Today we have the first of two guest posts from Albert. This first one is on Malta which is a place I have always wanted to visit.
After Action Report (AAR): Malta, January 2018
Greetings, Fellow Travelers!
Bottom-line Up Front (BLUF): An enjoyable Italy-lite destination full of ancient ruins, walkable fortress cities, and “Game of Thrones” film locations, Malta is the unsung hero of the Mediterranean. It’s worth a visit any time of year, but winter travel offers fewer tourists and lower prices.
Today’s AAR takes us to the Republic of Malta.
For those of us lucky enough to be stationed in Europe or savvy enough with our travel planning, visiting destinations during the off-season is the perfect way to avoid the hordes of vacationers and save some cash.
In January, we traveled to Malta to take in its walled cities and high 50s/low 60s temps. Located just south of Sicily, the archipelago nation is a very popular summer destination for Europeans looking for warm water and sunny beaches. However, in the winter, the street have less traffic, UNESCO World Heritage sites have fewer people, and the resort hotels, usually packed with gamblers and cruise shippers, have very reasonably priced rates.
We flew Lufthansa from Stuttgart (STR) to Malta (MLA) via Frankfurt (FRA). Ticket prices were $276 per person. We both have Star Alliance Gold status (through United), so we had access to the Lufthansa Senator and Business Class lounges in STR and FRA. In MLA, on our return, Lufthansa uses the La Vallette Lounge. The Lufthansa lounges are always solid places to get a snack and a drink. Star Alliance contract lounges, like La Vallette, can be hit or miss; however, this lounge was pretty spectacular. It had a nice selection of hot dishes and a really great open-air patio with views of the tarmac. All and all, an excellent place to spend time before boarding.
For Malta, we rented a car as we wanted to see as much as possible over the long MLK weekend at our own pace. Please note that driving in Malta is on the UK side of the road. Malta also has narrow streets and lots and lots of traffic circles. Drive with caution…and with insurance!
Given the off season, finding a posh hotel at an affordable price was top of my list. I chose the Cugó Gran Macina Grand Harbour hotel in Senglea, a city on a small peninsula just south of Valletta, the Maltese capital. Booked with points, the Cugó Gran is part of Marriott’s Design Hotel collection. Per Marriott, Design Hotels are a carefully curated portfolio of independent, uniquely-designed hotels to share, inspire, and celebrate an original experience. (You gotta love marketing material!)
The hotel is part of a fortress built in 1552 by the Knights of the Order of St John (The Baptist) to protect Senglea from invaders. We booked one of the Fortress Suites, an interior room in the ancient wall of the fortress. It was a great room with vaulted ceilings that really opened up the space. A Design Hotel is the perfect choice if you’re looking for a unique hotel experience. During the off-season, the room runs about $250/night, and during the high-season, more than double that is standard.
The area surrounding the hotel consisted of harbor-side Italian restaurants, the Malta at War Museum, the Maltese Inquisition Inquisitor’s Palace, and Fort St. Angelo. If you have an interest in old stone fortresses and medieval warfare, Senglea has a lot to offer within walking distance.
Across Senglea is Valletta, the capital. Accessible via a ferry from Senglea or by car, Valletta is a walled city with a former moat and many ornate and elaborately-styled buildings. We spent the afternoon wandering the pedestrian areas admiring the colorfully-painted doors and bay windows, which the Maltese use to help differentiate their similarly-colored sandstone buildings. Due east of the city center is the Siege Bell War Memorial, honoring the Maltese and British who successfully defended the island from Germany and Italy during WWII. From here you can get excellent views of Senglea and some of the fortresses across the harbor.
The fortress city of Mdina was our next stop, the island’s capital during medieval times. Located almost at the center of the island, Mdina sits on a hill overlooking eastern Malta. With an even bigger moat, one you can walk through as it’s now a park, Mdina has long, tall corridors winding from the main city gate towards the northeast wall where you can take some amazing pictures of the island and the Med.
Mdina was featured in season 1 of “Game of Thrones,” and the series has filmed in Valletta and the neighboring island of Gozo. You can book specific GoT tours to visit all the site–a must for fans of the series. Our driving took us to a few GoT sites, but recently some friends booked a day-long private tour around the island to see the show’s major and minor filming locations. They said a private tour is the way to go. (Thanks for the travel tip, Katherine and Nick!)
In the southeastern part of the island is Hagar Qim, the Stonehenge of Malta. This ancient temple consists of two main sites constructed with giant stones. We wandered around the site which is surprisingly well-preserved. We also watched the short 4D movie in the Visitors Center which traces the construction and eventual excavation of Hagar Qim in 1839. Pay admission is required.
Just down from Hagar Qim is the Blue Grotto, a natural sea inlet with bluer-than-blue crystal clear water (hence the name) and lots of seafood restaurants. We parked, walked to the water, took some pictures, and enjoyed the sea air.
Much closer to the city center are the Tarxien Temples, another ancient religious site constructed circa 3150 BC. The temples are surrounded by a raised walkway making views and pictures more three-dimensional. Similar to Hagar Qim, you have the opportunity to walk through the structures for a close-up of the chambers and even see a few wall drawings. Parking is street parking. Pay admission is required.
Malta is also home to a large aquarium and Popeye’s Village, the refurbished set from the 1980’s Robin Williams cult classic movie musical. While the island is relatively small, we opted to do only one or two big items per day, so we never made it to these destinations. Malta also has casinos around St. Julian’s, a city just outside of Valletta where many larger hotels and resorts are located.
Malta’s food scene is primarily seafood with Italian influences. We ate around Senglea at nicely appointed restaurants with friendly staff. Most Maltese speak English, and menus are in English too. We found the food simple but really fresh. On our last night, though, we wanted to return to the place we enjoyed the first night, but they had shut down for their winter holiday earlier that afternoon. While we didn’t notice many stores and shops closed, off-season travelers may find a few places closed for an owner’s seasonal vacation.
Malta is on the euro making it easy for those of us stationed in Germany who already carry that currency. Malta is also part of the Schengen zone, part of the open borders/no immigration group of European counties. Both items made Malta a pretty attractive vacation spot.
In sum, we were happy to have made the trip to Malta. We wanted to see the ancient ruins, visit some GoT sites, and go to a place in Europe off the beaten path.
I recommend a visit.