Christmas holidays for a Kiwi means warm weather, beaches, BBQ’s and lots of time with family and friends outdoors in the sun. So when I experienced my first cold Christmas in London, overindulging on an array of cheeses, cold cuts and carbs with the usual bad Christmas movies on TV it brought mixed feelings… Feelings made entirely positive thanks to a quick trip to Malta.
We had made the most of our first year in London with trips into Europe, around the UK and lots of London exploration. More recently Mark and I had spent a few nights in a grey Iceland and a weekend in the snow in Norway and Sweden. It seemed like forever since we had stopped to enjoy seaside and sunshine. I did a bit of research and found we were unlikely to get bikini weather staying within budget and reasonable flight time, however Malta looked promising. The internet predicted mild temperatures and, most importantly, promised sunshine, so on a whim I booked.
No itinerary and opportunities abound, Mark and I boarded the plane ready to be rid of giant jackets in just 2 hours, 45 minutes.
On our first evening, we weren’t disappointed. Following a quick taxi ride in the setting sun we were down the street for dinner in a lovely restaurant called Paparazzi on Manoel Island. No jackets required. Fantastic!
Admittedly we were the only ones sitting outside… And staff did check twice if we were ok so we definitely stuck out as tourists. With our taste buds satisfied and bellies happily full, we wandered home excited for daylight.
Unfortunately the next morning the temperature had dropped and a cold wind was blowing. We layered up, jackets back on and I silently wished I had stashed my beanie into my bag as we set out to explore.
Day One: Getting to Know Malta’s Capital Cities
Following the recommendation of our Airbnb host, our days mission was to explore the two capital cities: Valetta, the current capital, situated across the harbour from our apartment and Mdina, the old capital, easily accessible by bus from Valetta.
The ferry across the harbour provided beautiful views of the fascinating walled city and set the expectation for the days exploration. Upon reaching the rocky outcrop on which Valetta stood, we ambled up the narrow steep streets towards the centre of the city. Our wandering took us to the main street, peaceful for the time being with stores just beginning to open their doors for the days trading. We later came back and the street was unrecognisable, bustling full of people going about their day.
We crossed Valetta on foot stopping often to marvel at the buildings, statues and sculptures dotting the streets. We quickly came in view of the Grand Harbour and became conspicuous tourists. Cameras snapping whilst we enjoyed the beautifully designed Upper Barrakka Gardens with its large framing arches capturing a different sunny scene at each turn. We were also perfectly on time to watch the Malta Heritage Society fire their midday salute from the Canons below the gardens. An impressive BANG! And the crowd quickly dispersed. Moving off we stopped for lunch in a quiet open courtyard and watched the community come to life before making our way towards the buses for Mdina.
After a quick 30-minute trip we were walking through the stone gates into Mdina. We marvelled at our surrounds and spent most of the afternoon sauntering through the charming narrow alleyways of this ancient and historic landmark. Quiet and peaceful, this tiny fortified city on the edge of Rabat was well kept, unlike the out-of-place pristine buildings sharing a wall with the run-down and boarded up neighbouring spaces visible elsewhere in Malta. Cars were not allowed through the all too narrow streets and signs kindly requested visitors to respect residents by keeping noise down. We drifted through the streets, walled so high that only a midday summer sun would keep the alleys from shadow. Walls were broken by the odd majestic door and window here and there.
We stopped at the Bastion Square viewing point looking North over land and sea and enjoyed a tasty gelato. Following the wall around the North-Eastern side of the city, we strolled past a wine bar & bistro, followed by a cute tea garden which captured my attention with it’s décor of foliage and risen dining space making the most of the extended view. Since we had just spoilt ourselves with our cold treat, sadly we did not stop in. I momentarily regretted the gelato. But only for a second.
Day Two: Last Minute Car Hire + The Blue Grotto
On our second day in Malta we took a last minute hire car for a lazy ‘Sunday’ drive around the island. Let me tell you two things:
1. A kiwi bloke in a car after not driving for a year is one happy man and
2. Don’t rely on Google Maps to get you to your destination through Malta’s overpopulated old cities. Road works and one-way streets were all too much for Google to handle; it sent us in circles through the back streets of Sliema. We ditched the device and resorted to Mark’s amazing navigational 6th sense to get us onto the motorway (it has gotten us to the right place more times than I can count on our travels).
