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Malta: Mediterranean Islands with Magnetic Attraction
By Hideaways President Mike Thiel

Malta isn't even on most travelers' "maps," but that hasn't always been the case. From prehistoric times, this tiny island group, anchored between Sicily and North Africa, has been highly strategic as a crossroads of the Mediterranean. It's played a vital role in myths, trade, war, and cultural development of the region. Going back in time, it has been inhabited by an exhaustive list of ethnic groups: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, French, and English. However, those who left the most indelible stamp on the islands were the multi-national Knights of St. John, the Crusaders, who arrived in Malta in 1530. It's their walled cities, forts, palaces, and cathedrals that, seemingly frozen in time, give Malta much of its character and personality.

I visited these islands about 15 years ago and was very impressed by them and the history surrounding them. So when I learned that Sea Cloud Cruises offered a southern Italy and Sicily sailing ending in Valletta, the capital of Malta, that was the clincher in choosing an itinerary from which to check out the line (see www.hideaways.com/travelseacloud). There is perhaps no more thrilling cruise experience than sailing into Valletta's Grand Harbor, with its narrow entry protected on both sides by massive, medieval walled fortifications.


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Where to Stay
As I said earlier, you could base out of Valletta for all your visits, and that's exactly what I'd do if staying only two days. Our favorite hotel in Valletta is definitely the Phoenicia, a vintage grand hotel with a British Empire patina, well located just outside the city walls and set amid extensive gardens. The Grand Hotel Excelsior is another possibility. It is almost equally well located and has nice if not particularly distinctive accommodations, as well as nice views over the harbor, but we thought it too big and bustling for our liking. It seemed to be where most tourists stay before and after being poured on/off the mega-ships visiting Malta.

Outside Valletta, our pick of places would be the Corinthia Palace, a private 19th-century villa converted into an elegant hotel and spa in a garden setting. It's halfway between Valletta and Mdina, with convenient access to both. It's appropriately sized with only 150 or so rooms and suites, has an excellent spa and dining room, and offers a warm ambiance.

In the town of Mdina itself, we'd stay at the Xara Palace, a family-run boutique hotel housed in a 17th-century palazzo built right into the city walls. Its 17 rooms and suites surround an attractive inside courtyard garden and are individually designed and decorated with antiques and vintage art. It offers a gourmet restaurant on a bastion terrace with panoramic views to Valletta and the sea, and more casual dining at a piazza trattoria in front of the hotel.

On Gozo, you have a wide range of choices. Our favorite hotel for setting and ambiance is Hotel Ta'Cenc (pronounced Ta Chench), set quite remotely near the impressive Ta'Cenc cliffs. Its rooms and suites are set in single-story sandstone buildings, some with beehive towers, sprinkled around gorgeous gardens. The hotel offers an extensive spa, several pools (including an adults-only version), tennis courts, and an atmospheric al fresco restaurant. A unique feature is the rocky il Kantra beach where you can swim in the crystal-clear waters of a fjord-like cove.

If your preference is an international-style hotel, then the Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz, where we stayed, is for you. It has a bucolic setting overlooking terraced fields in the middle of the island, and is surrounded by extensive gardens. The sandstone-block hotel and residence wings, each about five stories high, form a horseshoe around manicured gardens and a freeform pool. The hotel offers both formal and informal dining options as well as a gazebo garden restaurant. Its spa and Ayurveda center are great, plus it offers tennis and access to scuba diving. Rooms are large, airy, and elegant, and you have the option of renting an apartment for even more space and convenience.

For shear delight and an eclectic atmosphere, you can't beat the new 37 Gozo, an elegant five-bedroom B&B set within a walled compound. It's family-run and stylish, homey, and eclectic in every way. It offers breakfast and help-yourself honor bar and snacks—but for more substantial fare, you'll have to dine in town at one of the many local restaurants.

For longer stays, Gozo is famous for its farmhouse rentals, mostly rustic lodgings that have been converted to comfortable second homes by folks from the main island and other European countries. Hideaways has arranged such rentals for a number of members seeking to escape the world's worries—and Gozo certainly is the place for that!

It seems Malta is becoming an increasingly popular destination for cruises in the Mediterranean, as it was for seafarers of yore. It is so photogenic that it's been the backdrop for many a movie, among them Alexander, Clash of the Titans, The Da Vinci Code, Never Say Never Again, and the soon-to-be-released World War Z, starring Brad Pitt. An entire village was even built in a tiny cove on Malta's western shores for the filming of the movie Popeye in 1980.

Surprisingly, few if any of our fellow passengers on board Sea Cloud II planned to tarry for any length of time on Malta—their loss! We spent three very full days there and could easily have spent more.

Often, when we've revisited a place after a long absence, we've been disappointed by how much it's changed. Not Malta. Sure, it's more modern. Gone are the colorful, hand-painted independent buses that used to ply the country roads. Today those roads are well paved, with beautifully landscaped medians and rotaries brimming with oleander, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and date palms—among the most attractively landscaped roads we've ever seen. This trip, Malta definitely was more built up and bustling. I was a bit dismayed by how the city of Valletta has spread to almost incorporate Mdina, the ancient fortified hill town that was once the islands' capital. When I was last there, Mdina was surrounded by farmland.

