As the northern hemisphere winter chill and dark days start to thaw and days begin to lengthen, thoughts languish on sunny holidays of the past. Plans being to materialise in the forefront of winter minds as to the coming year summer island escape. With so many islands dotted along the Mediterranean, choosing a summer island destination can be daunting. Unless you have a specific destination in mind. Somewhere like Malta, a tiny archipelago in the Mediterranean sea and only short three hour flight from London. Malta had been on my travel destination list for a very long time, so long I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I was inspired to travel to the tiny islands of Malta. Perhaps it was an article I chanced upon as a teenager while reading the travel section in a glamorous fashion magazine. Growing up in the isolated and remote coastal town of Geraldton, Western Australia, perhaps I was drawn to a place that promised the same wide blue skies and crystal clear waters but sprinkled with rich ancient culture unlike anything I had ever known.
Fate eventually collided with reality many years later and I finally fulfilled my dream, travelling to Malta in July 2015. Little did I realise when I arrived for five days of sun, sea and a little ancient culture that there was so much to see and do. Especially when the hotel pool and seaside lidos turned out to be so irresistibly relaxing. Who knew one could easily spend eight hours lounging by the sea under cream beach umbrellas with swimming-reading-eating on repeat all day. After tearing myself reluctantly away from the sea and comfy lidos, I spent a couple of days exploring some of my surrounds in Malta: St Juliens, Valletta, and the Silent City of Mdina.
I was a little hesitant to stay in the St Juliens and Paceville area after reading less than favourable reviews on Trip Advisor. Nightclubs. Late night noise from revellers. Hens parties. Bucks parties. However, after researching a little more for a five star resort to relax by the Mediterranean sea, the Westin Dragonara Resort appeared to be a good choice. And yes, the hotel turned out to be perfect. Situated on the edge of a rocky peninsula in St Juliens with palm trees and endless blue views overlooking the Mediterranean, a paradise sanctuary was found. The hotel delivered to expectation and more with an amazing breakfast buffet, relaxing lounge and piano bar, delicious pool / beachside menus, friendly staff and concierge. The two private beach lidos provided spacious areas for guests to enjoy the sunny weather and direct access to the sea.
Once you step outside the sanctuary of the hotel grounds St Julien’s is a mix of old and new buildings. Apartments, accommodation, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, supermarkets, souvenir shops, surf shops. The roads and pavements bustle with locals, tourists, English Language students, buses, cars, motorbikes. Rounding the hill on Triq San Gord on a late afternoon walk, the most charming sight was all the colourful Maltese fishing boats that litter Spinola Bay. This little bay was a photographers delight. Further along, the area between St Juliens and Sliema is known as Malta’s coast resort and is awash with a plethora of modern, and somewhat unattractive, apartment blocks. To immerse yourself in Malta’s stunning 16th century architecture, you need to venture into Valletta or over to the Three Sister Cites of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua.
From St Juliens, the easiest, quickest and most scenic way to reach the UNESCO World Heritage city of Valletta is by bus and then ferry. The bus route to the Sliema-Valletta ferry terminus traverses along promenade with crammed holiday apartments and restaurants on the right, and beautiful ocean views of the left. If you happen to be at the front of the ferry queue, then a seat on the top deck of the awaits. With a towering view to the sea below and tantalising views of Valletta in the distance, the hum of the ferry engine signals the start of a 20 minute ferry ride. The dome of the Carmelite church ever present on the journey across, and once you reach the other side there is a steep climb up into the city itself. I found the grid layout of the city streets was similar to that of New York and easy to navigate, and towards the middle of Valletta near the main square the terrain is reasonably flat. However, walking from one side to another can be challenging even for someone who is reasonably fit. Be prepared for stairs, stairs, and more stairs. Good comfortable walking shoes or trainers are a must for exploring all corners of Valletta.
