Image credit: Mario Galea
Malta has a rich history, but there are modern attractions too, says Jeannine Williamson
Strolling through the Maltese capital of Valletta I felt completely at home – apart from the unusually sunny weather! I passed by M&S, walked through streets with red telephone and post boxes, and crossed roads with cars driving on the left.
With its familiar feel and dependable climate, Malta remains a big hit with the Brits – but we’re just one of the cultures that has influenced this small island, pivotally placed in the Mediterranean.
Along with the Romans, Greeks, Arabs and French, there are two distinct periods of rule that have shaped the island’s rich history: the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, from 1530 to 1798, and the British, from 1814 to 1964. Although Malta recently commemorated 50 years of independence, its Commonwealth links play a large part in its appeal.
Malta has traditionally appealed to the mature market, drawn by year-round sunshine, historical treasures, peaceful countryside and a flying time of less than three hours.
However, there’s much more to Malta than might meet the eye. Excellent diving conditions, rugged rural landscapes, spas, cuisine, nightlife and a good range of accommodation – from rustic farmhouses to luxury hotels – offer something for outdoor enthusiasts, couples and families. Malta Tourism Authority is also promoting the island as a winter destination for active breaks, cultural events and festivals.
A further boost to selling is just around the corner. In 2018 the capital Valletta becomes European Capital of Culture, and new public spaces have already been created to host events in the run-up to the landmark year.
Image credit: Mario Galea
Compact Valletta, where the striking baroque architecture was created by the ruling knights, packs in plenty of culture. Top attraction is ornately decorated St John’s Co-Cathedral which is home to two of the Italian artist Caravaggio’s most important works: The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing.
The literal high spot is Upper Barrakka Gardens, the city’s highest point, which provides far-reaching views across Grand Harbour, a mix of ancient port and modern cruise terminal. For a different perspective you can take an inexpensive harbour cruise on a dghajsa, the traditional Maltese wooden boat once used to ferry sailors ashore.
Mdina, Malta’s first capital during the time of the knights, is another must-see area, where imposing fortified walls lead to a labyrinth of small streets lined by medieval and baroque buildings.
Visitors can hire horse-drawn carriages for an atmospheric trip around Valletta and Mdina. More heritage transport is provided by the distinctive old buses: once used on all the bus routes, a few are now preserved for tourist trips.
A 25-minute ferry ride away is green Gozo, Malta’s smaller and quieter sister. In the centre of the island are the landmark Ggantija Temples, built 7,000 years ago and the world’s oldest freestanding structures (pre-dating Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids by more than 1,000 years).
Fishing and agriculture are Gozo’s main industries and sea salt has been produced for centuries at the coastal village of Marsalforn. Another natural attraction is the Blue Lagoon on the tiny traffic free island of Comino, also served by a regular ferry service.
Agents can book trips to coincide with Malta’s many festivals. One of the biggest is the carnival tradition in spring, dating back hundreds of years. The heart of the action takes place in Valletta, culminating in a parade of multicoloured floats through the main streets.
At any time of year visitors can stay in historic properties, as many old buildings have been converted into beautiful hotels. These include the 17-room, 17th-century Xara Palace, in the heart of Mdina, sold by operators including Classic Collection, Kirker and Cyplon.
Malta’s spa legacy goes back to the rejuvenating baths of Roman times, but in recent years there has been significant investment in hotel spas, with hundreds of treatments on offer, many incorporating natural products such as seaweed and seawater.
Properties such as Malta’s Fortina Spa Resort, sold by operators including Thomson and Thomas Cook, and the Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz offer specialist treatments such as Ayurveda. Beautiful scenery, crystal-clear seas and blue skies all contribute to a relaxing feeling of wellbeing.
Maltese food is a gastronomic melting pot created by the many nationalities that have occupied the island over the centuries. This marriage of tastes results in an eclectic cuisine, much of it based around seasonal produce and the fishermen’s catch of the day.
Young, Michelin-trained chefs preside over restaurants such as Commando in the seaside village of Mellieha, while in Gozo the Ta’Mena Estate, the first agro-tourism complex, serves up simple but delicious regional food and wine in the shadow of orange groves.
Although wine has been produced from indigenous grapes such as the white girgentina and red gellewza for more than 4,000 years it’s not widely exported, adding another appeal for food-loving clients who want to try something different.
It might be famous for its culture, but Malta is a fun and cosmopolitan destination with plenty to keep night owls up until the early hours. The party capital is outside the capital in Paceville (or PV, as it’s known) and St George’s Bay, a small area packed with bars, restaurants, clubs and the Dragonara casino, which is open 24/7.
Each June, Malta rocks with the annual Isle of MTV concert, one of Europe’s biggest musical events. The free concert is the finale of Malta Music Week, a packed programme of beach parties, street concerts and club nights, attracting headline acts and 50,000 global party animals.
Tried & Tested: Corinthia Hotel St George’s Bay
The former fishing village of St Julian’s, five miles north of Valletta, has become a hub for the island’s five-star hotels, nightlife and restaurant scene. The 250-room Corinthia resort provides the best of both worlds as it occupies a quiet spot on the headland, but Paceville is just a five-minute walk down the road.
Rooms are well-appointed, and for clients celebrating a special occasion or looking for extra peace and quiet it’s worth upgrading to the executive club floor where the comfortable lounge serves breakfast, snacks and hosts a daily happy hour.
Away from the main Fra Martino Restaurant, serving buffet breakfast and dinner, other restaurant options offer a more intimate and diverse experience, including the excellent Caviar & Bull serving modern Mediterranean cuisine with a side order of stunning waterside views and the casual Henry J Bean’s bar and grill.
From classic massages to a chocolate body indulgence, the spa offers a wide range of treatments and, outside, five pools cascade down to a private rocky beach.
Olympic Holidays offers seven nights’ B&B at the Corinthia Hotel St George’s Bay from £775 in September, including Gatwick flights and transfers.
Classic Collection offers seven nights’ B&B at Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz from £915 in September, including Gatwick flights and ferry transfer to Gozo.
Belleair Holidays offers a 10-night, two-centre B&B stay, with seven nights at the Preluna Hotel & Spa, Malta, and three at the Grand Hotel, Gozo, from £629 in October, including Liverpool flights and transfers.
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