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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Jenny Miller takes us to a Mediterranean island nation where the English-speaking population, a year-round average temperature of 74 degrees Fahrenheit, and an abundance of both beaches and historic cities add up to an excellent vacation destination. We’re going to Malta!
If you happen to be heading to Malta, a not-uncommon question you’ll get from friends, cell phone company reps, and pretty much any other American you speak to is: “Where?”
This tiny island nation, which sits smack in the middle of the Mediterranean – that is, roughly 50 miles south of Sicily and 200 miles north of Libya – is the smallest country in the EU and a popular European vacation destination thanks to its easy access and balmy weather. Despite having just 400,000 residents, it’s also one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
WHAT TO DO
Technically an archipelago, only three of Malta’s islands are inhabited, and one just barely. The largest of these, bearing the unsurprising name of Malta, is where most of the action is: hotels, restaurants, and the capital of Valletta, a picturesque former walled city that is today a UNESCO World Heritage site. You’ll probably want to stay on Malta, either in Valletta itself or in the nightlife hub of St. Julian’s – which is touristy, yes, but also frequented by locals looking for a good time – and then make day trips to Gozo and Comino. While renting a car could be a benefit for exploring island back roads, it’s not a necessity thanks to Malta’s excellent bus system and plentiful taxis.
Malta proper can seem very built-up, and it’s on Gozo that you’ll find tiny, quiet stone villages alongside rocky and barely-traversed beaches. Unlike the main island, you’ll want to rent a car here (which is easily and cheaply transported on the 20-minute Malta-Gozo ferry) for exploring this island, which is home to fascinating historic sites like the Megalithic Temples of Malta, that date back to 5,000 BC and are thought to be among the world’s oldest freestanding structures. Comino is accessed via a different ferry, and its primary attraction is the Blue Lagoon, a brilliant aqua expanse that’s paradise for snorkelers, divers and swimmers.
A night out in St. Julian’s is a festive proposition; the Paceville district is made for bar-crawling: bars are close together, drinks are affordable, and the party spills out into the street most nights. At some point you’ll inevitably find yourself on a pedestrian-only stretch where pretty much every establishment (comically) seems to be named Hugo’s.
WHERE TO EAT
Don’t miss the opportunity to explore Maltese cuisine. Thanks to the islands’ prime position between Europe and Africa, and the West and the East, they’ve seen a lot of different inhabitants and cultures over the centuries (including a stint as a British colony in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries), and this cultural layering is reflected in the food. Rabbit is served everywhere as matter of national pride. Italy plays a big influence in the form of abundant pasta and pizza, and so does Britain, where the ubiquitous savory pie snacks known as pastizzi have their origins. You’ll also notice tons of seafood, of course, and a fondness for spices that nods to Arabic and even Indian influence, from Malta’s days as an important stop on the spice-trade route.
For an excellent version of Maltese pizza and the potato-topped pie known as ftira, swing by Maxokk Bakery in the quiet village of Nadur on Gozo. The tiny shop devotes 95% of its space to baking operations with just a few square feet where you sidle up to place your order. You’ll have to wait 30 minutes for your pies, but it’s worth it for these crisp-crusted beauties, which taste all the better if you take them to eat at nearby Ramla Bay beach.
In St. Julian’s, Wigi’s Kitchen is popular with both locals and tourists for its superb Italian-leaning meat dishes and fresh catch of the day, and don’t miss out on a meal at Legliglin in Valetta (reservations recommended). Technically a wine bar, but the spot’s 20 EUR tasting menu is a bargain and a treat. A parade of bite-size morsels dished out one at a time, maybe sublime locally-caught crudo, several varieties of meatballs, fresh goat cheese, chicken curry, rabbit… until you cry “uncle,” all washed down with local or Italian wines. If you’re craving a nightcap, pop around the corner to Tico Tico, a local favorite where the fun spills out onto soft couches and chairs arrayed in the alleyway.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Malta International Airport (MLA) is centrally located on the main island and hosts daily flights from many major European cities. The local airline, Air Malta, operates mainly within Europe. In Star Alliance, you have Lufthansa (an Air Malta partner), which offers flights to Malta from a number of North American cities (Chicago, New York, Washington, and Los Angeles among them), connecting via Frankfurt, Munich or Dusseldorf. In the Oneworld alliance you can fly to Malta from various points in Europe on Air Berlin. If you prefer SkyTeam, Air France flies from Paris and Alitalia via Rome.
Because it’s slightly tricky to reach directly from the US (and a rather long trip), Malta tends to be a better addendum to a European jaunt than a destination on its own. Knowing that, it’s good to keep in mind that budget airlines including EasyJet and Ryanair fly there from a number of European cities.
Once you arrive, getting to and from the airport is a cinch. Public buses with X in their number go from MIA to points in Valletta and St. Julian’s (check here for details). Taxis cost a flat 20 EUR ($27.50) to St. Julian’s and 15 EUR ($21.50) to Valletta and there are cheaper shuttles available via Malta Transfer – purchase tickets for that at baggage claim.
