Learn about the Maltese islands and find out why it is one of our favourite destinations. We hope that you will enjoy reading this article and be inspired to visit Malta & Gozo soon.
It can be tricky trying to find a holiday destination that offers both a great choice of beach resorts and plenty to do for all ages when you are not on the warm sands. Welcome to Malta, an archipelago of sun-kissed islands where you can stretch out on a pristine beach, but also chill in a spa, embark on a dolphin spotting cruise or head off scuba diving. Swirl in layers of history and swathes of spectacular scenery and Malta really boasts the whole package, topped off with a hazy waft of Mediterranean living.
The first thing that struck me about this archipelago, which lies set adrift halfway between Europe and Africa, was the unhurried pace of life. The Maltese take the laidback Mediterranean lifestyle to its lotus eating extreme. The towns and cities are relaxed affairs, while in the countryside it feels like the 20th century, let alone the 21st century, is yet to dawn. Perhaps it is something to do with the weather with the long summer a parade of cloudless sunny days.
The temptation to just idle the day away is increased by the fact that Malta is fairly compact, slightly smaller than the Isle of Wight at a shade over 300ksq km. This small size is deceptive, though, Malta packs in rugged cliffs and rolling hills that give way to sandy beaches and unspoilt little coves where you can really get away from it all. This dramatic scenery was the ideal backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters Troy, Gladiator and Alexander.
Being British I found Malta comfortingly familiar. There are those old-fashioned red postboxes and phoneboxes. Britain and Malta go back a long way with their finest hour being in World War Two when Churchill’s forces helped the plucky islanders hold out against the Germans. Malta’s story reads like a who’s who of European history. Everyone from the Phoenicians and the Romans, through to the Greeks and Knights of St. John, have breezed through this balmy Mediterranean retreat, all leaving their indelible traces.
The capital, Valletta, lies, as do most of the resorts, on the mainland’s sheltered east coast. This UNESCO World Heritage gem’s hulking old walls and chunky bastions are as striking as the sweeping harbour and sea views that swim all around. The most impressive sight is St. John’s Cathedral. I could appreciate just how powerful the Knights of St. John (the order that built Valletta into a fortress) were when I delved inside this masterpiece with its ornate chapels.
I discovered two great ways to really appreciate the city’s maritime grandeur. Firstly boat excursions sweep around the Grand Harbour, taking in the ‘Three Cities’ of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, with multi-lingual commentary adding a colourful background. Back on land afterwards I embarked on an easy two mile stroll around the historic city walls, which towered over the city opening up a bird’s eye view. Sturdy bastions, lavish churches and relaxed parks accompanied the dramatic vistas of the harbour that spread its tentacles out all around
Beyond Valetta tempt resorts bursting with pumping nightclubs for partygoers and quiet resorts for couples. I headed up to St Julian’s, Malta’s playground resort, a coastal oasis awash with hotels, restaurants and bars. Once a small fishing community St. Julian’s today is a thriving resort with the Paceville district renowned for buzzing nightlife. St Paul’s Bay is the quietest of the trio of popular resorts further north that merge into each other and it retains a traditional feel thanks to the sprinkle of fishing boats bobbing offshore.
Pushing further north still I headed to Mellieha, which boasts the longest stretch of uninterrupted golden sand in Malta as well as shallow waters, making it ideal for those with young children. The restaurants here serve local seafood – I recommend the lampuki, a richly flavoured local fish, best baked or served grilled with just olive oil.
As well as scuba diving myriad other excursions are available from the resorts. Adventurous souls can check out the walking trails and 1,000 climbing routes, while I enjoyed one of the thrilling mountain bike trails. More sedentary excursions include dolphin spotting cruises and the rewarding trip I took to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk and its famous market, which was ideal for picking up the sort of local handicrafts that make great keepsakes or unique presents.
This is a nation where a deep sense of history is never far away with numerous cultural excursions that appeal to all ages. My favourite was the Saflieni Hypogeum complex, a UNESCO World Heritage listed necropolis I encountered just outside Valletta. Mystery still shrouds this fascinating ancient site, which was only unearthed at the start of the 20th-century. UNESCO also lists half a dozen Megalithic Temples on Malta, which have been hailed by academics as some of the oldest freestanding monuments in the world.
Regular ferries to the Maltese islands of Gozo and Comino leave from the northern tip of the mainland, while there are also day trips from the mainland resorts. Gozo has always trod a separate path to the mainland, although it shares a similar heritage. Tourist development is more low key making it popular for a quieter break.
Villa holidays are popular on Gozo and a variety of villas are dotted around the island. Gozo’s landscape of rolling hills is topped with tiny villages and vaulting church spires, while its dramatic coastline is alive with sweeping sea cliffs, caves and bays. Family friendly resorts include Xlendi in the south and Marsalforn, the most popular resort on Gozo, which boasts a sandy beach and excellent diving and snorkelling. For sunset head to Dwerja for cliffs that rise out of the Mediterranean like skyscrapers, weird rock formations and the ‘Azure Window’, a once mighty rock arch that collapsed in 2017.
The tiny island of Comino (only 2.5km by 1.5km) sits between Gozo and the Maltese mainland resorts, but this pedestrianised nature reserve feels decidedly different. Once the preserve of pirates and smugglers, it is best reached on a day trip excursion from the Maltese mainland. Little coves dot the island’s rocky shores, with the highlight the Blue Lagoon where a natural play of light between the starched white sands, the crystal clear sea and the sun’s rays make the cove sparkle. Snorkelling, scuba diving and swimming are the main pursuits on this lotus eating isle.
It can be hard finding a destination that ticks all the boxes with a choice of beach resorts and plenty else off the sands. In Malta I discovered a proud island nation awash with ancient history, great food and wine, a charming rural hinterland, a cosmopolitan capital and a necklace of beach resorts that appeal to all sorts of holidaymakers whether you are nine or ninety.
Article by Robin McKelvie, Scottish travel writer & broadcaster
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