When you first find Malta on the map, it looks incredibly small. In terms of total area, it’s not even half the size of Edmonton. Like most second-generation Maltese-Canadians, I often have to explain where the Maltese archipelago is to curious friends. “It’s 90 kilometres south of Sicily, just under Italy’s boot,” I say. “Right in the middle of the Mediterranean.”
Despite its diminutive size, Malta punches well above its weight as a vacation destination. The hilly terrain and meandering, medieval roads of the country’s three islands make them seem much larger, and there’s enough to see and do without repeating yourself for many months. The Maltese diaspora knows it’s an ideal place for a long-stay vacation, and friends and family regularly go for weeks or months at a time.
A long stay gives visitors a chance to get to know the islands intimately; to discover both the subtleties of the culture and the hidden gems tucked along all those curvy roads. The recently renovated Seashells Resort in Qawra, about 15 kilometres from the Maltese capital of Valletta, is an ideal home base from which to explore the country.
Qawra is part of the St. Paul’s Bay area, long a vacation destination for locals and tourists alike: Some families keep small seaside flats here to escape the heat and congestion of the more crowded parts of Malta. It’s a laid-back place, with rocky beaches, bars, restaurants and tourist excursions close at hand, including scuba diving and boat trips to Comino and Gozo, the two other Maltese islands.
Calgary residents Mitch and Di Granger spent three weeks at Seashells last January, after learning about Malta through AMA Travel. “It was an excellent hotel, exactly what we were looking for,” Mitch says. It’s home to one of the largest pools on the island; by night its deck trans-forms into an outdoor lounge with live entertainment.
The Grangers also appreciated the resort’s proximity to a lengthy waterfront promenade that’s great for strolling, jogging and people watching during busy evenings after dinner—or you could pop into the Malta National Aquarium, which is located on the strip.
For exploration further afield, Qawra has a number of car-rental outlets (rates are among the lowest in Europe, starting around $11 CAD per day), and Malta’s extensive public transit system offers affordable unlimited-travel passes for visitors.
FROM WATER TO WILDERNESS
Malta’s beaches—some sandy, others rocky—make it a popular summertime destination. But the days are often too hot to do much more than try to stay cool in the azure-blue waters of the Mediterranean, or in the shade of the yellow limestone buildings that comprise the majority of Malta’s cities. During the cooler off-season, however, Malta becomes a verdant green oasis that, if you didn’t know better, could stand in for Ireland. Though the Maltese don’t swim much in winter, the Mediterranean temperature isn’t much different from Canadian lakes that remain chilly even at the height of summer, so for hardier swimmers, a dip in the salty sea is always possible.
On land, just don a sweater or light jacket and you’ll be good for days of rambling exploration. Tiny Malta is among the world’s most densely populated countries. Its cities are pleasantly packed, but open space—or “wilderness,” as the Maltese sometimes describe it—still exists. Hiking along coastal trails yields panoramic views, especially in the north near the Gjan Tuffieha headland. The southwestern coast boasts the dramatic Dingli Cliffs, plus weathered farmhouses and rock walls that seem as ancient as the bluffs themselves.
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Also nearby is Hagar Qim, a large megalithic temple said to be more than 5,000 years old. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the complex is covered by a white, tent-like dome to protect it from the elements, and is representative of Malta’s status as something of a living museum.
Prehistoric archaeological sites are found across the country’s three islands. Some are formal attractions with tickets and guided tours, while others are simply found in easy-to-access open spaces. There’s even one temple ruin by the Qawra bus depot, a few blocks from the Seashells Resort.
Make friends with some locals and ask about their favourite “secret” sites and walking trails. Large swaths of Malta are only now beginning to be treated as tourist attractions, so there’s a lot to discover off the beaten path.
“There isn’t anywhere in the world with so much history in such a small space,” Mitch says, noting that he and his wife particularly enjoyed the easy-to-walk Xemxija Heritage Trail, about five kilometres from their resort, which features Punic tombs, granaries, temple ruins and a Roman apiary. “It’s continuous history, like reading a book,” he adds.
ON THE TOWN
The Maltese countryside is also dotted with small villages that are easily reached by bus or car. Each has a parish church named after a patron saint. Once a year a weeklong feast or “festa” will honour that saint with parades and fireworks. (Your hotel will be able to advise which festas are planned during your stay.) Each town also has a “band club” that acts as the centre of community life. Be sure to drop in; the Maltese are known for being friendly to strangers.
