It has a fascinating military past, the world’s only signed Caravaggio painting, great weather, food and wine, they drive on the left and everyone speaks English – it’s time to think again about Malta
Malta has been a tourist destination for Brits since the package holidays of the 1970s, but now, with more Brits looking for high-quality holidays and lots of facilities, Malta offers some truly outstanding hotels and spas for a quality and rejuvenating break.
Just three hours’ flight from the UK, Malta and sister island Gozo has some five-star spa hotels which, coupled with its great climate, make it a good choice for a break, especially in the off-season months of October to December.
The Kempinski Hotel in San Lawrenz in Gozo is a five-star complex with all that suggests. There are tennis and squash courts, swimming pools and the Ayurveda centre. This offers body massages, facials, care for the hands & feet and baths. After a cleansing massage a quick dip in the pool and Jacuzzi is thoroughly refreshing and a real treat after leaving an autumnal UK. The rooms are as huge as the TV screens, ground floor rooms have a small patio and there is fruit and bottled water in every room. The hotel is Moorish style, spacious and classy and there is a delightful vegetable garden beyond the huge outdoor pool.
Another choice on the small island of Gozo is the Ta’ Cenc Hotel, built on the island’s highest point just outside the village of Sannat. The views from up here, in 160 hectares of perfectly-manicured gardens, are wonderful, with Malta’s coast just visible, the landscape punctuated with ancient lookout towers and olive trees. The hotel’s gardens are a riot of colours and textures, with pomegranates, lilies and lemons growing happily well into October. The spa area is large, spotlessly clean and offering all the facilities you would expect from a five-star hotel, including Hopi Ear candles. This is an Indian treatment using candles which gently remove excessive ear wax, leaving the ears feeling cleaned out. It’s a lovely feeling, which you can celebrate with a swim, steam and a sauna to clean out the rest of your body. Fluffy robes and towels are provided and there are plenty of loungers to stretch out on. David Beckham and Gary Neville have stayed here, and they know a thing or two about hotels.
Back on Malta itself the Palace Hotel in Sliema may be slightly optimistically named, but it offers similar five-star services but this time in the middle of a town, with plenty of shops and bars nearby. It’s a slick, glass and steel, modern hotel with an indoor pool and spa, as well as an infinity pool on the ninth floor roof which also has a trendy bar to bring you a cocktail after your swim.
After all of that pampering, buffing, swimming and steaming, your body will feel rejuvenated so it’s time to do the same to your mind.
Malta has a long and fascinating history, and it was here that famous Italian painter Caravaggio escaped to when he was on the run after he murdered a man over a line call in a tennis match – eat your heart out John McEnroe. Caravaggio became a Knight in his time in Malta, and produced two stunning pictures which are on view at the Oratory of the Church of St John in Valletta, Malta’s busy capital. Saint Jerome Writing is a deceptively simple portrait of a saint, but with Caravaggio’s trademark dramatic lighting and slightly ghoulish supparating human flesh colours. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is the real draw here though, a huge, dramatic picture showing the moment when John’s head is about to be finally cut from his neck by the executioner’s knife. What is shocking is the expression on the faces of two onlookers who appear to be prisoners, and of the disinterested expression of Salome. Again the human flesh seems on the point of greying with death, and the colours and vast dark areas give the picture a theatrical feel. It’s no surprise that many film directors, like Martin Scorsese, claim Caravaggio is a major influence.
The British influence is all over Malta, no more so than in another centre of culture, the Manoel Theatre. Here you’ll find productions such as Calendar Girls and Legally Blonde, but the real British influence appears at Christmas – the theatre holds a panto which sells out quickly. The small but perfectly formed architectural gem also holds baroque musical evenings and kids’ shows, and is worth a visit just for its sumptuous interior and perfect acoustics – all the seats have a perfect view of the stage. The history of the theatre is also fascinating, take a tour if there’s time.
Valetta is the cultural heart of Malta and also its strategic centre, best understood from the harbour. Down on the waterfront it’s possible to take a boat trip across the harbour on the gondola-like ‘dghajsa’ boat. Slightly smaller than a gondola it weaves its way across the deep waters of Valetta harbour, and it’s here you begin to understand why Malta was such an important strategic spot in the past. Here Napoleon invaded, and Nelson had to rescue the island from the French, and here it was that the Nazis bombed during the second world war. The whole island was granted a medal for its bravery during WWII.
After all of that walking, history and art it’s time for some more pampering, this time at Le Meridien St Julians Hotel and Spa. Bordering Sliema it has another impressive array of spa treatments, including the Lotus Signature experience. This includes a scrub with sea salt to remove dead skin, then a massage with hot oils rubbed into the back. Your shoulders will never have felt better, and after a steam and swim in the small pool you’ll be thoroughly relaxed.
Malta has come a long way since the Watneys Red Barrel and sunstroke days of the 1970s, now offering superb hotels and spa centres but still maintaining its Mediterranean air of cool and culture. Those three hours on a plane are well worth it.
Malta is extremely well serviced out of the U.K with direct routes from regional airports across the country with the island’s national carrier Air Malta as well as a number of low cost airlines.