To say that the way we travel nowadays has changed beyond recognition is an understatement. I can’t remember the last time I had a two-week holiday – the very thought gives me serious ‘in-box dread’ anxiety, so much so, all the good work that a 14-day trip does would be unravelled between the hours of 9am and 10am on a Monday and by midday I’d be booking another holiday…
Travel is so good for the soul though; no matter how tired your body feels when you return from a trip, your inner being tends to feel restored and renewed, your mind open to new ways of thinking and doing things, with a whole new perspective on life. Especially after a three-day ‘drink in all these sights with your eyes’ trip, which is probably one of the reasons why more of us are taking micro-breaks rather than 14-day fly and flops.
My micro-break this time is Malta, one of Europe’s most talked about destinations since Valletta became European Capital of Culture 2018, an island situated at the centre of the Mediterranean, basking in over 300 days of sunshine a year and just a four hour hop from Glasgow on a rainy Monday morning.
My ‘base’ for my three-day culture, cuisine and continuous sunshine trip is The Phoenicia Malta, one of Europe’s Grande Dames – an upscale 5-star architectural treasure steeped in history and charm in Floriana, overlooking the City Gates to Valletta, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built by the British in the 1930s and opened as a hotel in 1947 following its requisition by the RAF in the Second World War, the hotel was a favourite of the Queen when she and the Duke of Edinburgh lived in Malta in the 1950s and since its recent refurbishment has become one of the Leading Hotels of the World.
Grand in stature with its Art Deco façade; elegant, airy and refined, The Phoenicia Malta matches its magnificence with the warmest of welcomes. I’m shown to the Palm Court lounge at the heart of the hotel for a glass of Prosecco where I can relax in the most gently uplifting surroundings – high ornate ceilings, 1930s glass doors, grand arches and marble floors, potted palms dotted around the lounge with its cornflour blue, white and bright pink décor.
Doors lead to the main restaurant, The Phoenix Restaurant and its terrace overlooking the hotel’s lush 7.5-acre manicured grounds at the foot of the bastion walls of Valletta.
I’m taken to my Executive Room and instantly throw open the doors to my balcony to take in the most breathtaking view of Valletta and the Grand Harbour. This is a real pinch yourself moment. It’s like looking out towards the most glamorous of Bond movie settings – rows of yachts and superyachts floating on the glistening blue Mediterranean waters with a dramatic backdrop of Valletta’s unique mix of Baroque and medieval architecture.
The room is all whites and cool blues, dark natural wood and huge blue and white chinoiserie lamps at either side of what may be the largest bed I’ve ever seen. The authentic tiled floor, one of the original features of the room adds classic elegance to the fresh, modern and luxurious interior of the room. The bathroom is another treat – a mix of beige, white and chrome, Art Deco in style with a huge bath and all the luxury products and comforts you would expect from a hotel that has a place in the top 400 in the world.
I visit The Phoenix restaurant on my first night, a stunning room inspired by the grand cafés of Europe; the food is as you would expect, exquisite, courtesy of Executive Chef Daniel de Battista, who trained with the late Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. His philosophy is built around conscious eating, using the freshest of produce and local ingredients.
I had the lobster tagliatelle followed by a delicate monkfish curry, courgette and green olives. I struggled (but managed) to find room for the dreamiest of puds – a chocolate and orange mousse with orange creméux and vanilla ice cream, all accompanied by a deliciously drinkable bottle of Melqart – a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot from Malta’s Meridiana Estate.
Breakfast at The Phoenicia Malta really is fit for a king… platters of smoked salmon, local cheeses, cold cuts including ham cut from the bone, freshly squeezed Maltese oranges, the usual cooked breakfast staples, cereals, breads and a showstopping whole honeycomb. I’m tempted to live like a queen in the beautiful confines of the hotel for my three-day trip but I have a list of ‘must sees’ as long as my arm.
For a small island of 16 by 9 miles, there is an unbelievable amount to see and do but if you plan your visit well, you’ll get to ‘tick off’ these must do experiences in a relaxed, enjoyable way.
Start off at the magnificent Triton Fountain, situated a few metres from the entrance to the hotel, next to the City Gates. You’ll pass Parliament Square with Renzo Piano’s awe-inspiring Parliament Building – an architectural innovation, two huge blocks of stone, seemingly suspended in mid-air. Stroll down Republic Street and visit St John’s Co-Cathedral, Malta’s most impressive church (there are 313 churches in Malta).
