Malta is a hot ticket right now. Even Prince William paid a visit last month to mark its 50th year of independence. While he was there, he may have noted the red, 1940s postboxes that still line the streets, embossed with the letters RG (Rex George), and smiled at the thought that they will be relevant again one day.
The Windsors have always had a special connection to the islands. Queen Elizabeth spent some of her happiest times there, early in her marriage before she bore the burden of her role as monarch, while Philip was active there as a naval officer. A few years earlier, her father King George VI took the unique step of awarding the whole island the George Cross for its citizens’ brave endurance of bombs and starvation in World War II. This is particularly poignant as next year marks the 450th year since the Great Siege of Malta.
And there’s more: in 2017, Malta will take its place on the international stage when it hosts the presidency of the EU. Then, in 2018, Malta becomes the European Capital of Culture. Tax breaks for the film industry have attracted Hollywood in recent years and business is booming; Brad Pitt first became acquainted with the island filming Troy, and later brought his brood to stay while he worked on World War Z. Now he and Angelina Jolie are due to shoot By the Sea in Gozo, the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago. Angelina flew in on a helicopter, but for the rest of us, it’s a 20 minute trip by boat from the mainland.
The flight to Malta is under three hours from London, so it’s perfect for a long weekend. For the Brits who make up 80 per cent of Malta’s tourist population, there’s a reassuring familiarity with this former colonial outpost. Hotels and holiday homes soak up most of the sun on the seafront; these high-rise, densely-populated edifices are not only an obvious eyesore, but belie the fact that only 400,000 people live there. Thankfully, showy and arresting Baroque architecture punctuates the rest of the landscape, with endless beautiful churches and citadels to appreciate. Seven thousand years in the making, the islands’ rich history has long attracted tourists to ancient spots, such as the awe-inspiring temples of Ggantija, one of the world’s oldest structures, created by prehistoric stone builders.
By September, the landscape is certainly in need of a drink; the summer starts in March and the island only sees two seasons a year. Its location in the middle of the Med means temperatures reach up to 21 degrees, even in November.
There’s much for visitors to enjoy in Malta’s capital city, Valletta. A whistle-stop tour of the main attractions can be completed in three days. Begin with the brilliant Malta 5D film (whatever “5D” is) on Old Bakery Street. It will have you flying over open seas and racing through narrow streets, all while dodging swords and bombs. Moving seats, water sprays, air blasts and enticing smells, together with painstaking 3D animation, bring Malta’s history to life using innovative technology.
As for the locals, the Maltese find almost any excuse for festivals and fireworks, but there is a recent trend towards a healthy lifestyle as far as food is concerned. With so much open water around, fish is naturally the staple diet, and the local soft drink, Kinnie, is freshly-made with aromatic herbs (and would be even better mixed with Pimms). Maltese is a playful mixture of Italian and Arabic that’s rich in onomatopoeic words like capcap (to clap), raxxax (to drizzle) and taptap (to patter).
No experience is complete without a visit to St John’s Co-Cathedral, a 16th century masterpiece that boasts some of the most beautiful works of art by Mattia Preti and Caravaggio. Then walk up to Upper Barrakka Gardens on the ramparts; they command the best views of Malta’s Grand Harbour, a natural deep water port and the epicentre of Malta’s maritime industry.
Another way to see the harbour is to take a Dghajsa Trip in a typical Maltese gondola-shaped boat, used to ferry sailors and seamen ashore, that stops off at Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua (dubbed the Three Cities by Napoleon, no less).
I boarded a sailing yacht bound for the tiny island of Comino situated between Malta and Gozo. It’s home to the Blue Lagoon, where the crystal clear blue sea is perfect for swimming, snorkeling and wind-surfing. The natural caves surrounding the island are also not to be missed.
The charm of Gozo is apparent the moment you arrive. It’s greener, more rural and smaller than Malta. Life moves at a leisurely pace, the rhythms dictated by the seasons, fishing and agriculture. Ramla Bay, the large sandy beach in Gozo, lies below the legendary Calypso Cave. Its wide expanse of fine golden sand is splendid and the water is shallow, blue and perfect for bathing.
Your other choices back on the mainland are Golden Sands, the most frequented beach next to Mellieha Bay and Dingli Cliffs, the island’s natural fortress; both are monumental when viewed from sea level on an island cruise.
Bang in the middle is Mdina, Malta’s first capital city and a colonial settlement of Imperial Rome. Known as The Silent City, its fortification walls are still standing and its location on high ground makes it one of the most enchanting places you’ll ever visit.