Malta has a reputation for being a quiet spot in the sun, perfect for ex-pats, and a peaceful place for ‘old people’ to go on holidays.
I spent some time there recently and I can only conclude that this is evidence of the wisdom that comes with age – I was completely enchanted by this golden archipelago in the heart of the Mediterranean sea.
The thing is, that it really is a chilled out and beautiful place to relax. And if at the age of 65 I find myself looking for a home in the sun, Malta has earned itself a spot on the top my wish-list.
But there’s no need to wait until retirement to appreciate what this honey-coloured archipelago has to offer…
It’s really, remarkably pretty – even at its most elemental level.
See, the islands have the necessary raw materials – a honey-coloured limestone landscape that actually glows under sunlight (of which there is plenty in Malta), complemented perfectly by a contrasting backdrop of piercing blue sky and cobalt Mediterranean sea.
Add to this the jagged coastlines and jaw-dropping cliffs, the phenomenal rock formations and ubiquitous bright green prickly-pear cacti, and it’s fair to conclude that Malta was born gorgeous.
Luckily, as it grew it remained so – golden baroque architecture throughout the islands has actually managed to gilded the lily.
Malta’s buildings blend in, looking like they’ve simply sprouted roots and grown straight from the golden earth, rather than being built by hand.
Malta is just very beautiful, and it does make you wonder if that has something to do with how laid-back and happy its inhabitants seem.
It certainly explains why a major source of income for the islands comes from their use as a dramatic location in cinema and TV.
I love an aul’ boat trip when I’m discovering somewhere new. What’s not to like? You get a break from crowded streets, and you get to float past attractions and landmarks from a whole new vantage point.
That said, there are boat trips that are just ok, and there are the unmissable ones that are really worth doing.
On Malta island itself, the spectacular Grand Harbour is without question a must-see.
There are loads of elevated vantage points in Valetta where you can get spectacular views over the harbour, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing the harbour, from the inside out as it were.
A dgħajsa (pronounced Dice-ah) is a traditional Maltese taxi-boat, pretty much the Maltese equivalent of Venice’s famous gondolas, but much cheaper to experience.
I went for a 30-minute harbour tour in a beautifully restored dgħajsa, departing from the Marina in Vittoriosa and heading out around the harbour.
These little wooden boats may be dwarfed by the Marina’s surrounding super-yachts and the gargantuan cruise liners docked in the Harbour, but you won’t get a better, more authentically Maltese tour of Malta’s historical, industrial and epicentre.
Where do I even start with this? Malta is foodie heaven. Think about the logistics – you’re on a small island in the heart of the Mediterranean sea. The islands draw influence not just from the south of Italy and the Mediterranean in general, but from North Africa too. Everything I tasted was bursting with flavour, and the seafood dishes here are particularly good.
When in Malta, eat as much seafood as you can get your grubby little paws on. It’s relatively inexpensive and mouth-wateringly fresh (you can even buy some at the Sunday fish market in Marsaxlokk if you have the means to cook it).
The most famous and traditional of these, and one to try while you’re here, is the Lampuki (dorado/mahi-mahi). In Malta it’s traditionally served with a tomato and caper sauce with a side of lovely roast potatoes and vegetables. The best time of year to eat this is from mid-August through to October, when the lampuka is at the perfect plate-sized stage of its life. I had this on Gozo island, at a gorgeous little restaurant called Il-Kartell that has an outdoor terrace right by the water’s edge, so I can certainly recommend having it there, but really its served in restaurants all over the islands so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a decent plate.
I developed quite the taste for Pastizzi when I was here too. All over Europe, countries have their own versions of the pastry-with-cottage-cheese, and Pastizzi are Malta’ delicious version. These little pastry parcels are stuffed with either pea filling, or a spinach and cheese. One of the most famous places to get on in Malta is at the Crystal Palace in Rabat, but if you can’t make it there I suggest you get one just before/after your dgħajsa; there’s a little café called Birghi just at the entrance to the Marina where you’ll find a really nice one.
Traditional rabbit stew (Fenkata) is delicious and graces menus all over the islands, the pasta dishes are as good (if not better) than what you’d find in Italy, the pastry and gelato is similarly good – in fact, nothing I ate on the islands was anything less than delicious. That doesn’t happen often on a trip.
The islands are blessed with a topography that makes them not just a giant outdoor playground but a really beautiful one, and the water that surrounds them is an underwater adventure park in itself. Rock climbing and scuba diving are particularly popular activities on the islands, so I made it my business to check these both out during my stay.
Divers in Europe looking for decent dives without having to travel too far, look no further than Malta. Just looking at the startling deep blue colour of the sea from a boat on the surface, I could tell the visibility would be nice. Sure enough, even at 20-30 metres deep the visibility is an easy 30 metres. The draw of diving here is less to do with the marine life you’ll see (which won’t be a huge amount), and more about the challenging caves, fantastic wrecks and gorgeous grottos that you can explore underwater. If you can, dive Gozo’s Blue Hole – it’s an absolute bucket-list dive. I went diving with DiveWise in St George who offer diving in Malta and Gozo, as well as courses for beginners who want to learn to dive here – and what a lovely, safe place to learn.
I went climbing in Mgarr ix-Xini (Gozo) as an absolute beginner, under the instruction of Didi from Gozo Adventures. Standing at the bottom of the sheer limestone rock faces that wall the Mgarr ix-Xini canyon, I honestly couldn’t picture myself getting anywhere near the top, and I was genuinely scared. But Didi was superb, and the location beautiful enough to make me forget my nerves and get on with it. Turns out, rock climbing is brilliant, and Gozo is the perfect place to be bitten by the bug. I obviously haven’t tried the more advanced climbs on offer here – and there are many of them, including some awesome sea cliffs and even a second ‘hidden’ azure window– but just seeing them is enough to make me want to get better at climbing just so I can take them on.
Malta has megalithic temples that are thought to be the oldest free-standing structures on the planet. It has a massive underground prehistoric burial site, with carved stone and even some prehistoric red-ochre paintings. The ancient Maltese appear to have had a thing for fertility, and there’s plenty of evidence of it in the multiple stone sculptures of fat-bottomed ladies (thought to be the goddess of fertility) you can find in the archaeological museum. There are dolmens from the bronze age, mysterious ‘cart ruts’ in the rocks near the Dingli cliffs.
The time of the Knights of St. John (1530 – late 1700s) was really important in Malta’s history too, and was a ‘Golden Age’ on the golden islands. St. John’s Cathedral in Valetta is a brilliant and beautiful place to visit to learn a little more about these times, and you’ll get to lay eyes on two incredible Caravaggio paintings while you’re there, as well as finding out a bit about Caravaggio’s unsavoury side!
You really don’t have to be a history buff to get into Malta’s past, but if you’re really not one, or you’re travelling with kids, you can see a brilliant overview of the islands’ history in Valetta’s 5D cinema. Watch out for the snake.
- Dee Murray