It’s inevitable that in the course of my annual January round-the-world trips, I will sometimes be visiting a destination in its off-season. This is especially true since I always try to include at least one European stop on the itinerary (I mean, you can’t just skip over an entire continent…it’s simply not practical).
So, after learning my lesson the hard way with an ill-advised stop in Berlin on Round-the-World #1, I have since become much smarter with my choice of January European destinations. I’ve tried Croatia, Turkey, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal and the Amalfi Coast and, for the most part found them to be delightful – with mild weather and without the hoards of summer tourists.
Over the years I’ve discovered an off-season visit is rarely detrimental to my enjoyment of a country; in fact in many cases I prefer it to high seasons visits I’ve made later. That may well have been the case with the island nation of Malta.
With over 7,000 years of history, the culturally-rich Maltese Islands are literally saturated with attractions and places of interest.
Made up of three main islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – the islands lay virtually in the center of the Mediterranean, about 60 miles south of Sicily and 140 miles north of Africa.
Despite their close proximity to Sicily, Malta is no mere Italian outpost. In fact Northern African and Arabic influences are much more prominent than Italian. This is true in the architecture and in the local language which is Semitic in origin.
Each of the three islands has its own unique charm. Malta is by far the largest of the three and is home to the capital city of Valletta and the large majority of the population. Gozo is just a 30-minute ferry ride away and is home to numerous towns and villages boasting Renaissance cathedrals and Baroque architecture as well as the magnificent natural attraction, the “Azure Window.”
Comino is the smallest of the islands and is largely uninhabited. However, in the summer months, visitors flock to the island’s stunning blue lagoon on daily boat trips.
I landed in Valletta at 1:00pm Thursday afternoon after a 48-hour travel odyssey from Easter Island (involving 3 connections, 2 nights spent on a plane and one very productive re-packing layover at home in Atlanta). My first surprise on arrival in Malta was how inexpensive it was to get to my hotel.
Despite the fact that my hotel was about 30 minutes from the airport, the ride only cost me 8 euro. Combine that with the fact that the sun was shining, it was probably 60 degrees and I was greeted at the hotel with an upgrade to a suite and I knew I was going to like it here.
Which brings me to Reason #1 to visit Malta in the off-season, it’s not cold! Especially compared to the rest of Europe in January.
My hotel of choice for Malta was the Le Meridien St. Julian’s Resort & Spa, another fabulous Starwood property. The St. Julian neighborhood is considered the prime resort area on the island and most of Malta’s high-end resort hotels and casinos are located here. The area is dotted with shops, restaurants, bars and miles of oceanfront boardwalks.
And the best part? I snagged a room at this posh hotel for less than half the price of their high season rates. And yes, that is Reason #2 to visit Malta during the off-season, hotel rates are a steal! Not to mention you have an increased chance for an upgrade.
As excited as I was to finally be in Malta, after a new record (for me) of 51 hours without sleep, I crashed pretty early the first night. Luckily, I knew I still had 5 more days to explore all of the Maltese Islands.
After getting some sleep, I awoke the next morning ready to play tourist. For my first day, I wanted to start with a visit to the capital city of Valletta.
My hotel advised me that I could take a taxi for about 8 euro or take the convenient bus located right outside the front door for just 2 euro. I looked at my map and after realizing Valletta was only about 5 miles away via scenic oceanfront, decided to make a day of it and just walk.
While it was a bit chilly (low 60’s F) the sun was out for most of the day and it was perfect weather for a long walk. I was able to walk the whole way along the sea and see every inch of the magnificent Grand Harbour that surrounds Valletta.
After walking for about an hour and a half, I arrived at the fortified walls of Valletta. The city of Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the few surviving inhabited walled cities.
Valletta’s narrow streets are adorned with beautiful Baroque buildings and churches. From the bastions of the city walls, the panoramic views over the harbour and across the island were amazing. After a stop for lunch at a café in Valletta, I decided to take a water taxi back across the harbor for a different view of the city before continuing my walk back to St. Julians.
It was a perfect winter day in Malta.
When I awoke Saturday morning, Day 3 in Malta was not looking so perfect outside my window. It was overcast and much cooler and the forecast wasn’t promising. Since I still had several more days on the island, I didn’t feel my usual need to rush out and see everything despite the weather conditions.
Instead, I picked up the spa menu in my room and started planning my day. One of the wonderful things about the off-season is that you can decide on a whim that you want to spend the day at the spa and they can manage to work you in. (I got the impression that would have been impossible in the summer.)
The winter prices were so good I decided to splurge for a package that included a massage, scrub, wrap, facial and manicure…all for the very reasonable price of 150 euro. Which brings me to Reason #3 to visit Malta during the off-season…spa deals aplenty and appointments available all day every day!
It was a terrific way to spend a day and by the end of it I was relaxed to within an inch of consciousness.
A Day Trip to the Island of Gozo
The weather wasn’t much better when I awoke on Day 4 but at this point it was time to get down to business. I really wanted to visit the neighboring island of Gozo and I only had two full days left to do it. So, weather be damned, I booked the ferry.
In Malta, one of the most popular ways to see the island is via the “hop-on, hop-off” open-top buses. Now, I’m not normally a fan of anything involving the word “bus” when I travel but I’d seen them all over the island and my concierge had recommended the company, so I decided to give it a shot. There were specific buses that worked Gozo and they ran regularly to all the various attractions on the island.
