Often dismissed as little more than a package tourism bolthole in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta is a place of surprising diversity and no little history.
Precise knowledge of this island nation's past, in the UK at least, is usually limited to the fact that it was once part of the British Empire (from 1814 to 1964, trivia fans) and played a key strategic role in World War Two – but Malta's story can be traced way back into the fourth century BC.
The temple of Ħagar Qim may have been built as early as 3600BC, making it one of the oldest man-made structures on the planet – proof indeed that this island has more to offer than kiss-me-quick hats and half-melted ice cream.
Of course, referring to Malta as an 'island nation' is also something of an oversight. Technically, it's an archipelago of rocky outcrops, only three of which – the main island (Malta), Gozo and Comino – are inhabited.
Together they make up a mere 122 square miles of land, but there's much to enjoy nonetheless – the delightful walled capital city of Valletta, a collection of lovely beaches, fabulous sea views and waters perfect for scuba diving, to name a small selection. True, some areas are rowdier than others, but with a spot of pre-planning Malta can be every bit as rewarding a Mediterranean holiday destination as some of the more celebrated Greek islands.
As the capital, Valletta is the key city of Malta. It's a delightful spot, standing proud on a short peninsula on the main island's north-east coast, and blessed with a visible history that saw it granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1980. Much of this is surely down to its picturesque harbour and preserved walls. A walk around the latter, especially where they run along the waterfront, gives a clear picture of how sturdy a stronghold the city must have been when it was founded in the mid-16th century.
Fairly compact, it's an easy city to explore on foot. Indeed, the 16th century layout and narrow, steep streets, make walking the best option. St John's Co-Cathedral, built by the Knights Hospitaller (as was much of the city) in the 1570s, is the main religious showpiece (www.stjohnscocathedral.com). An imposing structure, it looks like a fortress from the outside, but reveals a grandiose, art-laden interior. Elsewhere, the National Museum Of Archaeology pays tribute to the island's ancient past, while the Upper Barrakka Gardens, the city's highest point, offer sublime views of the harbour.
Just north of Valletta, St Julian's and (particularly) Sliema are Malta's main tourist areas, home to the busiest sections of seafront, the greatest selection of restaurants and bars, and the main stretches of high-rise accommodation. If you've come to Malta for a week of unadulterated sun worship, you're likely to spend most of your time here.
Despite its popularity, this eastern section of Malta is not overly blessed with soft sands. Much of the coastline here is rocky. Two of the main island's finest beaches – Ghajn Tuffieha and Golden Bay – are actually found in the north-west. The latter, aptly named, was used for the filming of the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster Troy.
Gozo is considerably less crowded than its larger colleague (take the ferry from the small port of Cirkewwa, at the northern tip of the main island), and offers the welcoming red-sand strip that is Ramla Bay, on its northern shore. Arguably the finest beach in Malta, the bay also has a claim to fame – the Calypso Cave, which overlooks it, is, according to popular repute (if not historical fact), the rocky enclave where the nymph of the same name imprisoned Odysseus in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey.
Valletta, the beaches and resort areas will absorb most of your attention during a stay in Malta, but the archipelago has a number of other sights that are well worth seeking out. The temple complex of Ħagar Qim stands on a hill at the southern edge of the main island, and should not be missed by anyone who has even the vaguest interest in history. Mdina, a medieval town at the centre of the island, is the former capital, and was home to the governor's palace during Roman times. The 220-metre Dingli Cliffs, on the west coast, offer splendid views out to sea. Marsaxlokk, meanwhile, is a charming fishing village on the south-east corner of the main island, and a window on how Malta looked before the advent of tourism and high-rise hotel construction.
The smallest inhabited island, Comino, is home to the Blue Lagoon – an undeniably lovely spot, even if, as a major attraction, it is never anything less than bustling.
The quality of food on offer varies greatly according to which part of Malta you are standing in. Sliema and St Julian's specialise in the sort of cheap-and-easy pub grub found in seafront tourist areas Europe over, although there are some good exceptions to the burger-and-chips-with-a-side-order-of-bacon-and-eggs rule. St Julian's Bay, for example, has some excellent eateries overlooking the water, not least Barracuda (194-195 Main Street) – a celebrity magnet (Brad Pitt reputedly ate here during the filming of Troy) housed in an 18th century harbour building, and server of top-notch seafood.
Unsurprisingly, Malta does seafood rather well, although to increase your chances of dining well it's often wise to flee the tourist areas and investigate the narrow streets of Valletta. Genuine Maltese cuisine is frustratingly hard to find, although look out for Soppa ta' L-Armla (Widow's Soup), a thick, filling sort of vegetable broth.
You won't struggle to find after-dark merriment in Sliema and St Julian's, where the pubs are open loud and late in summer. If you want to drink in a bar where the local population is represented, the Paceville area, near St Julian's, is popular with young Maltese. If you want a more sedate night, Valletta has several quiet watering holes.
If you're intent on buying a fluorescent pink lilo and an 'I Love Malta' T-shirt, you can't go far wrong in Sliema. If you want to splash the cash on something more substantial, you're best to visit Valletta. Republic Street is the main shopping stretch (clothes shops and the like), while the nearby Merchant's Street has a daily market.
It's hard to fault Malta as a family destination. It's a short flight from the UK (three hours), its beaches, warm waters, history, scenery and nightlife offer something for all, and its familiar cuisine should keep even the most faddy teen happy. Bon voyage.
Getting there, getting around
Unless you're planning to swim, options for getting to Malta are fairly limited. The main airport sits at Luqa, roughly in the centre of the main island, which makes it handy for just about everywhere you are likely to be staying. Should you have a particularly strong set of sea legs, there's also a catamaran ferry service between Valletta and the Sicilian ports of Catania and Pozzallo, with the crossing to the latter taking a surprisingly quick (if choppy) 90 minutes (www.virtuferries.com).
Getting about the main island is fairly simple. Taxis are plentiful, although pricing can be steep and inconsistent, while the standard of driving in Malta (narrow roads, high speed) can make for a nervy trip from the airport. There's also an extensive (and far better-priced) bus service, with most routes taking in Valletta at some point.
Gozo sits north-west of the main island, and you'll need to take a ferry to reach it. Happily, there's a regular service, especially in summer (www.gozochannel.com).