The Blue Grotto
Our first stop was a half hour drive (disregarding our initial delay) down to the Southern coast to check out the mesmerising Blue Grotto. We arrived around 10am to a near empty car park with a warm greeting and news that the boats were running. Rugged up and ready with our €8 tickets in hand and feeling grateful for the off-season calm we were soon bobbing in the ocean in glorious orange life jackets. The sun was out, it was a beautiful day and the clear waters coloured in stunning aquamarine and turquoise had me in awe as we coasted in and out of the shoreline caves.
Once back on land we went inland and wound back around to the coast for a new dramatic view. Stopping roadside at an unsuspecting bus stop, with no obvious signage or dedicated parking, we walked the short 10 minutes along a scarred path to view the Dingli Cliffs. With the rugged terrain and the edge not far from my feet, I was grateful I chose my sturdy hiking boots for the day.
Acrophobia sufferers and selfie lovers beware! This cliff top is not an ideal spot for gallivanting about on the edge, especially if you are inept on uneven ground like me. My nerves endured a 10-minute assault while I clambered over crevasses to reach the uneven rock outcrop Mark had just happily jumped across to. But my dis-ease was worth it for the fantastic photo opportunity.
Moving off, we drove further North and discovered unkept roads and a multitude of seemingly unfinished stone walls surrounding tiny crops dotting the countryside.
By 1pm we had reached Golden Bay, situated in a sheltered little cove on the North West coast of the island. Aptly named, the beautiful golden colour of the sand was enticing; I could not wait to sink my feet in and sit quietly by the seaside.
We stopped in at the cute little café on the shoreline called Spiaggia D’Oro. Choosing a table on the sand facing the afternoon sun and sparkling sea we topped up on vitamin D while enjoying a luscious Italian hot chocolate. If you have not yet had the pleasure, I implore you to try one if you get the chance. More custard in texture than that of a milky drink, an Italian hot chocolate is a silky smooth extravagance – no one will blame you digging the last of it out with your spoon.
Day Three: Tour to Gozo Island
For day three we booked a tour across to Gozo Island situated off the north east coast of Malta’s mainland. Check out the review of the tour coming soon!
So, Is Malta Worth an Off Season Visit?
Our off season trip to Malta, although colder than expected, was a great way to get away from dreary London and soak up beautiful blue skies and refreshing sea air.
The scenery is stunning with the bright green countryside in stark contrast to the rocky seaside outcrops and stone buildings dotted across the country. The architecture style changes with the landscape; preservation of ancient stonework sits alongside buildings in varying degrees of repair and style throughout the cities.
Maltese people are warm and welcoming and you can get by in most places with English. The mixed cultural influences resulting from Malta’s varying ruling nations through history are captivating, providing both history enthusiasts and food lovers an endearing journey though this multicultural melting pot.
During warmer months, sun lovers would enjoy the choice of beaches, bays and beautiful resorts to baste their bodies on. For those who like more adventure we were told there is fantastic scuba diving available in several spots around the island.
For me traveling sans-schedule was an unusual experience for me (as my travel is usually very well researched and planned). By instinct the experience left me wondering what other great sites, sounds and smells we had missed by not shuffling our toes in a slightly different direction.
A Hidden Gem
To my surprise, by exploring without agenda we haphazardly found my favourite place on Malta, Tigné Point Beach in Sliema. The term ‘beach’ is used loosely; it is not somewhere to relax for fear of getting knocked off by one of the intermittent monstrous waves pounding the rocky outcrop. The beach is where sea meets stone at the mouth of the Marsamxett Harbour. Sitting on the large stone stairway, you are presented with a view of the walled capital city Valetta in all it’s glory. A clear evening, lovely company and nothing else to do but ponder life while watching the lights of the city illuminate as the sun goes down was my favourite part of this adventure.
Though I enjoyed our visit I don’t expect I would return – there are too many other places I am yet to tick off my list. While our trip suited its purpose I was not left completely inspired to head back.
I would love to know if others who have visited feel the same way. Feel free to leave a comment below and let me know about your Malta experience!
Thanks for reading. Until next time…