After a recent press trip to the Mediterranean archipelago, travel writer Clodagh Dooley shares her discoveries, all you need to know about travelling, and the reasons you should visit Malta
Stepping off the airplane, that familiar blast of warm air hit my face. I took a deep breath, and thought to myself how refreshing it already felt to be in a new location.
Of course, there were slight nerves about getting back into the airport and on a plane for the first time after a very long lockdown. But despite the extra bit of paperwork (which isn’t all that bad) and the fact that everyone was wearing masks, it felt as if it was only yesterday that I was in an airport!
And there’s no reason for people to feel unsafe, because the Maltese Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was, in fact, praised by the World Health Organisation. Tolene van der Merwe, Director for the Malta Tourism Authority for the UK and Ireland, said to me, “We have seen such a great response from people keen to visit Malta since travel opened back up. Malta has one of the best vaccination rates in the EU, along with Ireland, and we are delighted to be in a position where people can feel reassured about travelling to Malta.”
Travelling to Malta
Based in the Mediterranean, between Sicily and the North African coast, Malta is the largest of the three major islands that constitute the Maltese archipelago (Gozo and Comino are the other two islands). Malta is just a 3.5-hour flight with Ryanair from Dublin and Cork airports. For our four-day trip, myself and two fellow journalists flew into Malta International Airport from Dublin.
Currently when travelling to Malta, along with your passport, anyone aged 12 and over needs to present their EU Digital Cert to prove that they are fully vaccinated. There’s also a Passenger Locator form that has to be filled out both online (linked here) and a hard copy (linked here), which needs to be given to the staff at arrival at Malta International Airport. But once you have this hard-copy form ready in advance, it should be a seamless journey through the airport, as the whole process is run very well. You will also need to fill out the form on return to Dublin.
While we arrived late into the airport on a Monday night, one benefit was that we didn’t have to face into a long journey to get to our accommodation, the Hilton Malta in St Julian’s. It was only approximately a 20-minute drive from the airport in our car transfer. What’s great about Malta is that, because the main island is one of the smallest countries in the world (with a population of about 515,000), everything is so easily accessible. Vehicles also drive on the same side of the road as we do in Ireland and the UK, which means it’s not as nerve-wracking to hire your own car to explore. Many visitors to the island do this.
Our accommodation for the four nights was at the 5-Star Hilton Malta in St Julian’s and what a fab, luxurious hotel this is. Located in Portomaso, the Hilton Malta has views of the marina, which is filled with yachts on one side of the hotel, then from the back of the hotel, there are outstanding sea views.
The hotel’s elegant Quarterdeck Bar ideally overlooks the marina, while their Oceana Restaurant is at the back of the hotel overlooking the sea and the hotel’s pools, of which there are five! Unsurprisingly, the Oceana Restaurant was the perfect venue for breakfast every morning, and there was a variety of options to choose from at the buffet – fry-ups, pancakes, fresh fruit, cappuccinos, iced coffee, you name it. We also ate dinner at the hotel’s Blue Elephant restaurant one evening. This restaurant is uniquely decorated like a Thai village, with huts, a waterfall and fish swimming around in a pond, and the authentic Thai dishes were divine.
As for the room I was staying in, there were two king-sized beds, perfect for families or friends, and gorgeous sea views from the balcony. I love nothing more than a room with a balcony and spectacular sea views, and this room definitely impressed! I’d highly recommend a stay in the Hilton Malta for its friendly hospitality, its setting and beautiful interiors alone. But a bonus is the fact that it is situated in the heart of St Julian’s, which has a bustling atmosphere, with plenty of bars and eateries. There’s a supermarket just around the corner and Bay Street Shopping Complex is also just a 10-minute walk away.
Across the four days, we managed to fit in so many activities and attractions, and we were told on leaving that there was still so much more we could explore! To truly immerse yourself in the culture of Malta, I am going to share the main highlights of the trip:
I mentioned above that St Julian’s was the area I stayed in while in Malta and even if you don’t base yourself here, it is well worth a visit for its liveliness and beauty. Not to mention, its extensive choice of restaurants and bars. We ate at Two Buoys, which is described as a restaurant where ‘Melbourne meets Malta’. Owned by three Maltese friends, one of which is Australian, Two Buoys is the perfect place to relax with mouthwatering food and cocktails, and views of the Mediterranean. Not only was the food top-notch, but portions were also generous, as I discovered when I ordered the ‘Aussie Parma’, a chicken dish with napoletana sauce, parma ham and mozzarella. My picture above is proof!