Radison Blu Resort & Spa, Malta Golden Sands: Located on the opposite side of Malta from Valletta and St. Julian’s, this 329-room seaside hotel is a true beach retreat. It offers complimentary WiFi in all rooms, along with coffee and tea maker, bathrobe/slippers and a flatscreen TV. On site there are three full-service restaurants, several bars, a seasonal outdoor eatery, and an ice cream parlor. You’ll also find outdoor and indoor pools, beach access, a health club and a salon and spa. Rates start at 100 EUR ($138) per night in mid January. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 38,000 Club Carlson points for an award night.
Radison Blu Resort, Malta St. Julian’s: Across the island in St. Julian’s, this hotel also overlooks the Mediterranean. Its 252 rooms all boast balconies or terraces as well as complimentary WiFi access and cable TV. There are indoor and outdoor pools, four restaurants and one bar, a fully-equipped gym and two tennis courts. In addition, the hotel has its own diving school, which offers lessons in wreck diving, night diving, boat diving and technical diving. Room rates start at 90 EUR ($122) per night in January. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 38,000 Club Carlson points for an award night.
Hilton Malta: This large hotel has a prime location in St. Julian’s, next to the harbor and in between the Paceville nightlife area and the rest of town. All rooms come with 25-inch flatscreen TVs, fluffy bathrobes, work desks, and each has it’s own terrace or balcony. Executive Rooms offer access to the Executive Lounge and Business Lounge with complimentary breakfast and refreshments. WiFi costs extra. It’s home to three year-round restaurants (including Thai and seafood options) and two seasonal eateries. There’s a conference center and 19 meeting rooms on-site, two levels of pools, and plenty of fitness offerings including a gym, bicycle rental and water sports arrangements. Room rates start at 145 EUR ($200) per night in January. This is a Category 6 hotel and requires 40,000 HHonors points for an award night in January.
Intercontinental Malta: If it’s nightlife you’re looking for, this is a good home base since it’s just around the corner from the most bustling part of Paceville’s bar district. Rooms have a workspace with a desk, coffee and tea maker, balconies, and WiFi for a fee. That said, the 451-room hotel is also great for relaxing: there are indoor and outdoor pools, a giant gym, a spa and eight restaurants and bars, including the well-regarded Waterbiscuit. Down the street is a private beach with another popular restaurant, Paranga, situated right on the water. Guests opting for an IC Club room receive access to the 15th-floor Club Lounge with complimentary breakfast and refreshments throughout the day. Room rates for start at 80 EUR ($121) in January. This is a Category 8 hotel requiring 45,000 points for an award night.
Le Meridien St. Julian’s Hotel & Spa: This 276-roomer is centrally situated in St. Julian’s. Rooms sport balconies and separate shower and toilet areas, an iPod docking station, coffee and tea maker, a flatscreen TV, plus WiFi for a fee. Executive Rooms offer work desks and complimentary WiFi, plus access to the Executive Lounge, with complimentary breakfast, snacks, and pre-dinner drinks. It boasts two restaurants, including a brasserie, and a bar cheekily named Ku de Ta. There’s a large spa and indoor and outdoor fitness offerings, including water sports. Room rates start at 110 EUR ($151) per night in January. This is a Category 3 hotel requiring 7,000 Starpoints for an award night.
Westin Dragonara: Perched at the north end of St. Julian’s, this hotel and casino juts dramatically into the sea. Each of the 340 rooms has a balcony with views of the Mediterranean; in addition, rooms are equipped with WiFi for a fee, Westin Heavenly Beds, their signature White Tea scent amenities and flatscreen TVs. Forty Executive Rooms offer free WiFi and access to the Executive Club Lounge, with complimentary breakfast, free newspapers, and pre-dinner drinks. The hotel has three restaurants and a bar, indoor and outdoor pools, two private beaches, a spa, gym, and beauty salon. Room rates start at 152 EUR ($209) per night in January. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 10,000 Starpoints for an award night.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux: This five-star boutique hotel is housed in a 17th-century former palace located in the fortified city of Mdina, in the center of the island of Malta. The 17 rooms and suites are outfitted with antique furnishings and paintings by Maltese artists; four of them boast jacuzzis on private terraces. Each room also comes with a safe, stereo, and marble bathroom. The on-site De Mondion restaurant is rated among the top places to eat in Malta, and there are a number of nearby venues operated by the hotel for occasions such as weddings. Room rates start at 200 EUR ($275) per night in January.
Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz Gozo: This is the only hotel on this list that’s located on the island of Gozo. Rooms feature a safe, flatscreen TV, a balcony, and beautiful views of the countryside. This property is made for relaxation, with grounds fashioned as the Mediterranean countryside, an award-winning spa, two pools, and tennis, squash, and gym facilities. There’s also a hotel dive center for booking SCUBA and other water exploration. Guests also enjoy free wi-fi, on-site meeting facilities, and complimentary bus service to Gozo’s beaches and its picturesque capital, Victoria. Room rates start at 105 EUR ($144) per night in January.