Magnificent Malta: A small island that offers big adventure
May 29, 2013
VALLETTA, Malta -- Malta is the largest of three islands that comprise the Maltese archipelago. Sandwiched in the Mediterranean between Italy, Tunisia and Libya, the island has visible influences from each -- but still carries its own unique style.
There are two official languages of the island: Maltese, which sounds like a mixture of Italian and Arabic (heavy on the Italian with a similar inflection), and -- due to centuries of colonial rule -- British English.
Measuring a mere 95 square miles, this densely populated isle packs a big punch, which warrants a weeklong visit or more.
The summer months bring high temperatures, plenty of sunlight and packed beaches -- ideal for swimming, snorkeling and diving. The shoulder seasons provide more comfortable temperatures for exploring the quaint towns and archeological sites, but ward off any beach dwelling.
Depending on the travel motives, Malta can be visited and enjoyed year-round.
Malta has a rich history that starts well before most people's realm of reality. The Hypogeum, for example, is an underground structure dating back to 3,000 B.C., but wasn't discovered until the turn of the 20th century.
It consists of halls, chambers and passages covering 500 square meters. Tours are available, but limited to six per day, accommodating 10 people each, so booking reservations early is essential -- at least a month out.
Tickets are available at www.booking.heritagemalta.org. While touring the site is visually fascinating, it still leaves many unanswered questions about the ancient civilization.
Fast forward 5,000 years and explore the urban modernism that is the capital city of Valetta. This compact city (measuring 600 by 1,000 meters) is filled with historic narration. The unique architecture, while sometimes dilapidated, tells a story of time and promise.
Considered a modern city when it was built by the Knights of St. John between 1573 and 1578, Valetta continues to prove its forward-thinking reputation with innovative channels to theater and the arts.
Located a few miles from Valetta, the towns of Attard, Balzan and Lija, known simply as the three villages, are quaint urban sprawls off the beaten tourist path (for now). Exploring the backstreets of these small villages will offer a unique look into the daily life of the residents here.
In St. Paul's and Paceville, however, tourists are in abundance -- and they party right alongside the locals night after night. Lined with English pubs, disco clubs and karaoke bars, this is the place for the active nightlife. A night here can easily turn into day -- think Cancun, spring break, but more diverse. In this mixed bag of activity there is a barstool for everyone, from the young hipster to oma and opa.
For the sights and sounds of the lighted hours, the Marfa Peninsula offers superb views, excellent small beaches and the best diving on the island. The northern-most tip of the island is monopolized by large resorts, so no nightlife or restaurants outside the resorts facilities exists within walking distance, but the area is quiet and peaceful.
The ferry terminal here offers quick transports to Malta's sister island of Gozo, as well as the island of Comino. Both are easily accessible and worth a day of exploration.
While most of the beaches that border the island of Malta are rocky, Golden Bay provides the largest of the sandy dwellings. It's by far the most popular and crowded beach in the summer, but the winter months replace the calm waters of the bay with small waves, drawing in daring surfers who are willing to brave the cold.
Facing the water, walk to the left and follow the path up to the top of the cliff. This hike offers beautiful views of both Golden Bay and Ghajn Tuffieha (meaning "Apple's Eye"), another sandy beach directly to the south. There is also a road that connects the two bays -- but the walk is not nearly as fun or scenic.
Traveling to the southern point of the island, visitors will be in awe of the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, with its picture-perfect brightly colored fishing boats and fisherman who are equally as colorful.
Family-owned restaurants line the harbor, each offering the catch of the day. A daily market on the waterfront sells Maltese novelty items. For more local flair, visit the early morning Sunday fish market, which sets the scene for local purchases of the Mediterranean riches.
The Maltese are experts at maneuvering through the narrow streets at dangerously high speeds. Additionally, they drive on the left side of the road. Take note: that's two strikes against American drivers. Take the bus instead. At 12 euros for a weeklong pass, it's a safer and cheaper alternative.
While it's a wonder the large buses can fit through many of the cramped towns, they manage, providing a sightseeing tour along the way. A full bus schedule can be found at www.arriva.com.mt. Taxis are also available in the more populated areas, but be sure to agree on a price before accepting a ride.
The Malta tourism site (www.visitmalta.com) has numerous downloadable reference guides, including a year-round events calendar and maps and information for countryside hikes.
Flying to the islands is the easiest and most cost efficient; Air Malta provides 10 flights a week from Munich at affordable prices, (www.airmalta.com). For package deals, www.lastminute.de or www.tui.com are good places to start.
Avoid getting an all-inclusive holiday package, however, because missing out on Malta's traditional cuisine and mom and pop, hole-in-the-wall restaurants lessens the overall experience.