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Gibraltar gets smart

You might have an idea of Gibraltar as a tired destination only for the more nostalgic visitor or a business trip, and until recently you may have been right. Now however, with new entertainment options and a long overdue shake-up of the hotel scene afoot, Gibraltar is suddenly a good prospect for a smart weekend break.

The famous ‘Rock’, as the towering peninsula is affectionately known, is well used to receiving cruise ships. Last year however the 186-bedroom luxury yacht Sunborn proved a more radical arrival.

The bling seven-decker - which boasts a Bombay Sapphire-themed cocktail bar and a ballroom/disco with Swarovski crystal chandeliers - is staying put in the harbour as a floating hotel and nightspot. It has just added a La Sala restaurant and casino, with VIP options like Harley Davidson or limo hire for those wanting to recreate that Bond lifestyle," after all, The Living Daylights was filmed here. The yacht also has a wedding licence, allowing Brits to follow in the footsteps of John Lennon and get hitched on Gibraltar.

Perhaps prompted by the young upstart, the major hotels have begun shaking themselves into the 21st century. Out have gone the chintz, the beige and the net curtains and in has come some more contemporary décor. The Rock Hotel is famous for its Art Deco pool area and has hosted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Trevor Howard and Alec Guinness. Now its less attractive ‘vintage’ aspects have been updated with a fresh green and cream palate, so it's a pleasant place to stop for tea or cocktails. The O’Callaghan Eliott, which has a rooftop bistro with great views to the Gibraltar Straits, is among others following suit.

While the Rock’s hotels are shedding less desirable reminders of the past, its attractions remain distinctly historical. It has been settled at different times by the Arabs, Spanish and British, and is now ‘ceded in perpetuity to the British Crown’. The strategic location and fortress shape have meant Gibraltar has always had an important defensive role. Like a giant lump of Swiss cheese, it contains around 53 kilometres of tunnels, some of which are open to tourists. Inside, you can find out more about their use during World War II and the Great Siege of 1782, when a Franco-Spanish armada threatened the then British colony. So sure was The Rock of its defences that some watched the showdown from a grandstand. The Battle of Trafalgar was also fought not far offshore and the graves of two casualties can be seen in a local cemetery. It’s a typical stop on an island tour, which will take you up and down some steep paths.

A usual tourist high point - quite literally - is taking the cable car to the lookout at the top of the rock where you can watch the cruise ships arrive below and photograph the cheeky Barbary apes which scamper off into the surrounding nature reserve.

A more down-to-earth attraction is Gibraltar’s duty free shopping, with particularly keen prices in the town’s off licences. For a drink in-situ, try the harbour area around where the Sunborn is moored, which now has a cluster of new bars and restaurants and a casino, lending it an air of a mini-Puerto Banus. This is also the place to catch a boat to see dolphins playing between the world’s busiest shipping lanes. At the right time of year their offspring will frolic in your wake.

Though Gibraltar has a mild climate year-round it’s a particularly good bet for stretching out the summer, with sunny autumns and springs. With new year-round easyJet flights from Bristol improving accessibility for those in the South West, there’s never been a better time to recce the Rock.