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Destination of the Week: Malta

by on December 13, 2013 · 8 comments

in Destination of the Week

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!

The beautiful island of Malta.

The beautiful island of 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

Valletta, Malta.

The capital city of Valletta.

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.

Gozo, Malta.

The quiet stone village of Gozo.

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.

St. Julians is a popular destination for partying in Malta.

St. Julian’s is a popular destination for partying in Malta.

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.

Potato Pie at Maxokk Bakery.

Potato Pie at Maxokk Bakery.

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.

Legliglin Restaurant in Malta.

Legliglin Restaurant in Malta.

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.

YOUR EXPERIENCES

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.

GETTING THERE

Malta Airport

Malta International Airport.

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.

HOTELS

Club Carlson

Radisson Blu Malta

A guest room at the Radisson Blu Malta.

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.

Dine at the Radisson Blu St. Julians.

Dine at the Radisson Blu, Malta St. Julian’s.

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

Exterior view of the Hilton Malta.

The exterior view of the Hilton Malta.

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.

IHG/Priority Club

Poolside at the Intercontinental Malta.

Poolside at the Intercontinental Malta.

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.

Starwood

Have a cocktail at the Le Meridien St Julian.

Have a cocktail at the Le Meridien St Julian’s.

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.

A guestroom at the Westin Dragonara.

A guestroom at the Westin Dragonara.

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.

Visa Signature

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.

The Xara Palace.

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.

A guestroom at the Kempinki Gozo.

A guestroom at the Kempinski Gozo.

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.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author.s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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  • RakSiam

    I was there for a while several years ago. I rented a floor in a rowhouse which was not as great as I had hoped but was in the middle of a neighborhood so it felt more like local living.

    You don’t need to rent a car for Gozo. You can just book a tour and they will drive you around to the main sights. In my tour there were two jeeps and less than 10 people. Definitely great things to see over there.

    Get a ticket to the Hypogeum if you can. I think I booked mine before my trip as there are a limited number of visitors allowed inside each day to try and preserve it. It’s essentially an underground cave complex built thousands of years ago. I don’t think anyone knows how exactly, just like with the megalithic temples.

    Now I want to go back.

  • Chris

    My brother lived in France for a year or so and visited Malta during holiday. He liked it so much he moved there for 6 or 7 months before coming back to the states. The weather seems perfect year round, sunny skies and temperate heat. He spent a lot of time jumping off the cliffs where the locals go to swim and even rubbed elbows with the Maltese President at the restaurant where he worked. Small place, sounds really nice.

  • brooke

    Loved Malta! My husband’s family is Maltese and we wanted to visit some of the places we had always heard about. For the best pastizzi, try maximus right next to the Hilton St. juliens bay. We stayed at the Le Meridien on points on the executive floor and the lounge is not to be missed! Be sure to try the local soda, Kinnie, a spicy orange drink. Only complaint about the le Meridian was their tv notification system, when they announced activities for the hotel it turned on both of our tvs to full volume and played an alarm sound that wouldn’t stop until you physically turned off the tvs, quite annoying during our daughter’s nap time!! Their indoor pool was fantastic and helped beat the heat.

  • Jody

    My sister studied abroad there and was gang raped by a group of Maltese men. They were later acquitted by the local judge that was a family member of one of those men.

  • Marib

    Visited Malta back in November 2006, and that was exactly the reaction of friends – “Where?”. We stayed at the Westin Dragonara on a corporate rate that was great. Hotel was pretty deserted – not pool or beach time. On the 4th day we discovered they were painting the room next door – never heard or smelled anything – that kind of quiet! We really enjoyed Malta, spending a full week exploring. The most amazing was seeing Gigantia (probably misspelled that) on the island of Gozo – supposedly the oldest man-made structure on earth – almost unfathomable to think about that. We made a short port stop in Valletta on a cruise in Nov. 2009 and it was great for a short visit again. Highly recommend Malta since there is so much history and lots to see and do – and I am sure the Westin would be nice in warmer weather.

  • http://www.adventurouskate.com Adventurous Kate

    Just wanted to point out that ftira is not a potato-topped pie — it’s a big piece of round bread, often topped with tomatoes, onions, capers, tuna and olive oil.

    Source: marrying a Maltese dude. :-)

    Malta is a wonderful place to visit — I recommend it highly!

  • BobChi

    I was in Malta a few years ago and loved it. My own suggestion would be to avoid the chain hotels and stay in a locally run location. There are some eye-poppingly inexpensive rooms to be had on hotel booking sites. Save your points for a place where lodging is more costly.

  • Alan

    Timing was great… I was looking to rebook a canceled United MileagePlus flight before it ‘expired’ and manage to get ‘cheap’ freebies from the US to Malta via Frankfurt with a two night stopover on the return. Looking forward to it!

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