The walled city of Valletta is Malta’s capital and is full to the brim with museums, palaces and grand churches. Valletta is approximately an 18-minute drive from St Julian’s and here, we visited Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th-century palace that belongs to the noble Maltese family, De Piro. At this opulent museum, where the ninth Marquis de Piro and his wife Frances actually live today, you can learn all about the customs and traditions of Maltese nobility. And there’s an outstanding collection of furniture and paintings. It’s also home to two WWII bomb shelters, which provide a dramatic and fascinating addition to the tour.
Alongside Casa Rocca Piccola, the Upper Barrakka Gardens are also worth a visit in Valletta. These colonnaded gardens were created in 1661, and were actually the private gardens and exercise grounds of the Knights of St John, Malta’s early modern Catholic military order. The gardens suffered major damage from the second World War but are now wonderfully restored and a perfect place to grab a coffee and take in the breathtaking view of the harbour below.
And if you are looking for a lunch spot in Valletta, check out Mezzodi, a Michelin-awarded, cosy basement restaurant in the heart of the Old Town. This restaurant offers a range of classic Italian and European dishes, using local ingredients, such as sea bass (which I had), and it was superb. We also tasted a delicious Maltese Chardonnay called Isis.
Directly across the Grand Harbour from Valletta sit the Three Cities of Malta, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. To get to the Three Cities, we took a dgħajsa – a traditional Maltese gondola-shaped boat – from Valletta across the harbour. A short trip, but a scenic one, to say the least.
The visually-striking, fortified cities are the ideal places to delve deeper into Maltese history, and a unique way to explore all three is via a Rolling Geeks tour! These are self-drive electric cars with pre-programmed GPS, which explain interesting facts about the Three Cities as you drive through. I’d recommend booking with the Rolling Geeks if you would prefer to add a bit of fun to regular sightseeing. Rates depend on the tour length, but for the 2.5-hour tour is €80 per car and a shorter tour is available for €65 per car (for maximum two adults per car and two children under 12). A €10 supplement per person applies for a 3rd and 4th person in the car.
Go to Gozo!
Gozo is the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago and while quieter than Malta, it is equally as beautiful. We went to Cirkewwa (about a 36-minute drive from St Julian’s) to catch a ferry to Gozo, which treated us to incredible views of crystal blue waters and Gozo’s pristine coastline. The ferry only takes approximately 20 minutes and ferry tickets vary depending on if you are travelling just as a passenger or bringing your car with you. Check out the Gozo Channel site for more details.
In Gozo, we visited the 350-year-old Xwejni Salt Pans, which are a fine example of Gozitan traditional sea salt production. It’s quite an outstanding site, with a chequerboard of rock-cut saltpans. During the summer months, locals can be seen scraping off salt crystals from the rock face, all collected, processed and packaged by hand! And there’s a quirky salt shop set within the limestone cliffs, where you can take home some salt as a souvenir. Nearby, Xwejni Bay is also a popular spot for diving.
After the Xwejni Salt Pans, we stopped by Victoria (Ir Rabat), the capital of Gozo. This city is known for the old Rabat town and the ancient, fortified Citadel, which once served as a sanctuary for the Knights of Malta from attack in the 1560s. The name Victoria was actually given to the town in 1887 in honour of the famous British Queen’s Golden Jubilee. At the same time, the town was raised to the status of a city, becoming officially known as Citta’ ir-Rabat. There’s lots to explore in Victoria, but a visit to the Citadel is definitely a must, as its towering fortifications offer extensive views across Gozo, as is a stroll through Pjazza Indipendenza (Independence Square). This is Victoria’s centre, with several open-air cafes and shops.
Another Gozo highlight was the village of Munxar, approximately a seven-minute drive from Victoria. We had gorgeous fresh seafood at a local family-run restaurant here called Ta’ Karolina, located by the Xlendi waterfront. After this, we ended our day trip to Gozo with a Segway Tour. This is an activity that took me completely out of my comfort zone! It took me quite a while to master the Segway, but once I did, we embarked on an exhilarating one-hour tour around Gozo that led to magnificent views from the Sanap Cliffs.
This was a thrilling experience and I was so glad I did it in the end, even if I did have doubts at the beginning! Definitely give this a go if you are up for a bit of a challenge.
Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra
Back on the main island of Malta, about 2km south-west of Quendri village, you’ll find the megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. Like our very own passage tomb in Ireland, Newgrange, there’s a lot of mystery around UNESCO World Heritage sites, but we do know that they are among the most religious sites in the world. Built around 3800–2200 BC (Ħaġar Qim) and 3600–3200 BC (Mnajadra), the temples are older than Stonehenge and Newgrange. On a visit to the temples, you can find out more about the history through a cool 3D movie and a museum on-site, then walk through the actual temples themselves.
