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Island hopping in the Mediterranean doesn’t have to be a pricey endeavor. TPG Contributor Lane Nieset takes us to the Mediterranean’s history-rich Maltese Islands, which are a calmer — and dare we say it, more beautiful — version of their club-centric neighbors, offering suggestions for what to do and how to save using points and miles. (All photos are by the author.)
The Maltese Islands, tucked between Sicily and North Africa, may be lacking in size — Malta is only twice as large as Washington, DC, and its sister island, Gozo, is even smaller — but they’re teeming with endless amounts of attractions, from world-renowned dive sites to coastal cliff walks and amazing Baroque churches. Taking a step further back in time, the islands’ prehistoric temple ruins, fortified cities carved from limestone and natural rock formations, are so stunning, many served as backdrops in Game of Thrones.
Malta is smack-dab in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, just a quick flight from most of mainland Europe. The national airline, Air Malta, flies nonstop from most major European cities into Malta International Airport (MLA); flights from London (LGW and LHR), Paris (CDG and ORY), Madrid (MAD) and Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) are all less than three hours away.
International airlines like Air France, British Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines also connect into Malta from destinations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. For example, Swiss offers flights from New York (JFK) and Newark (EWR) connecting in Zurich (ZRH). You can also take a number of budget airlines heading from spots in Europe, such as EasyJet from Milan (MXP); FlyNiki from Vienna (VIE); Norwegian Air Shuttle from Oslo (OSL); Ryanair flying from Dublin (DUB); and Vueling Airlines from Barcelona (BCN).
American AAdvantage: One-way from 20,000 miles (economy), 50,000 miles (business) and 62,500 miles (first) on Air Berlin, British Airways or Finnair.
United MileagePlus: One-way from 30,000 miles (economy), 57,500 miles (business) and 70,000 miles (first) on United with intra-Europe flights on Aegean, Brussels, Lufthansa, SAS, Swiss or Turkish. One-way from 70,000 (business) and 110,000 (first) when flying Brussels, Lufthansa, SAS, Swiss or Turkish across the Atlantic.
Once you arrive, it’s just a 15-minute drive to the resort-heavy town of St Julian’s and capital city Valletta. At the airport, you can catch a cab 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and find most major car rental companies such as Avis, Budget and Hertz. Malta’s small size makes getting around quite easy, taking less than an hour to get to any point on the island.
If you plan on island hopping, Malta is 58 miles south of Sicily and just a 90-minute ride away on a high-speed ferry running from the island’s capital, Valletta, to Pozzallo, Sicily.
Where to Stay
As Valletta gears up to be the European Capital of Culture in 2018, the fortified peninsula — and World Heritage site — is putting more of its history on display as old homes on the city’s narrow streets transform into boutique hotels, giving new life to ancient buildings. One example is the 10-room Trabuxu Boutique Living hotel, located in a restored 400-year-old palazzo that melds Malta’s traditional architecture with more modern décor and design. Rates start at 155 euros (about $172) per night.
North of Valletta, the town of St Julian’s is known as the “Golden Mile,” thanks to the strip of five-star hotels lining the sea. Here’s where you’ll find many of the island’s points hotels, as well as international restaurants, shops and nightlife. The Westin Dragonara Resort, Malta was the first Westin property to open up in Europe, and all 340 rooms have views over the sea. The hotel offers some of the largest rooms on the island, perfect for families since most of the accommodations have two queen-size Heavenly beds. The resort-style spot also features the Westin Family Kids Club for children 3 to 12 years old, as well as two private beach lidos and one of the top seafood restaurants on the island, Quadro Restaurant, where you can earn double Starpoints on your meal. Rates for the SPG Category 4 hotel start at 210 euros (about $233) or 10,000 Starpoints.
Nearby, the 410-room Hilton Malta is located on the Portomaso Yacht Marina, so your room may have a balcony overlooking either the marina or the sea. The five-star hotel features five restaurants and three bars, as well as four outdoor pools and the Myoka 5 Senses Spa. Rates at the HHonors Reward Category 6 hotel start at 208 euros (about $230) per night or 50,000 HHonors Points.
Just a 25-minute ferry ride away, the more rugged island of Gozo features the five-star, 131-room Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz, a Visa Signature Hotels property that grants perks like room upgrades and late check-out to Visa Signature cardholders (e.g., Chase Sapphire Preferred, Marriott Rewards Premier, Southwest Premier, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines card, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors, etc.). Note that Malta’s The Xara Palace and The Palace are also Visa Signature properties.
Gozo is also home to the 84-room Hotel Ta’ Cenc & Spa, but since the island itself is seen as a technological detox and city escape — even by the Maltese themselves — you could instead opt for one of the charming farmhouses or homes on Airbnb that offer a more local taste of Gozo. During summer, most go for around $100 a night and you can even rack up reward points for your stay or redeem American Express Membership Rewards for Airbnb eGift Cards in denominations of $100 or $250.
What to Do
Festa (or feast) season takes place in Malta from the end of May through September, with a different village celebrating its feast each week, typically lasting three or more days. When you visit these villages, you’ll see them at their best — freshly painted homes, banners and decorations in the streets, lit-up churches — and be able to take part in the tradition as locals celebrate with food stands and fireworks.
Since the islands’ human-inhabited history spans 7,000 years, you’ll find plenty of cultural and archaeological sites scattered throughout Malta and Gozo. Some of the most impressive are the Megalithic Temples, such as the hillside Hagar Qim, a UNESCO World Heritage site on Malta’s rugged Southern coastline, built between 3600 and 3200 B.C. and overlooking the islet of Filfla.
You won’t want to miss a visit to the islands’ capital, Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with 320 monuments, palaces and churches that date back to the 16th century. One of its highlights is St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum, a Baroque church built in 1577 and dedicated to the Knights of St John, whose marble tombs line the cathedral floors.
And if you head to nearby St. Julian’s, try authentic Maltese cuisine at waterfront restaurant Gululu, which serves traditional dishes like Torta tal-Fenek, or rabbit pie.
The Maltese Islands are also known as one of the top scuba diving destinations in the world, with some of the best dive spots right off of Gozo. Just next to the rock arch forming the Azure Window in Dwejra, where Game of Thrones shot Daenerys’ wedding scene in season one, lies the Blue Hole, one of the most popular shore dive spots in the area thanks to the visibility down in the 130-foot-hole. If you’re not much for diving, you can simply swim in the hole and admire the view of the turquoise water and nearby rock formations— which is a lovely way to spend a Mediterranean afternoon.
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Have you visited the Maltese Islands or are you planning a trip soon? Share some of your favorite experiences in the comments below.
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