THERE was a time when British expats in Spain merely relied on the Rock for their home comforts.
Gibraltar was a godsend where foreigners could get their fix of British classics to chase away any homesick blues.
Yorkshire tea bags, cheddar cheese, Marmite and Heinz baked beans were just some of the favourites worth the trip to ‘Britain in the Sun’ during the late 20th century, when Morrisons supermarket virtually achieved tourist attraction status.
In fact, even the biggest names from the glory days of the Costa del Crime raved about the convenience of being able to nip over the border for a pork pie and a tin of Ovaltine.
Nowadays, you can buy British all along the Costa del Sol while Gibraltar has developed into an altogether more sophisticated shopping experience.
The downtown area has undergone a spectacular regeneration, complete with floral hanging baskets and smart black and gold signposts.
In convivial Casemates Square, chilled cafes set up inside the battlement walls spill out onto an expansive, sunlit plaza while bustling Main Street boasts shops to rival any traditional British high street, with Mediterranean sunshine thrown in.
Just don’t walk more than three abreast along this narrow, cobbled thoroughfare, especially when there’s a cruise ship – or three – in port!
Here you will find big name brands such as Marks & Spencer, BHS and The Early Learning Centre, as well as Next, Pandora, Boux Avenue, Holland and Barrett, Dorothy Perkins and F&F.
But they are interspersed with locally-owned and family-run emporiums selling everything from duty-free perfumes and cameras to cuddly toy monkeys. Clone town it is not.
The recent opening of high-end jewellery store Cadenza is a clear indicator of where Gibraltar is headed (Oxford Street-sur-Med), with no less than Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, cutting the ceremonial red tape.
Of course, a fully-stocked Morrison’s still has some specific treats the Costa del Sol cannot keep up with, while Eroski has recently started offering an extended range of Waitrose products.
The obvious draw for shoppers is Gibraltar’s VAT-free status and we’re not just talking about tobacco and alcohol. You can also save 21% on luxury items like perfume and designer sunglasses. And with zero import duty on electronic goods, computer software, DVDs and CDs and reduced duty for watches, jewellery, clothing and mobile phones, there are bargains to be had.
Plus, as the currency is British Sterling – although with specific notes – UK bank cards can be used without incurring exchange rate losses.
Meanwhile, although Spanish as well as English and the local ‘llanito’ patois are all spoken, opening times aren’t at the mercy of the siesta in the same way as Spain’s.
Most shops open on Sundays, especially when there is a cruise ship in town – an increasingly frequent occurrence, with 227 calls due this year.
Many Main Street shops are run by the direct descendants of the families who founded Gibraltar as a trading destination during the 1800s, thanks to its strategic location.
In contrast to these old curiosity shops, the ICC Centre – where you will find the excellent Aimee Jay shop – offers undercover mall shopping, spread over two floors, with multi-storey parking on top.
But what truly turns shopping in Gibraltar into a star attraction are the extra-curricular activities.
Whether by cable-car, taxi or Shanks’s pony, a trip to the top of the Rock is a must for sensational views and Barbary macaques, of course.
St Michael’s Cave, Gibraltar’s spectacular stalagmite-strewn concert venue, and the siege and wartime tunnels that riddle the limestone rock like holes in Swiss cheese, are other boxes to tick.
The neanderthals at the Gibraltar Museum, the leafy Alameda Gardens, historic Trafalgar cemetery, the ghosts at the Moorish Castle… they are all other great excuses to leave the ladies to their spending spree and escape, if shopping is not your bag!
And if ye olde British pub is more your style, you’ll find plenty of those on and off Main Street and in Casemates selling draught lager and bitter and traditional pub grub.
For something a little more Mediterranean, immaculate Ocean Village over the road from Casemates boasts more waterfront restaurants than you can shake a knife and fork at, along with the opportunity to dine at swanky La Sala Gibraltar aboard the Sunborn Yacht Hotel.
Afterwards, you can doze off lunch in front of your favourite English movie at King’s Bastion Leisure Centre or, if you still have energy, challenge the family to a lively game of 10-pin bowling.
Alternatively, leave the kids at home and save the money you didn’t spend on that new pair of jeans for the Admiral Casino.
Gibraltar may no longer be the quintessential Yorkshire tea shop that first attracted Costa del Sol’s expats but it’s comforting to know you can still get it, along with trolley loads of family fun!
Something for everyone
WITH its mix of high-street brands or independent, family-run stores, Gibraltar has something for everyone.
Shops like Stagnetto’s have one of the best selections of wines, spirits and cigars you will find anywhere in the world.
They know the owners of the vineyards and distilleries personally and customers come to visit from all over the world.
Stuck for ideas on what present to buy? Look no further than All Wrapped Up, which is just after Marks & Spencer going towards the law courts.
The Jury’s is unsurprisingly a favourite hang out for barristers and their clients, but if there is no space try the new Bistro 292 opposite.
Take time to walk up some of the lanes and side streets off Main Street to explore. It’s a different world up there. You never know what you might find.
Engineers Lane, Bell Lane or Irish Town are all less crowded and are the preferred routes taken by locals who want to get from one end of town to the other in a hurry.
After a morning wandering down Main Street why not drop into one of the restaurants for some coffee or a light lunch. In Irish Town, Corks and Sacarello’s, which has brewed coffee for 150 years, are local institutions, while Cafe Solo and Lord Nelson in Casemates Square take some beating.
Top tips for shopping in Gibraltar
EUROS are not legal tender in Gibraltar but virtually all shops will accept them.
But beware that if you pay in euros you are accepting the exchange rate charged by the trader and this may be very different from the rate used by banks.
There is no legislation to govern this and traders are free to charge whatever rate they like.
Therefore, it would be better to change any euros into sterling at a bank locally or at one of the many exchange kiosks on Main Street.
If you pay in euros your change will be in sterling.
UK sterling is legal tender in Gibraltar, but beware, Gibraltar pounds are NOT legal tender in the UK.
If you are going to a restaurant and want to pay in euros, ask what the exchange rate is BEFORE you order your food.
If you think the rate is too high then you can choose to go elsewhere or go and change some money into sterling. Most bars and restaurants offer a reasonable exchange rate but don’t be caught out. It is too late once you have eaten your food and you are presented with a bill charging you a rate of €1.50 to the £1.
You could also pay by credit card although sometimes there is a minimum charge so again, check before you place your order.