The first thing I discovered when I boarded the bus was that there was no way to visit all the stops in one day. In order to catch the last ferry back to Malta that evening, I would need to pick and choose.
So, for the first few stops, I remained on the bus. When we arrived at the Ggantija Temples, I decided to get off and check out the temple regarded as the oldest free-standing structure in the world and another UNESCO World Heritage Site (I’m a sucker for World Heritage Sites).
The temple was interesting but it was very small so I had seen all there was to see in about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the next bus wasn’t coming by for another 30 minutes after that. And that was when I remembered why I didn’t like bus tours.
As I was standing at the bus stop contemplating my next move, I was approached by a very nice taxi driver who was in the process of giving an island tour to two girls from Italy. He was waiting for them while they visited the temple and was clearly looking to fill the one remaining seat in his taxi.
He offered me the chance to join their tour for just 10 euro (which was about what I’d spent on the bus) and he would drop me back at the ferry when I was ready. Since they were going to hit all of the places I wanted to go and the girls were not opposed to me joining them, I decided to go for it. (Impatience often wins out over frugality with me.)
After all, a basically private tour of the island for just 10 euro was too good to pass up.
And over the next few hours we visited everything I wanted to see on the island and even a few spots I didn’t realize I wanted to see. Our driver, Joe, was very nice and gave us a lot of information along the way…far more personal than a bus tour.
We visited a local fishing village, the red-sand beach of Ramla Bay, the Ta’ Pino Sanctuary (which is believed to have miraculous healing powers) and the most famous attraction on Gozo, the natural rock formation known as the “Azure Window.” (2017 Update: Sadly, the Azure Window collapsed into the sea on March 8, 2017.)
It was an excellent day despite the less than ideal weather conditions (in winter -you win some, you lose some).
A Driving Tour of Malta
For my last day on the island, I decided to rent a car to get out of town and explore the countryside of the main island of Malta. Traffic on the island is pretty intense, lack of road signs makes navigation difficult and they drive on the left over here so it was a bit of a challenge…but I do love a challenge!
Reason #4 to visit in the off-season, plenty of rental cars available on a whim and less road traffic to deal with!
My plan for the day was to visit the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxlokk (which I’d flown over on the flight in), the Mdina in the center of the island, the Blue Grotto on the southwest coast and – just for kicks – the Popeye Village where they filmed the 1980 musical starring Robin Williams.
So, I set off from St. Julian and hit the road. The fishing village of Marsaxlokk was really beautiful. I just loved all of the colorful luzzo boats. For anyone who missed the photo of the day yesterday, here’s the story of the luzzo boats:
The boats are derived from Phoenician vessels and are painted in vibrant hues of blue, red, yellow and green – they look a bit like a floating box of crayons. The most distinguishing feature of the luzzu are the eyes carved into each side of the bow known as the “Eyes of Osiris.” Osiris was the god of fertility and of the dead.
Maltese fishermen believe that the eyes of Osiris ward off evil spirits and keep them safe from the dangers of the sea. Every year in the spring before the fishermen put their boats in the water for summer they paint the eyes afresh to give them maximum protection.
From Marsaxlokk, I made my way along the coast and stopped at the Blue Grotto. Like the Azure Window on Gozo the day before, it was a little more grey than blue on a day like today but impressive nonetheless.
From there I worked my way back inland to Mdina, the old capital of Malta with origins tracing back to 1500BC. Like Valletta, the streets of this fortified city are lined with palaces on narrow shady streets. Both Medieval and Baroque architecture feature prominently in the design and Mdina is one of the finest examples of an ancient walled city in all of Europe.
After leaving Mdina and being quite impressed with my navigational abilities thus far, I decided it was time to seek out my last stop for the day, the Popeye Village. For those who may have missed the story of the Popeye Village a few days ago, here it is again:
Starring Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelly Duval as Olive Oyl, the mythical village of “Sweethaven” was created in Anchor Bay in the latter half of 1979 for the filming of the 1980 musical production, Popeye. Tree trunk logs were shipped in from Holland and wood shingles used in the construction of the roof tops were imported all the way from Canada.
Construction of the authentic wooden village took an international crew of 165 people 7 months to complete. Filming commenced on January 23, 1980 and wrapped later that year on June 19th. Today, the Popeye Village is one of Malta’s top family-friendly attractions. During the summer season, there are Popeye-themed boat trips as well as games and water sports on the village beach.
You can walk right along the cliffside and get a great view of the village so that’s what I did. It’s such an odd contrast to have something that looks like a shiny, new Disney set on an island where everything is so ancient, but the village is really adorable. I bet it’s crawling with kids and families on the average summer day.
After getting back to the hotel and returning my car, I had dinner along the water in St. Julian and pondered what it might be like to visit Malta in the summer. Reason #5 to visit the island in the off-season is probably the #1 reason for me, the lack of crowds. I just love to visit a place when feel like I’m the only tourist around. And that’s pretty much how I felt during my entire visit.
Though, I do admit it would be amazing to actually be able to get into that beautiful azure water. But considering the trade-off would be bigger crowds and higher prices, I think an off-season visit was just the thing for me.
Thank you Malta and Le Meridien St. Julians for an incredible week.
Next stop, Mauritius!