It was very difficult to choose just one favourite site from the whole trip, but this was definitely one of them. There was just something so captivating about the Blue Grotto sea caves, which are also located near Quendri. First, we viewed the Blue Grotto, which consists of seven caves, from above, before exploring them up-close via boat.
I think the fact we had to put on life jackets before stepping into the shaky boat added a bit of a thrill to the trip! The caves were magnificent and the clear water glistening, so it’s not surprising that this area is also popular with divers and snorkelers.
The next must-see is the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxlokk, which is filled with colourful luzzus (traditional fishing boats). Marsaxlokk fishing village, approximately a 25-minute drive from St Julian’s, is the largest fishing harbour of Malta and has a selection of the finest seafood restaurants. We ate at Tartarun, which was lovely. Here, you can get everything from octopus to calamari rings (which were divine!), from seabass to salmon. Or, if you don’t want fish, you can opt for steak.
Game of Thrones lovers will adore the medieval Mdina, also known as the ‘Silent City’. The gates of Mdina were used as the entrance to King’s Landing in a scene in season one of the popular HBO series, and you can definitely get a GOT vibe as you wander through the fortified, hilltop city, bustling with medieval character.
There’s lots to discover on a trip to Mdina, from exquisite architecture to St Paul’s Cathedral, which was bombed by the Germans during World War II but stayed standing – a miracle! Dating back 4,000 years, it was built by the Phoenicians and conquered by the Normans, later run by the Knights of Malta. It’s said the best time to explore Mdina is in the evening, at sunset, or after most tourists have left, as you won’t hear a sound! Stepping into Mdina is like stepping back in time.
Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa
Opposite the palace of Malta’s President, and beautiful botanical gardens, the 5-Star Corinthia Palace in San Anton is an oasis of calm. We had a beautiful afternoon tea with traditional Maltese treats in the elegant surrounds of the hotel, giving us a true taste of Malta’s fine cuisine. I’d highly recommend the hotel’s afternoon tea experience, but a stay in the hotel is also, no doubt, one of pure luxury. The immaculate grounds and its incredible Athenaeum Spa make it the perfect escape.
San Niklaw Winery
During my trip to Malta, I experienced a visit to a vineyard for the first time ever. Perhaps Malta is a little lesser-known for its wine production, but after tasting various Maltese wines during the trip and stopping by San Niklaw Winery, I can confirm that the quality is top of the range. At San Niklaw Winery, a family-run estate just an 11-minute drive from the airport, we met with the owner, Dr John Cauchi. I say Dr, because Cauchi is a surgeon, as well as being a wine producer, which is very impressive!
Cauchi talked us through his four wines, Fangu, a Syrah-based wine; Despatch, a Sangiovese-based wine; Kappella San Nicola, a Mourvedre-based wine; and a Vermentino called Neptunus. All while we tasted each wine and ate some Maltese snacks he had prepared, which included succulent olives that the estate also produces! While I do enjoy the occasional glass of wine, I am in no way a wine connoisseur, but wine-tasting was an activity I really loved. Not just for the actual wine-tasting, but because it got me thinking about wine in a different light and it was fascinating to speak with a local producer. This is something I would really advise people travelling to Malta to check out.
St Paul’s Bay
While I only got a glimpse of St Paul’s Bay, it’s definitely somewhere I will visit when I return to Malta (because I will return!). St Paul’s Bay in the Northern region of Malta is a quiet neighbourhood, but it offers some beaches and it still retains a little Maltese village feel. We went for drinks one evening at the Beefbar Lounge, which offers fine dining, cocktails and an understated, but elegant pool area that overlooks the Mediterranean sea. While dining here is expensive, the Beefbar Lounge is worth a visit for a well-deserved treat while on holidays.
So, that’s my lowdown on the highlights of my Malta trip, but there are many, many more incredible sights to explore that will also appeal to all ages and interests.
You can get around Malta by bus, car hire or taxi – check out this link for more information on transport around Malta. Or, check out Zarb Coaches, which provided a convenient chauffeur service for us for the duration of our trip. Special mention to our tour guides on the trip, Darrell Azzopardi and Nikola Soukmandjiev, who brought us to all the hidden gems, showing us the true beauty and culture of Malta.
Malta also has the advantages of having a warm climate year-round (but a little cooler in January and February), as well as having a warm, friendly culture.
As Tolene van der Merwe, Director for the Malta Tourism Authority for the UK and Ireland, said to me, “There is no reason not to visit the beautiful island, where you can experience the thrill of an action-packed vacation or just savour the simple pleasures of relaxation. All in a safe and tranquil environment that we are very proud of.”
I wholeheartedly agree!
For more Malta inspiration, check out visitmalta.com/en
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