The tiny nation of Malta, the world’s ninth smallest country, is one of those places we’ve all heard of, we all know someone who’s been – and yet, it’s rarely at the top of anyone’s holiday list.
But it should be, and here’s why.
The islands themselves
As a country, Malta is comprised of three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino. All are beautiful, with their own unique charm.
Comino’s the smallest of the three. At only 3.5km2, it’s bijou enough to see without the aid of four-wheeled transport, which is just as well, as there are no cars on the island. There’s only one hotel here – the creatively-named Comino Hotel – but as the island’s only a 30-minute boat ride from Malta, and less from Gozo, there are plenty of accommodation options to consider.
However, it’s not the island itself that gives Comino its charm, more what’s round the edges – it’s surrounded by some of the most perfect bays you’ll ever see. Of these, Golden Bay is perhaps the prettiest.
It’s picture perfect, with waters so clear you’d think they were made of glass. Golden Bay gets very busy – busy enough for ice cream boats to pop up, doing a roaring trade in selling Magnums.
In spite of this popularity, the bay’s big enough to grab your own little piece of the sea, and you’ll never feel hemmed in. However, if you want real seclusion, Comino’s surrounded by endless, more intimate bays. And, should you wish, you can have one all to yourself – by chartering your own boat.
The Maltese are incredibly welcoming and accepting of LGBTI travelers. In spite of the fact that it’s a staunchly Catholic country, (as an aside, the interior of St. John’s Cathedral in Valletta is heart-stoppingly beautiful), Malta has civil unions and same-sex couples have full adoption rights. There’s not a great deal in the way of gay venues, though both Monaliza’s Lounge and Club in Valletta are gay-friendly. There’s also an unofficial gay beach in Gnejna Bay, but you shouldn’t feel uneasy anywhere on the islands.
As you’d expect from an island(s) nation, Malta doesn’t suffer from a shortage of boats. It’s an essential stop for cruise liners on a tour of the Med. Heck, even Brad Pitt brings his yacht here, and his cruiser, Plan B, was moored up near Valletta when GSN visited.
If you wish to make like Brad and charter your own boat, we can’t promise it’ll be quite as spacious as his (it’s very, very big) but it’s still a shortcut to feeling like film star for a day. €500 ($557, £368) will get you a boat big enough for eight for a day, and the skipper to sail it.
Malta’s islands are close enough together that a day’s more than enough time to see the highlights from the sea. Alternatively, park yourself in one of the beautiful bays and spend the day swimming, diving, or tanning on deck.
If that price is a little steep, €200 ($222, £147) will get you the same boat for a couple of hours, which is perfect for a sunset sail. (At dusk, there’s an air about Malta that makes it the perfect place for a honeymoon or romantic getaway.)
And what views they are. Malta doesn’t share much with Manhattan, but one thing it does is that what man has created on the island is arguably more impressive than what nature left there. That’s not to say that the islands’ searing cliffs and arid beauty aren’t picturesque, but they’re no match for the staggering architecture left by the many civilizations (native and conquering) who’ve called Malta home.
Much of Malta’s extant architectural heritage owes its existence to the Knights of St. John, the religious order who set up shop on the islands in 1530. The citadels and fortresses are a testament to their military prowess – in 1565, 600 knights repelled an Ottoman army of up to 40,000 soldiers during the Great Siege, which centered around the glorious city of Mdina (more of which later). The British arrived in 1800, adding a load of late-Georgian architecture, mainly in the form of military and government buildings.
You can drink the best city views (on Malta at least) by jumping in a water taxi from the Grand Harbur in Valletta, which is easily accessible via the Upper Barrakka Llft from the incredibly tranquil, Upper Barrakka Gardens. (Honestly, you need to see this view.)
The taxis, which have echoes of Venetian gondolas, take you from Valletta and show you the three cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. All are largely untouched and authentically Maltese, so it’s worth jumping off and taking a stroll. However, you may just want to stay on the boat and take a waterside view of the architecture that has given Malta three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and more monuments per square mile than anywhere else in the world. And, at only €2 ($2.2 ,£1.4) per person, if you’re in a group you could easily hire the entire boat for €20 ($22.29 , £14.70).
It’s worth the trip to Malta for the city of Mdina [below] alone, which, at only 250m2, is tiny. The impenetrable walls of the city encircle a small, but thriving community of about 300 people. Its tiny streets, and beautiful, empty squares leave you thinking you’ve stepped back in time. Indeed, they’re so effective at banishing the modern world that parts of the city doubled up as King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. The views from the city’s battlements are breathtaking, providing views across the planes to Valletta.
Many of the inhabitants are Maltese nobility, whose families have lived in their city palazzos for generations. However some grand buildings have now been put to alternative uses. It’s worth checking out the Museum of Natural History, which is housed in a palace that was once home to the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John. You should also spend a bit of time in the Palazzo Falson. This perfectly preserved historic house provides a sense of what it was to live in the city years ago, and is the perfect way to bathe yourself in hundreds of years of Mdinan history.
There’s only one hotel in Mdina, the Xara Palace. As the name suggests, it’s a palazzo that’s been converted into a 5* hotel. It’s tastefully furnished with some rather pricey antiques, and the courtyard functions as a delightful cocktail bar, while the restaurant enjoys stunning views over the walls. With only 17 rooms, and a monopoly on the Mdinese market, it’s not the cheapest – one night’s about €400 ($445, £294) in high season – but it’s worth it to live like a grand master for a night.
The food (and drink)
Everyone parks their diet when they’re in Malta, because the food here is delicious.
Sitting, as it does, in the Mediterranean, Malta’s culinary influences come mainly from southern Europe, but they’ve also been touched by the Ottomans, the Brits and others. Meat features highly – rabbit’s a specialty, as is the Maltese sausage, which is incredibly, incredibly moreish.
Unsurprisingly for somewhere with its climate, Malta does its own line in wine. Many are fusions, blending imported grapes with local varieties to create rather tasty bottles of plonk. If it’s a fully native experience you’re after, though, the Maltese Vermentino is a delicious white to accompany any meal.
There’s no shortage of places to feast like a knight. For delicious, authentic Maltese grub, served in very large portions, head to Diar il-Bniet, just outside of Mdina. It’s a family-run affair, and they take huge pride in what they serve up. You’ll be unable to walk once you’ve finished, but, goodness, it’s worth it.
For dinner with a view though, nowhere is as special as the Harbour Club in Valletta. Set, as the name suggests, in Valletta’s harbor, it’s an alfresco-only venue. Rain is unlikely, so you’ll dine under the stars, with views overlooking the three cities. We were fortunate enough to watch fireworks above the fort on the opposite side of the bay, (a common affair during festival season) and it felt a little like watching the opening of a Disney cartoon – absolutely magical – it would be the perfect place to propose, were you looking for a place to do that. Try the asparagus main if you need a meat-free day, and the pistachio ice cream is divine.
To plan your trip to Malta visit visitmalta.com.
Images: Visit Malta