You won’t be immediately impressed from the facade but as you step inside, you’ll find what is considered to be one of the finest examples of high baroque architecture in Europe. Richly ornamented in typically baroque exuberance, the church is also home to one of the greatest art treasures in the world, Caravaggio’s ‘Beheading of St. John the Baptist’.
From there, visit the 16th century Grandmaster’s Palace, the residence of the Knights of St John which now houses over 5000 suits of 15th century armour, intricately ornate in design and a huge collection of weapons from muskets to swords.
Take time to pop into Café Cordina opposite the palace for a caffeine fix and some sweet treats. Established in 1837, it’s a Maltese icon and the perfect situation for some palazzo people watching.
Meander down one of Malta’s most famous streets, Strait Street, once the seedy underbelly of Valletta where military men docked in the harbour for a good time throughout the 19th century right through to the 1950s. You’ll see these reminders of the past – the faded exteriors of bordellos where the ‘wine, women and song’ helped soldiers forget about the horrors of war. Visit StrEat Whisky & Bistro for some of the best cocktails in Valletta.
Valletta feels like a city proud of its character and history with a renewed confidence and easygoing warmth. The streets are vibrant, welcoming, casual and cosmopolitan with bars and restaurants abuzz with life and laughter. You could spend the whole day mooching through the streets and alleyways, looking upwards to admire the colourful balconies – the gallerias – a unique and iconic feature of traditional Maltese buildings.
Wander up to Upper Barrakka Gardens for some peaceful respite from the buzz and grab some shade. Built on top of a bastion at the highest point in Valletta, this was a private garden of the Knights and offers the most stunning views of the Grand Harbour and the three cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Kalkara.
The Upper Barakka Lift is a must do. The panoramic outdoor lift will take you 20 stories down from the gardens straight to Valletta’s waterfront where you can hop in a Dghajsa, a traditional Maltese gondola across the water to the Three Cities – Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua; ancient and full of mystery, with narrow streets and winding alleyways, they offer a real insight into authentic Malta life.
A short journey from there lies Mdina, an ancient fortified city dating back over 4000 years, known as the ‘Silent City’. Home to Malta’s nobility descending from Norman, Sicilian and Spanish lords as far back as the 12th century, Mdina is one of Europe’s most famous walled cities, with an extraordinary mix of medieval and baroque architecture and a distinctly Arabic influence. There’s something very ‘Thieves of Baghdad’ about the maze of narrow, winding alleyways, lit by lanterns on the walls. It feels like walking around a film set and was in fact used as a filming location for Game of Thrones.
Do not miss the opportunity to visit the small, charming, picturesque (and entirely Instagrammable) fishing village of Marsaxlokk (pronounced marsa-schlock) on the South East of the island, famous for its fish market, seafood restaurants, palm tree lined promenade and colourful Luzzu boats dotted around the harbour.
The famous Luzzu fishing boats are brightly painted in shades of yellow, red, green and blue with a pair of eyes at the front. The eyes are believed to be a modern survival of an old Phoenician tradition and are normally referred to as the Eye of Orisis, the Phoenicians’ god of protection from evil. They are a symbol of protection and good health and are believed to protect the fishermen from any harm while they are out at sea.
Food is a big thing in Malta and the food is really, really good (portions are on the large side so bear that in mind whenever you feast your eyes on the menu). If you have time, make a point of visiting Diar Il-Bniet in Dingli, Malta’s first agritourism venture. Located in an idyllic valley of olive trees this is a family run farm and restaurant producing some of the Mediterranean’s finest and most iconic food with a ‘farm to table’ approach. The restaurant is full of rustic charm and the food is fresh, wholesome and authentic.
My sightseeing days in Malta feel pretty full (there’s just so much to see), however, my travel adventures and discoveries are complemented perfectly by my stay at The Phoenicia Malta. There simply is nothing better than going into full on exploring mode during the day before returning to world class luxury to wash away the day with a swim, taking in one of the most magnificent views in Europe and of course a classic Martini from the Club Bar, shaken, not stirred…
Malta was so much more than I was expecting – it was an experience of a lifetime and one that will pull me back in Summer 2020 without a shadow of a doubt.
Rates at The Phoenicia start from €250 (Approx. £230) per room per night including breakfast. https://www.phoeniciamalta.com/
Fly from Glasgow to Malta with Jet2.com – return flights start from £153
For more information on Malta, visit http://www.visitmalta.com