Let magical Malta cast its spell
PUBLISHED: 12:14 13 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:49 20 February 2013
Frank Corless falls for the charms of one of the Mediterranean's most warm and welcoming islands
Frank Corless falls for the charms of one of the Mediterraneans most warm and welcoming islands
Malta is many things to many people and they never seem to tire of a single one. Its hardly surprising when you consider the sheer scale of whats on offer. Firstly, there is accommodation to suit any pocket, from budget apartments to world class hotels.
Excellent resorts cater for every taste in entertainment or cuisine. You can sit back and relax, build sand castles on the beach, take a leisurely walk on lovely promenades, or plunge into activities from water sports to all-night partying.
Thanks to an offer at one hotel, you can even return home with newly whitened teeth.
But there are X factors that stand out to make Malta and its little sister islands of Gozo and Comino an extra-special destination.
Top of the list is the anxious-to-please local hospitality, which is as warm as the climate and as deep as the Mediterranean.
Most people speak English, they drive on the left, and streets are dotted with red painted phone and post boxes. You couldnt feel more at home.
Equally wonderful is the archipelagos amazing culture and a history that stretches back 7,000 years.
In total, the three islands measure 122 square miles, smaller than the Isle of Wight. Yet, it has a huge density of historical sites, forts, palaces, cathedrals, and churches (a total of 375).
There are temples at Mnajdra and Hagar Qim that even pre-date the building of the Pyramids and Stonehenge.
Phoenicians, Romans Arabs, Normans, French and the British have all left their mark. And their legacy is a treasure chest of delights.
My favourite was Valletta, the walled capital. A World Heritage site, the city was built by the formidable Knights of St John after the islanders fought off the Turks in 1565. At busy times, the narrow streets and squares echo to a special buzz as locals and visitors swarm into restaurants, bars, cafes and shops.
A good place to soak up the atmosphere and to relax and read your guide book is the famous Cafe Cordina, where a statue of Queen Victoria stares down upon customers enjoying a meal or a drink, under rows of sun umbrellas. Service was quick and came with an inevitable smile.
Its only a short walk from there to the 16th century St Johns Co-Cathedral. Dont be fooled by the modest exterior. Inside, its a jaw dropper. Never have I seen huge numbers of visitors fall so silent, so quickly, amid ornate decorations, mosaics of coloured marble, historic tapestries, and best of all Caravaggios priceless painting of the Beheading of St John. It sounds gruesome, but its spellbinding.
The nearby Upper Barraka Gardens, a small 18th century park, is world famous for incredible views across Vallettas spectacular Grand Harbour, so deep that it can accommodate any of the worlds biggest cruise liners.
Away from the city, a frisky wind, and a choppy sea, ruled out a boat trip into the Blue Grotto, near Zurrieq. Business was so quiet that a boatman found time to relax by spread-eagling himself across his craft.
Missing out on a sail gave me more time to enjoy lunch, and my first taste of delicious Maltese white wine, both savoured at Southport restaurant in Marsaxlokk, a delightful fishing village where the colourful Sunday market was in full swing.
Next day, a 25-minute ferry ride took me to Gozo to tour the Ggantija temples, the oldest free standing structures in the world, dating back to around 3,600BC.
A totally different experience, but equally stunning, was provided by a visit to the Azure Window, a 66ft high arch carved out of the rocks by the pounding of the waves, and the Inland Sea, a secluded lagoon.
Dont leave Gozo without enjoying the red, sandy beach at Ramla Bay where, according to Greek legend, the nymph Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner as a love slave for seven years. Poor dear!
Youve probably guessed Im a foodie. And, yes, I enjoy the odd glass of wine, too. Both came together brilliantly at Zeffiro restaurant in beautiful Xlendi Bay.
The strangely capricious weather also stopped me from visiting sparsely inhabited Comino, but views of it from the Gozo ferry made it easy to see why its beautiful bays attract thousands of visitors every year.
In recent years, Malta has emerged as a top location for films such as Hollywood blockbusters Troy, Gladiator, and The Count of Monte Cristo. If you fancy the possibility of star gazing, the place to stay is the Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta where I was lucky enough to spend a few nights.
People who have crossed its threshold include Gerard Depardieu, Joaquin Phoenix, Derek Jacobi, and the late Oliver Reed, as well as royalty, statesmen, and assorted VIPs.
Built by a wealthy English couple in 1939, the Phoenicias official opening was delayed by the war until 1947. Since then, it has never looked back. Three words spring to mind to describe only part of its appeal elegant, stylish, and timeless.
The gardens alone extending to over seven acres are amazing. A pathway fringed by trees, shrubs and flowers, leads to a swimming pool in the shadow of Vallettas awesome fortress walls.
Sitting there, enjoying a morning coffee, gave me the feeling of being cocooned from the hustle and bustle of crowds thronging the citys main bus terminal, and the City Gate, only yards away.
Celebrities apart, the hotel is equally at home to holidaymakers from around the world, many of whom return year after year to enjoy its ambience and top drawer service.
Dont just take my word. One English couple, Michael and Mary Hirst, first visited in 1959 and have been back more than 150 times!
For all its delights, however, the hotel is only a part of an epic production in which the real stars are Malta and its smaller islands.
I couldnt leave for home without seeing Mdina, known as the Silent City, famed for its baroque architecture and medieval walls. Despite the numbers of tourists, it seemed easy to escape to quiet streets and shaded courtyards.
It was a memorable finale that left me with just enough time for another terrific lunch, and a couple more glasses of Maltese wine. By then, it had definitely grown on me!
Air Malta flies daily to Malta from a number of airports in the UK, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham. Charter flights also available from Bristol, Cardiff, Norwich, Newcastle and Exeter. For information and to book tickets, visit www.airmalta.com.