The Maltese Mystique
by Kristy Alpert
I kept my eyes down while I navigated the smoothes stone pathways that led through Malta’s old town; painfully aware that wedged heels were the wrong shoe choice for my afternoon of exploring in Valletta. I glanced up as I entered Republic Square and immediately any thoughts of footwear vanished from my mind as I entered deeper into the buzzing square lined with historic architecture. It wasn’t the grand statues or quaint open-air cafes that struck me, but rather the uniform smirk that everyone I passed seemed to be wearing.
As if controlled by an unspoken code, everyone I passed in the square—shop owners, tourists, and waitresses alike—exchanged friendly head nods and sly grins, behaving like people who had been let in on a highly coveted secret. There was a unanimous air circulating through the square that we had all discovered something special, and there wasn’t a person in that square who took that privilege for granted.
Listed as one of the smallest countries in Europe, Malta’s cosmopolitan sheen and uncrowded streets make it feel like visitors have won a prize for venturing off the well-worn tourist tracks of the Amalfi Coast and French Riviera. But its allure isn’t anything new; in fact, Malta has historically been a prized location since the beginning of civilization. Over the years, Malta’s strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean—just 93 kilometers south of Sicily and 288 kilometers north of Africa—have attracted Phoenicians, Greeks, Byzantines, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Crusaders, the French, and, finally, the British who controlled the country until 1964.
Today the archipelago of Malta consists of three islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino), and is a part of the European Union. The islands attract discerning Europeans and celebrities who vacation in this petite country to enjoy its Mediterranean allure and discreet extravagance.
LIVING (AND RESTING) LARGE
Each island offers its own unique variety of accommodation, where private villas arethe way to go when on Gozo, and Comino’s Comino Hotel (cominohotel.com) makes the choice simple for those choosing to stay on this mostly uninhabited island. The main island of Malta offers hotels for every price range, but for selective travelers, there may as well only be one hotel on the island. The Phoenicia Malta was the first luxury hotel to open on Malta, and it recently reopened in April of 2017 after a large-scale refurbishment featuring design by Peter Young Design and Mary Fox Linton.
The hotel is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, and is a recent addition to the Campbell Gray Hotels portfolio. The hotel is the choice for celebrities and dignitaries visiting the country, and even acted as the home away from home for actors in the movie Gladiator while it was being filmed on the island. The hotel features 136 elegant guest rooms decorated in a light and airy Mediterranean color scheme. Guests can spend the afternoon soaking in the brandnew outdoor infinity pool overlooking the historic Marsamxett Harbour or strolling through the lushly landscaped gardens before heading to sundown drinks at the hotel’s new café, Café Phoenicia, that offers stunning views of the Bastian Walls, Renzo Piano’s City Gate and the remodeled Triton’s Fountain.
This Grand Dame hotel’s authentic and iconic history is displayed throughout the hotel, but with modern updates like a state-of-the-art gymnasium and an indoor swimming pool inside the PUREGRAY Health Club and Spa, with eight treatment rooms available for services.
Maltese cuisine is an eclectic blend of Mediterranean flavors, pulling subtle influences from each of the civilizations that have occupied the country since its inception. Many traditional recipes feature the island’s abundant supply of olives and tomatoes, and many dishes are topped with locally produced honey or served with fresh sheep or goat’s cheese. Rabbit meat is highly prized on Malta, and although it was once considered the meat of the lower class, today it’s featured prominently in the country’s national dish Fenkata (rabbit stew). Many Maltese restaurants offer a version of the dish, but few can compete with the authentic flavors and presentation of the Fenkata served at Mgar UNITED Bar and Restaurant (united.com.mt).
Malta’s former British roots can be seen in the country’s love of a proper afternoon tea, where the island’s stylish set can be found with their pinkies up every afternoon at the Palazzo Parisio (palazzoparisio.com). This classical, baroque-style palace was once the residence of the country’s wealthiest family, and now it is open to the public as a restaurant, garden and event space for weddings and celebrations.
Although there are many traditional and specialty restaurants on the islands, the only name diners need to remember when in Malta is Marvin Gauci (marvingauci.com). Chef Gauci is the go-to guy for gastronomy on the island, and his four unique restaurants— Tarragon Restaurant, Buddhamann Restaurant, Caviar & Bull Restaurants, and Dinner in the Sky Malta—offer the most exclusive reservations in Malta.
While Malta’s mild climate, glittering grottos, and scenic views are enough to warrant a plane ticket from any of the major destinations that feed into Malta’s international airport; it’s the remnants of the country’s 7,000-year history that makes a trip to Malta so unique. Malta boasts more historic sites per capita than any other country, with three UNESCO World Heritage sites spread throughout the islands (The City of Valletta, the Megalithic Temples, and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum).
A typical tour of Malta includes a mash-up of cultures, with Roman catacombs, prehistoric temples, French convents, and remnants of the Knights of St. John (the Knights of Malta), who ruled the country from 1530 to 1798. Other gems on the island include St. John’s Co-Cathedral that boasts some of the most beautiful works of art by Mattia Preti and Caravaggio, the Upper Barrakka Gardens where visitors can take in panoramic views of the Grand Harbour, and Vittoriosa (Birgu) that was once the knights’ first capital in Malta.
Intricate knitwear, hand-woven baskets, and delicate lace are hot items to bring home from a trip to Malta, but Malta’s Republic Street and Merchants Street also offer the chance to bring home international brands and other luxury goods.
For more information, visit visitmalta.com