and without paying much more than a train ticket to Manchester. ‘Everyone’s a winner’, as they say in the bingo hall.