Malta rocks

by Ella.Buchan

You might think it’s just a big, hot rock in the Med, but there’s a whole lot more to Malta than meets the eye

Champagne on arrival, massive balcony, a hot tub behind your bed and, for a little extra, a swimming pool on your roof... It sounds like the kind of hotel room Mariah Carey might demand at her most diva-ish. But at the Fortina Spa Resort in Malta this celebrity lifestyle will set you back around £200 a night, with gorgeous à la carte meals included.
It was not what I was expecting before arriving in Malta, which lies just south of Sicily and north of Africa. “That barren rock in the Med” was how a friend described it. But I reckon he must have gone to the wrong bit.
The Fortina sits just back from the seafront in Sliema, opposite the looming yellow stone buildings of Valletta, Malta’s capital city, which is just a short ferry ride away. There, it is easy to spot the remnants of British culture – Malta was a British colony until 1964. The signs are almost exclusively in English, and shops include Miss Selfridge and Mothercare. Still, the dipping and winding cobbled streets, baroque buildings and scorching summer weather confirm you are definitely not in Blighty anymore.
Wandering around Valletta’s shops, markets and harbour walls, you will be offered a tour on a horse-drawn carriage at least once every five minutes. In fact it gets to the point where saying no becomes just too much effort – so you might as well give in. It is worth doing to get your bearings, learn a little about the city’s rich history and maybe even get a ride down to the harbour in time for your return ferry to Sliema. But don’t pay more than 20 Euros – it’s worth haggling.
My friend, Sofia, and I set off for our weekend in Malta relishing the chance to just lounge by the pool, eat nice food and drink decent beer – well, what else is there to do in Malta? So we didn’t know whether to be disappointed or pleasantly surprised by the amount there is to see and do on this tiny island.
Valletta can be ‘done’ in half a day at a push, but then there is the ancient walled city of Mdina, with more than 4,000 years of history to explore. More pebbly and sandy beaches skirt the island than you could possibly lie on. There are charming villages, rural landscapes, caves and warm seas to dip your toes in. The island’s size – it is just 121 square miles – belies the amount it has to offer. And that’s before you even consider the adjacent island of Gozo and, in between, the tiny islet of Comino. 
Which is a shame if you only have a long weekend to explore – especially when you have what is basically a spa in your hotel room. Forget bog standard en suites. At the Fortina, the baths (or ‘stress busters’) are equipped with soothing, massaging or pummelling jets. The shower is also a sauna, and what looks like a space pod – but is in fact a detoxifying ‘dermalife’ machine – looms in the centre of the bathroom.
With all this gadgetry at our fingertips, not to mention an all-inclusive mini bar and a hot tub to drink it in, it was tempting not to leave the room at all. When I did, it was hard to force myself beyond the hotel’s yummy restaurants, which offered everything from delicate, mouth-watering Japanese dishes to perfect pizzas and hearty brasserie meals like rabbit stew. And then, with a pool complex, swim-up cocktail bar and drinks included in the price, it would have been rude not to have at least one piña colada...
Still, we’d heard Malta’s nightlife was worth checking out. The picturesque bay of St Julian’s is where it’s at, with classy open-air bars and restaurants dotted by the water. St Rita Steps, lined with drinking holes and clubs that throb with neon, form the epicentre of the area’s nightlife. But if you are over 11 and prefer not to wade through a sea of miniature revellers of an evening, it is probably best avoided.
If you want a more civilised evening, check out the wine bars and rooftops of hotels closer to the harbour. After cramming in as many sauna and steam bath sessions as possible (without morphing into a puddle of sweat), I dragged myself out to the Spirit of Malta – a huge catamaran that sails out to different bays in Malta, Gozo and Comino. This is a boat built and decked out for pure pleasure, from the acres of space to lay your towel for a sunbathing marathon to the completely free bar down below.
We dropped anchor for a swim and snorkel at Comino’s Blue Lagoon – like a clear, warm swimming pool poured into a vacuum in the Mediterranean Sea. There was no need to step foot ashore. A speedboat pootled around, delivering ice cream to us and the rest of the floating temporary village of yachts, dinghies and clippers. It was a taste of a different life – one where you just find a spot in the sunshine and the little pleasures come to you. And far from being a barren rock, Malta has pleasure in abundance, just waiting to be discovered.