In the middle of the island, Mdina is a hilltop fortress town that was Malta’s early capital. Cars are mostly restricted within the gates of this “Silent City,” making its narrow streetscape a pedestrian marvel.
Walk over to the Fontanella Tea Garden, situated on top of the bastions and boasting a magnificent view of half the island. It’s a perfect spot for sampling traditional Maltese fare like pastizzi, a savoury pastry filled with ricotta, peas or meat, and ftira, a sandwich made using round, semi-flat bread and simple ingredients like oil, capers and tuna. Both of these are also considered Maltese beach food that you can wash down with a Kinnie, Malta’s bittersweet soft drink, or a Cisk, the cheap and refreshing local lager.
Head to Marsaxlokk at the eastern end of the island for a quintessential postcard view: dozens of luzzus, colour-ful Maltese fishing boats, afloat in the harbour. Fishing is the town’s main industry: Visit any of the restaurants along the Marsaxlokk seafront and you’ll likely be able to order fish caught that day. Lampuki (a.k.a. mahi-mahi) are a Maltese favourite, as are squid and octopus. Some establishments also serve rabbit stew, Malta’s national dish.
Worthy of repeat visits during a stay in Malta is the capital itself. When the Maltese say they’re going to “the city,” they specifically mean Valletta, a walled municipality built by atop a rocky ridge between two harbours. The city’s grid layout, a departure from the meandering roads that typify the rest of Malta, has created a kind of Renaissance-style San Francisco, with some streets that are so steep they consist only of steps.
As occurred elsewhere in the world, “old” went out of fashion in Valletta for some decades; the population declined and city life became dormant. But that trend has reversed over the last few years. Once-derelict buildings are being rehabilitated and new bars and restaurants have popped up, turning Valletta into the place to be on the island, day or night. Likewise, famed Italian architect Renzo Piano recently rebuilt Valletta’s city gate and created a new Maltese parliament building, a striking intervention of modern architecture in a Baroque city—and just one reason why Valletta was named a European Capital of Culture for 2018.
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“There are lots of little harbours with sidewalk cafés and historic forts,” Mitch says, describing a day he and Di spent walking the coast from Kalkara—a village opposite Valletta on Malta’s Grand Harbour—back to the Qawra, bumping into locals along the way. “The Maltese are some of the friendliest people I’ve met.”
All of this new life complements existing institutions: the Saint James Cavalier arts complex, for example, and the circa-1578 St. John’s Co-Cathedral (with its prized pair of Caravaggio paintings). For history buffs, there’s the National Museum of Archaeology and Lascaris War Rooms, a restored World War II operations bunker from which Allied commanders oversaw in the 1943 invasion of Sicily.
Near the war rooms, the Upper Barrakka Gardens overlooks the Grand Harbour. It was once a fierce theatre of war—during the 1565 Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman navy, and additional sieges between 1940 and 1942. Today, the harbour welcomes super yachts and cruise ships filled with day-trippers. It’s a remarkable place to stand, with a view of hundreds of years of human history in a city on the rise once again. And it’s here you that you’ll most profoundly appreciate the decision to stick around Malta for a long stay.
There’s simply so much to learn and so many layers to uncover in this very small country. You can see it all, but it’ll definitely take some time.
Getting there: Air Canada flies between Alberta and Malta with a connection in Frankfurt. Flights on KLM connect via Amsterdam. Qawra is 20 km northwest of Malta International Airport
Language: Maltese, but eight in 10 residents also speak English
Currency: Malta is part of the European Union. One Canadian dollar translates to about 0.65 euros. Purchase euros at any AMA centre
Tipping: Tip 10–15% in restaurants if a service charge is not included; 10% for taxi rides
Weather: Daytime highs range from 10–15 C in winter, and hover around 30 C from June to September. Pack sunglasses: Malta gets 3,000-plus hours of sunlight annually
Good to know: Most businesses (except churches) close on Sunday; electrical plugs are the three-pin 240-volt type as found in the U.K.; blood oranges are an abundant delicacy in winter
SEE IT WITH AMA
Malta Long Stay (Exotik Journeys): Immerse yourself in Malta with a long-stay vacation, including flights between Calgary or Edmonton and Malta, arrival and departure transfers, and 21 nights at the four-star Seashells Resort at Suncrest (standard inland room) with daily breakfast. Upgrade to a seaside room for $200 more per person, and add a five-excursion package for $289. (Solo travellers add $700 for single supplement.)
From $2,749/person (includes airfare & taxes)
Departs Oct. 31, Nov. 1 or Nov. 2, 2018
Call a travel specialist: 1-866-667-4777