For a little respite from the glaring sun, I made my way to Cafe Cordina to sit under the shade of the umbrellas and sample a local dessert called Kwarezimal. Kwarezimal is traditional Maltese Lenten sweet with hazelnut crumble base with spices,topped with honey and almond. I was only expecting a small slice with my expresso, rather than an enormous plateful. Without wanting to seem rude as this was their traditional sweet, I slowly ate my way through six pieces. Needless to say the Kwarezimal gave me enough energy to continue with my Valletta sightseeing. I wandered around admiring the long streets grid-like streets and gazing up at the most fascinating, rustic architecture. Valletta’s architecture and 16th century charm was simply stunning. Buildings remain relatively untouched from redevelopment and retain their old weathered and time worn charm. The views from the Upper Barrakka Gardens over looking the Grand Harbour and The Three Cities were my favourite and absolutely breathtaking.
Mdina is an ancient fortified city in the heart of Malta with endless high walls of soft cream. From the outskirts of Valletta, Mdina is but a speck in the middle of the inland horizon. To experience the infamously reliable and extensive Malta transport system, I took a local bus to Mdina from my hotel. As the bus winds its way through the city streets picking up locals and the odd tourist alike, the suburbs merge seamlessly into industrial areas, edging closer to the open farm land plains and the tiny hint of Mdina in the distance. Alighting from the bus at the Rabat interchange about an hour after leaving St Juliens, the gate entrance to Mdina is only a short 5 minute walk away. Leading up to the gate you witness up close the high imposing and seemingly impenetrable fortress walls.
Ever the undefended traveller that I am, the luxury of forgoing a formal tour group is you can wander about the streets alone, turning this way and that, becoming lost in the backstreets as you chase after silence from the noisy chatter of tourist crowds. Its quieter there in the side streets. A chance to see things that others may miss in a large crowd. Like a cat resting high up in a window frame, feigning indifference towards the odd passersby in an otherwise empty courtyard. In the silence you can absorb the wonderful medieval architecture and imagine what life was like all those centuries ago. The religious icons mounted in the walls, the ancient wooden doors, the ornate iron balconies, the quaint street signs. Turning another corner you might stumble across several cats congregating under the peaceful shade of courtyard trees eating their midday meal. Life in Mdina seems tranquil and normal for a brief moment with tourist crowds forgotten.
To appreciate how high the city stands above the farms below, the Fontanella Tea Garden cafe on the edge of the walled city provides magnificent views of the countryside that stretch on forever towards to the sea. As with most tourist sites, there are souvenir shops dotted along the streets, however, as you are in the location of the famous Mdina Glass, a visit to their shop in Mdina or nearby premises at the Ta’ Qali Craft Centre is a must if you are looking for unique gifts and souvenirs. The glass is absolutely exquisite. I ended up purchasing several candle holders and tumblers from one of their stores in Valletta and wished I could have carried many more gifts home. If Malta isn’t on your destination list but you love handcrafted artisan glass, a visit the online Mdina Glass store https://www.mdinaglass.com.mt won’t disappoint.
If you only visit Malta only once in your lifetime, I suggest you plan enough time to see all the cultural sights Malta has to offer. Especially if you want to include lazy days relaxing by the Mediterranean sea and enjoying the many water sports and boat trips available. During my five days on Malta I barely scratched a millimetre below the surface of this cultural and historic wonderland and left with a perfectly good excuse for a return visit to explore more of this magical place called Malta. On my next trip to Malta – a boat ride to the sister isles of Gozo and Comino; exploring the famed backstreets of Vittoriosa; and a visit to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum & Tarxien Temples are definitely on the top of my sightseeing list. This tiny archipelago has truly has something for everyone: national museums and cultural sites, stunning architecture, spectacular coastal scenery, blue lagoons, crystal clear water, loads of sunshine and warm weather, water sports, nightlife, restaurants, shopping and more. Planning a summer trip to Malta is the perfect cure for any winter time blues.
Note: the Heritage Malta website advises that pre-booking tickets to visit Hypogeum is essential as most tickets sell out weeks, even months in advance.
*this post was not sponsored