Travel Feature: Malta
Mediterranean resort is small but beautiful
Although only three hours away by plane, you definitely get the feeling you’ve left Europe when you go to Malta. As you come in to land, the rooftops have a distinctly north African flavour and, beyond them, the landscape looks hot, dusty and rather unfamiliar.
Once on land, though, a strong British and Italian influence pervades the language, food and atmosphere.
But that’s hardly surprising – despite Malta being one of the smallest countries in the world, its position in the Mediterranean has made it the envy of many an empire.
It’s been occupied by the Greeks, the Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Sicily, France and us Brits – and in the Second World War suffered a terrible siege when Rommel identified its strategic importance (an eerie illustration of this is the enormous bomb shelter in Mellieha, well worth a visit).
Despite the exotic atmosphere, getting there is nice and straightforward.
A plethora of Southern Trains run to Gatwick from Victoria and flight time is short enough to avoid any cramping of the knee.
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On arrival, the islands are so small that you can hare around from place to place with impunity.
Our first stop was St Julian’s, a busy little town clustered around Spinola Bay on the north coast.
Although fairly built up, the clear blue water makes for a spectacular view, particularly from our balcony at the Le Meridien hotel.
Eating out and clubbing seem the order of the day here but, if peace and quiet is your thing, Le Meridien is a veritable oasis, offering a calming, tranquil spa area and a fantastic rooftop pool, complete with waiters to bring food and drink to your lounger.
However, we did venture out, at least for dinner – St Julian’s has a plethora of eateries, many overlooking the sea.
We had a some lovely roast pork and duck at the charming Peperoncino, but our best meal was at Gululu – sitting on the terrace watching the fishermen unload their catch.
We enjoyed some delicious fried cod, calamari with garlic and white wine and Laham Imtektek – thin steak in a thyme marinade. Washed down with a bottle of tasty and reasonably priced Maltese wine.
After a couple of nights, we headed north and boarded the ferry to Gozo, the second biggest Maltese island.
While towns on Malta seem quite urban, Gozo is like stepping back in time; everything is built in honey-coloured limestone, which looks fantastic, and the pace of life is pretty relaxed. If you don’t get to the shops before siesta time, forget it.
It became clear this was going to be a relaxed leg of the trip from the moment we arrived at the Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz. Greeted by the late-night porter in friendly but hushed tones and ushered to our room, we supped a glass of delicious Gozitan wine to ease away the rigours of travelling.
Our room was sumptuous and inviting and the d�cor reflected traditional local elements, such as wood and the aforementioned stone.
The Kempinski also benefits from two tranquil, palm tree-lined pools, as well as a luxury award-winning spa.
But the best thing is the location – not only is San Lawrenz a little charmer, but a 20-minute stroll takes you to the breathtaking Azure Window.
It’s a huge natural arc and from the right angle you can see the achingly turquoise sea through it, hence the name. It really is a a stunning sight and until recently an amazing wedding backdrop, although sadly ceremonies are no longer performed there.
If getting around on Malta was simple, it was even easier on Gozo, barring the frequent road closures.
From San Lawrenz in the west, we raced over to Xaghra in the east and the amazing Abraham’s Farmhouses.
This collection of self-catering cottages are set in a vineyard, a short stroll from the village and the lovely Ramla beach.
Each one has it’s own charm, but we stayed in Ta’ Filomena, a beautiful old farm building with original beams and stone walls – but with loads of modern features sympathetically added.
The pool is huge – the sort you can’t help but jump in during 29C heat – and the place has cable TV and a gas- fired barbecue, everything you need for a party. We spent some happy evenings grilling away by the pool as the sun set slowly in the Gozotian sky.
Xaghra village itself is small but perfectly formed and the square is dominated by a grand old church (Malta and Gozo are 90 per cent Roman Catholic).
There are some very good restaurants dotted around though. Rabbit is a local speciality – we had a lovely example at D Venue.
The other consistent menu item is enormous, tender steaks and we had some excellent fillet at Oleander.
No trip to Malta would be complete without taking in the world famous Blue Lagoon on Camino – Malta’s third island.
A 5ft deep pool of the bluest water this side of the Caribbean, it is a lovely place to splash around. It can get quite busy, however, and moving to the next bay along gives you a bit more room to manoeuvre.
The snorkelling there is great if you know where to look with multi-coloured fish darting in and out of the rocks. Just watch out for the jellyfish.
A holiday to Malta has loads to offer – sleepy hamlets, blue seas, nightlife, adventure, great food and wine - and all without the jet lag.