When I went back to read the article I wrote after my first visit to Malta in 1998, I was impressed with how little the essence of Malta has changed. And frankly, I don't think I could describe it better today than I did all those years ago. So, I'm going to refer you to that article for background and an overview—go to www.hideaways.com/malta98—and only bring you up to date here with our most recent finds and advice on what to see and experience, how to do it, and the best places to stay while there.

The Basics
Malta is an archipelago of three relatively small, inhabited islands—Malta, Gozo, and Comino—and many rocky islets, all set between Sicily and Tunisia. It has a population of about 370,000, mostly on the urban eastern shores of the main island of Malta. English is universally spoken, but most natives also—and among themselves—speak Maltese, which is a blend of Arabic, Italian, and French.

Malta gained its independence in 1964 and is part of the euro zone. It's easily reached from most European gateways with frequent flights on multiple airlines, including the national carrier, Air Malta. The islands are small enough and close enough in proximity that you could experience them all from a base in or around Valetta.

What to See & Do
Valetta is a walled city on a promontory surrounded by the commercial harbor and various yacht havens. This UNESCO World Heritage site is tailor made for walking, with dramatic scenery and architecture at every turn—forts, palaces, churches, and narrow alleys lined with Arab-influenced homes. We spent considerable time in St. John's Co-Cathedral. It is the most spectacular church we visited during our two weeks in southern Italy and Malta, and in my opinion, it competes with top churches in the world, including the Sistine Chapel. It is home to Caravaggio's famous "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist," the only painting he signed, significantly depicted in blood. At the time, 1608, it was a most controversial painting, breaking with all traditions of the time. It is still a most magnificent work of art.

We also stopped in for a private tour of the Grandmaster's Palace and visited the palatial home of a current Knight—yes, they still exist—and his Maltese family. Each of these experiences was like stepping back some 500 years in time. Across the harbor, we explored Vittoriosa, or the ancient town of Birgu. One of the earlier capitals of the islands, it is another walled and fortified enclave. I especially enjoyed our time at the Malta Maritime Museum, which exhibits a wonderful collection of maritime history and artifacts—paintings, weapons, uniforms, anchors, maps, and models, all dating from the 1500s to the 1800s.

No trip to Malta would be complete without a visit to Mdina, another ancient capital of the island dating back to Arab times of around 800 A.D. Now known as "The Silent City," this walled and fortified living museum of sorts is set strategically on a hill at the center of the island, where it enjoys a panoramic view of the sea from its many parapets. Mdina gets its nickname from the fact that it is little populated, and no motorized vehicles are allowed within the city. You could easily spend a day or even two here exploring palaces and churches, strolling its narrow streets, and enjoying the view over Malta.

The place to relax is the island of Gozo, Malta's bucolic northern neighbor, just a half-hour ferry ride away. Variously known as "The Garden Isle" or "The Island of Joy," Gozo is reputed to be the island of Ogygia in Homer's Odyssey, where the nymph Calypso held Odysseus as her love-slave for some seven years—which may explain the one nickname! It offers enough interesting sites to keep your interest, including Calypso's cave, the fortress town of Cittadella, the Azure Window—a natural arch jutting into the sea—and the ruins of Ggantija, reputedly the world's oldest man-made structures, even predating the pyramids. However, the real attraction of Gozo is the countryside and its laid-back lifestyle.

Comino, the third inhabited island, is a pleasant day trip by boat from either Malta or Gozo. We recommend you take a picnic and go hiking, or try swimming and snorkeling at the Blue Lagoon, a gorgeous small bay with Caribbean-like turquoise waters.

How to see Malta: We hired a private guide, Narcy Calamatta, a dapper fellow in his 70s, who offered a wealth of insight into the history, culture, and politics of the island, and did so in a most entertaining fashion. While driving is safe and convenient enough outside of Valetta, you don't want to drive in Valletta. For our day trips around the islands, we hired a car and driver and that worked just fine.

Things to do: Beyond sightseeing, Malta offers a variety of water sports—boating, fishing, and supposedly great scuba diving—what I'd describe as so-so beaches, gambling at a couple of casinos, and a vibrant nightlife around St. Julian and Sliema.

What to buy: Popular items are filigree silver and gold jewelry, handmade lace and knit accessories, hand-blown glass and colorful ceramics, and honey from bees pollinating wild herbs like fennel, thyme, rosemary, and oregano, all of which bloom by the roadsides.

Cuisine and Dining: The islands' cuisine is a blend of Mediterranean, southern Italian, and North African. With Malta's setting in the middle of the Mediterranean, it's no surprise that the seafood is fresh and fabulous. I especially enjoyed their huge grilled shrimp, and the Maltese really have a way with octopus prepared in every manner, the best I've had anywhere. Rabbit stew, however, is the national dish, and the Maltese bake wonderful, crusty country-style breads. With the Italian influence, pizza is another specialty, and frankly, we had better pizza here than in southern Italy.

November/December 2012

 
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