One country that is still on our (longish) list of places to visit is Malta. Friends, who have been, have been raving about this island in the Mediterranean for years, but we still haven’t gotten around travelling there. We would love to explore the island and its neighbours by car, bicycle and on foot, swim in the brilliantly clear turquoise sea and maybe go on a boat tour. We wouldn’t mind getting lost in the alleyways of Valletta and have a leisurely lunch in a little square and sip cocktails overlooking the harbour watching the sun go down. Malta is big enough to offer a lot of variety, but small enough to explore in a week with the odd ‘resting’ day thrown in. Our kind of holiday.
We recently went to a special showcase to learn just why Malta is worth a visit, and are now more determined than before to make it there in the next year or two. Peter Vella, the Director of the Malta Tourism Authority UK & Ireland, did a brilliant job selling Malta as the place to go to at the evening event attended by journalists and bloggers at London’s Cuckoo Club.
Here are just some of the reasons why Malta and its neighbouring islands of Gozo and Comino are one of the top travel destinations in Europe.
It is only a three-hour flight away from the UK and its closest neighbours are Sicily, 60 miles to the north, and the North African coast 120 miles to the south. The climate is hot and dry in the summer with temperatures up to 33°C and mild and humid in the winter (average temperature is 15°C) and the water is warm enough to swim in from May to November. The official languages are Maltese and English, with many inhabitants also speaking Italian.
For the time being at least, you won’t need a Visa if you have a UK passport as Malta is part of the European Union and the official currency is the Euro.
If you hire a car, the Maltese drive on the left hand side of the road, as in the UK, but Malta also has an excellent public transport system.
Everybody is welcome in Malta, and it is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world and ranked No. 1 on the Rainbow Europe index.
Malta has a history going back 7,000 years and traces were left by the Phoenicians, the Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, which can still be found all over the island. Malta was an extension of Moorish and Norman Sicily until the Order of the Knights of St. John settled there in 1530 and made it an important player in European culture in the 17th and 18th century. In the 1800s it came under British rule until becoming independent in 1964.
Malta’s capital, Valletta, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and bursting with history, architecture, markets and one of the most picturesque harbours in the Mediterranean. Think cobbled streets, medieval cathedrals, atmospheric squares, a buzzing coffee culture and shopping to your hearts content. In 2018 it will be the Capital of European Culture and preparations are already well on the way. The celebrations will encompass not just Valletta, but the whole of the island and even the whole archipelago. One of the highlights will be the Malta and Gozo Carnival, a week-long celebration of colourful costumes and floats and plenty of parties; and the Notte Bianca festival, a cultural fest not to be missed. For more info visit www.valletta2018.org.
Gozo (which means ‘joy’) is a 25-minute ferry ride from northern Malta, and has wonderful beaches and stunning landscapes and the feel of an era gone by. Many locals produce authentic wines, cheese, honey and other delicacies. It is also a destination for all kind of outdoor sports, including horse riding, cycling, climbing and abseiling. It just invites you to go walking and explore the temples and forts that can be found inland on its shores.
The smallest of the Maltese Islands, Comino, is barely inhabited and there is only one hotel, but it has something very special to offer, that draws the visitors to it – the Blue Lagoon with its azure waters.
For foodies, Malta is an excellent destination. Malta’s cuisine is a mixture of Mediterranean, Sicilian, Italian, Lebanese and North African flavours with many fish and seafood dishes on the menu. Local specialities include pastizzi, filo pastries filled with ricotta cheese or mushy peas, slow-cooked rabbit stew, and Malta’s national dish Kunserva, a tomato paste eaten with freshly baked bread. Malta produces an award-winning lager called CISK and, of course a variety of wines. Some of the wineries offer tours and tastings. If you want to go for the wine, go in July or August when the Delicata and Marsovin Wine Festivals are held in Valletta and Gozo. At the showcase event we tried some of the wines and were also treated to Maltese food prepared by Chef du Jour David Darmanin.
Malta has a thriving nightlife and not just in Valletta, but also in the resorts around the island. You can find everything from jazz clubs to open air night clubs and festivals, including Annie Mac’s Lost and Found Festival, Malta Music week featuring the annual free Isle of MTV and the annual Malta International Jazz Festival.
Other cultural highlights are the Malta Arts Festival with exhibitions from a diverse range of international and local artists as well as workshops and master classes to take part in, the BirguFest in Birgu, the Gozo Opera Season and Valletta International Baroque Festival.
With all this going on, you really are spoilt for choice – you might just have to go a few times to see and do everything you want to.
If you are after an active holiday, the Maltese islands have also put themselves on the map. Cycling is big, as is walking and, as mentioned before, rock climbing (there are 1,700 established routes) and abseiling. You can also go deep-water soloing – where, after climbing to the top, you let yourself fall into the turquoise water from a cliff.
Yachting and sailing are popular thanks to the many harbours, and Malta hosts the Malta Rolex Sea Race. On dry land and for the motor heads there is the classic car street race Mdina Grand Prix.
If you prefer it less energetic, the Maltese islands are a top spa and wellness holiday destination with many treatments and therapies on offer from a host of facilities.
And of course there are plenty of sandy beaches with clear blue water to swim in, which are very safe even for children. And if that’s still not enough, you can visit a number of theme and water parks, like the Playmobile Park, the Splash and Fun Park and, not just for the kids, Popeye Village, the film set of the eponymous film starring Robin Williams, which has now been transformed into a fun destination of shops, bars, a pool and even a winery. Talking of film sets, you might recognize the scenery of the islands as backdrop for many movies like Gladiator, Troy and Munich, as well as for the first season of Game of Thrones.
So, what do you think? Doesn’t Malta sound like the perfect holiday destination?
We are thinking September or October. Maybe we’ll see you there!