Diving into Malta

Blue lagoons in Malta

For the uninitiated, Malta is a small island nation in the Mediterranean Sea. With a land area of 314 sq km (they haven’t yet started reclaiming to make it larger but debate is on as growth is hitting high single digit), it’s one of the smallest nations in the world.

Yes, you have to enlarge the Google map to find Malta and you may be forgiven if you wonder what such a small place, on Earth, can offer for a well-heeled tourist or a newcomer to the world of travel.

Size matters, says Prime Minister Joseph Muscat smilingly to this correspondent. "The size of the country makes it possible for you to maximise the time you spend with us. I think that is a unique selling point for us." No matter where you are, you’re never far from any of the attractions.

Malta has a whole world of offerings: 7,000 years of history and heritage; a rich cultural tradition; well-preserved and living historic towns and forts; picturesque beaches, adventures, authentic and trendy dining, vibrant nightlife, an entertaining events calendar ….and much more. It’s a perfect destination for a week (though I could spare only three days) and it comes in a comprehensive package. Prime Minister Muscat calls it “a treasure island”.

No doubt, Malta is a history lover’s paradise (every stone whispers a story here). The sites to visit are endless - Megalithic temples, underground catacombs, ancient churches and forts are not to be missed.

TTN was part of a delegation of publications invited to tour Malta and meet its leaders to understand and know more about the destination. The visit was organised by Malta Tourism Authority and the Consulate General of Malta in Dubai.

Coming from the glitz and glamour of the Gulf, it will take a few hours to soak in the historical yellow and gray of the Malta’s streets. And soon the charm bowls you over. Nice, neat streets abuzz with residents and tourists; lines and lines of restaurants full of patrons in varied hues; and azure beaches shimmering in the summer sun. There’s no rush as a sense of calmness pervades the streets. It’s not luxury that will draw one to Malta; but the lively life.

Maltese and English are the languages most used here and officials insist it is one of the safest and friendliest countries in the world and our experience surely endorses this. Malta, a European Union state, has at the moment almost zero unemployment and most in the hospitality sector are from abroad. I spoke to some of them and they love it here. Our driver from my native southern India has no plans to come to the Gulf!

Our itinerary is packed with visits to interesting places and meetings with decision-makers. In Malta, get ready to walk a bit, for distances are not enough to hire a taxi and many streets in inner towns are pedestrian-only.

Our hotel AX Palace is in Sliema, a major residential and commercial area. Romantic moon strolls, barbeques and open-air restaurants have made Sliema the hub of social nightlife. It’s also known for its numerous rocky beaches, water sports and seafront hotels. However, for me, the time for a walk under the moon is not yet.

We are headed to the ancient city of Mdina. The walking tour of this walled city is truly a lesson in history. The city is still confined within its walls, and has a population of just under 300, but it is contiguous with the town of Rabat. Take a tour of the city on a horse carriage and feel royalty for a few minutes as the clatter of hoofs on the narrow lanes takes you to the bygone days. Hushh …this is the “Silent City”, don’t shout in joy!

Even the sun wants to enjoy more of Malta and he sets late here. As the evening draws, the Sliema waterfront is mesmerizing with happy crowds and beautiful scenery across the bay. Our dinner is at a seaside steakhouse named Chophouse. What will a life-long vegetarian find here? The resourceful chef went the extra mile and created cauliflower steak for me!

The restaurant scene in Malta is an eclectic mix offering a variety of cuisines to satisfy all tastes and budgets.

Day two starts early with a morning visit to St John’s Co-Cathedral, an imposing structure in the capital Valletta. The interior of the 16th century church is one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture and is extremely ornate. The painting depicting The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608) by Caravaggio (1571–1610) is the most famous work in the church.

Time for lunch? Consider the restaurant housed in Muza (Malta National Community Art Museum). Take a look at the exhibits, some magnificent art ranging from the early Renaissance to modern times, as you wait for your order.

The city of Valletta, a Unesco World Heritage site, is imposing with its Baroque architecture, while it also showcases the relaxed side of Malta and its people. Time seems to move slowly on the pedestrian streets.

This is the place to shop for Maltese items to take back home – you will find many outlets selling silver ornaments. Treat yourself to an ice cream; the seller designed my order like a flower (how sad I had to devour it).

In the afternoon, take a trip to the Ħaġar Qim, a megalithic temple complex dating back to 3500 BC, and the rural surrounding. The World Heritage Sites committee has described the temples here as "unique architectural masterpieces”.

Day three begins early and our guide Yvette Falzon announces that it’s a full touristic day, to the delight of the group. We are going to the island of Gozo. It’s a 40-minute drive to the port and then a 25-minute ferry ride.

Gozo is the second-largest island in the archipelago and it is more rural compared to Malta. It is rich in historic locations such as the Ġgantija temples, which, along with the other megalithic temples of Malta, are among the world's oldest free-standing structures. The island has other notable natural features, including the Inland Sea and Wied il-Mielaħ Window. Gozo is considered one of the top diving destinations in the Mediterranean and a centre for water sports.

We had a whale of time at Dwejra bay, taking a boat ride around the cliffs that plunge into the blue sea, wading through caves. Here, geology, time and sea have worked together to produce some of the most beautiful scenery.

Malta has beaches for everyone, from windsurfers to sunbathers. There are shores with golden sand, red sand, rocks, blue lagoons and even inland seas. Try a boat trip to Comino's Blue Lagoon for the ultimate in azure water. Many of the beaches offer water sports and activities like windsurfing, jet and water skiing, parakiting and fun rides.

Back to Sliema in the evening, it’s time to explore a bit. A visit to Julian’s town nearby to experience the vibrant nightlife won’t harm anyone. It’s a place that could elevate your spirit a few notches. Soak in the atmosphere; shake a leg a bit and let Bacchus be honoured.