Art, spas and beaches: Malta has it all

by Joe.Shooman

Whether relaxation or stimulation, there's an island in the Mediterranean that has it all...

Let’s face it, the modern world is full of noisy people rushing about getting filthy, hot and bothered and massively stressed. We’re all prone to over-reaching in our constant quest for a better life and often forget about the most important person in the whole equation: ourselves. Nobody can function at 300mph, eight days a week, for fifty-three weeks a year. And when things get too much, we all need time off anyway so why not pre-empt the boiling point by indulging in a break that is guaranteed to wash, massage and steam away the world’s day-drivel cares?

There are many places in this world to unwind but Malta is right up there with the best. The capital of Valetta is a mixture of ancient streets and very modern cafes, with stunning architecture that is well worth spending a day discovering. Walk in the footsteps of the Knights of St. John, who founded the cathedral city in 1565. Given that Malta is in such a strategic position in the Eastern Med, it's no surprise that it was soon fortified. Indeed, walk these walls and you may hear the cannons blasting to signal another day of peace here.

St John's Cathedral, the home of the knights, is a wonderful place and somewhere to truly escape from the burning heat of the day. Here in the cool peace of the cathedral it's magnificent to stroll through and see the only existing signed Michelangelo picture. It's Caravaggio that rules the roost here, though, with his realist paintings of Biblical scenes placing the viewer right in the centre of the story. No wonder these pieces of art caused such uproar in their time; they retain their power several centuries later.

Spa life is similar the world over but there are degrees of comfort that are simply a joy to behold and Fortina Spa Resort is up there with the highest of the lot. The five-star resort is a mere three hundred metres from downtown Sliema – a nice little town that is lapped by the eastern Mediterranean on both sides. Merely gazing at the blue of the sea on arrival is enough to confirm that this is a wonderful place to decompress. 

It starts, as many of the best times do, in the bedroom. The world’s first spa bedrooms, in fact (from £998 for return flights from UK for seven-night all inclusive stay, with two Thalasso pool treatments per day and one daily Spa Sante session). These places are quite simply comfort redefined. The bed itself is massive, the rooms also decked out with desks, televisions and all the usual gubbins – all have network cables but try and get one that’s within the range of the resort’s free wi-fi to check in with the world wherever you please – including on the balcony. In fact - we don’t advise it, because water and computers aren’t the best of friends – it is possible to recline in your own personal hot tub and surf the net with the private balcony doors open and the warm Maltese evening air caressing your cheeks.

But hey – put the computer down for a while, we ain’t here to work. The bathrooms in the spa bedrooms are equally high-spec, with showers that at the flick of a switch turn into heat-controllable steam rooms, generous baths and an elaborate device that looks something like an overgrown George Foreman grill but we’re assured is the last word in therapeutic heat systems. A friend of ours informs us that a few minutes inside this Star Trek-esque laydown capsule is the best hangover cure of all time. We vow to try it out the next morning.

Fortina Spa Resort boasts a huge range of possible treatments in its four themed spas. There’s rehabilitation and physio in Thalasso where a host of stars have recovered from injuries including Manchester United full-back Gary Neville, alternative therapies and beauty treatments are on offer in Hypogeum (it’s not recorded whether the Neviller made use of the vast array available here, sadly), Balinese body wraps and scrubs are the order of the day at Belle Epoque and Spa Sante is a complete de-stressing set-up where the treatments can often take two or three hours; the highly-trained staff will help you find the peace you so crave.

We opt on this occasion for a quite amazing Tri Dosha Ayurvedic massage; heady fragrant oils, skilfully-manipulated muscles and pressure points, soft lights and an hour, a day, a lifetime passes til we finally open our eyes and shimmer back toward our rooms, feeling like we’re floating six inches above the floor. It’s something we don’t realise is overdue until we feel how un-tense and de-knotted our muscles are afterwards and the sensation is indescribable.

Feeling righteous, and righteously famished, we make our way toward the six restaurants within Fortina. In the middle of these delicious refuelling stops is a swim-up bar – magic. Not that we’re big drinkers but the gold card we possess entitles us to free fare everywhere in the complex – there are silver and other cards available all of which have differing ‘powers’ and of course different prices. It’s not essential, but it’s easier not to have to think sometimes… as we find out later with a visit to the utterly delectable beaches that surround the islands. Hiring a car is advised; getting out of town is quite an experience in a country that is both European and North African, with half an eye on the Middle East. There's really nowhere quite like it on earth.

The spas and beaches might be magnificent but there's far more to Malta than that: the nightlife is surprisingly lively, with bars in nearby St. Julians full of weekend revellers. It's possible also to get in some serious gambling at the Dragonara Palace, but we sensibly refrain from playing the craps in favour of heading into Floriana, where the main square has been transformed into an excited mass party for the annual Isle of MTV festival.

As the sun goes down and the dancing begins, a host of top chart acts from Lady Gaga to Black Eyed Peas do their funky thang on the huge stage. As helicopters swoop overhead, it seems like the entire population of the islands has come to join in the fun - maybe they have. We stand and smile; the modern lights and entirely cutting-edge pop bands are framed beautifully by the magnificent buildings that surround them. It's one of those moments where the past and the present come together in gloriousness. It's warm enough for shirt sleeves, still hot enough to snaffle down several beers but cool enough to dance into a frenzy too. Malta is a place of many surprises, and this could well be the best of the lot.

We might only have managed a couple of days out of life this time, but in the hands of the masseuses and the efficient and friendly staff it feels like a timeless stretch out of the rat race to which we hate to return. But if return we must, it’s with the knowledge that an escape is a mere three hour flight from the UK. Wellness is always worth the extra mile.



North Walian Joe Shooman has edited several travel guides to Liverpool where lived for nearly a decade, working freelance for a number of travel publications and guidebooks both (inter)nationally and locally and covering such diverse places as Faroe Islands, Spain, Lithuania, Turkey and all points inbetween. He is planning adventures much further afield. As well as his travel writing, he is a music journalist and broadcaster whose work has appeared in everything from Record Collector and Plan B to Mixmag, Metal Hammer and The Fly where he is live reviews editor. His fifth book, a biography of a hugely successful US Punk group, which will be published in 2010, and he is currently co-editing a fiction anthology, also to be published early in 2010. Joe is now based in the Caribbean where he is expanding his horizons from his Cayman Islands base.