Marvellous Med

Malta is enjoying some time in the spotlight thanks to its ‘set-jetting’ credentials and melting pot of heritage, culture and cuisine, says Ben West

Look at that view, it’s just wonderful,” says one of my companions as we survey the gorgeous panorama of lush green herb-scented grasses leading to fields peppered with poppies and a white-sand beach beyond.

We pause for a moment, under a gentle sun cooled by a slight breeze, on a one-hour, €30 horseback tour.

We have been trotting along cross-country tracks by the coast through a historic nature park around Golden Bay, a pretty inlet with the most popular tourist beach of the Manikata region in northwest Malta.

I have virtually no horse riding experience, which makes it even more special. Once or twice I wonder whether we are too near to the cliffs, but we are in very good hands.

Our group is with Golden Bay Horse Riding; and they have horses for all, from five-year-olds to the elderly and not so agile, from complete beginners to the very experienced.

As well as the one-hour trek, there’s a 90-minute sunset ride on offer. Due to the climate, rides are only operated during the cooler times of day during summer.

A number of the horses are named after drinks, such as Tia Maria and Guinness, which seems a bit of a contradiction, as their website states drunk riders are not allowed – so you have been warned.

Setting the scene

Malta baroque
Baroque architecture
Malta grotto
Blue Grotto sea caves

Just three hours’ flying time from the UK with plenty of flights from low-cost airlines, Malta is a heady mix of influences, having been home to the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, French and British.

2023 was a record year for the Mediterranean island, even surpassing 2019 tourist numbers. It’s also a top LGBTQ+ destination; for seven years in a row, it has occupied the number one spot on the Rainbow Europe Index.

“Benefiting from over 300 days of sunshine a year, Malta boasts a unique mix of historical ruins, impressive beaches, famous diving sites and friendly locals – making it an ideal holiday destination for solo travellers, couples seeking short breaks or families planning a sunny European holiday,” says Peter Green, Trade Trainer at Visit Malta UK and Ireland.

“Agents looking to satisfy their customers ‘set-jetting’ dreams will strike gold with Malta.
New research reveals that more than a third (37%) of British travellers have previously visited a destination because a favourite film or TV show has been filmed there. Malta is enjoying a real moment in the global spotlight, being home to iconic productions such as Gladiator and Gladiator 2 (currently being filmed), Napoleon, The Count of Monte Cristo, Troy, Game of Thrones and Jurassic World Dominion.

Balkan Holidays is expanding into Malta for the first time this summer: “We chose to launch here as we believe it is a wonderful, diverse destination, whether it’s culture in the capital of Valletta, the cuisine, the history, or the nightlife in St Juliens,” says National Sales Manager, Lynsey Jones.
Each season brings a different reason to draw visitors: from swimming in summer in the warm sea, hiking the lush green countryside of Gozo in the spring, exploring the cobbled streets of Valletta on a bright winter morning or sampling some local cuisine and wine during the autumn harvest season.

“Over the past few years Malta has continued to grow,” says Alan Cross, Director of Travel Agent Relationships at Jet2holidays. “We have seen strong bookings for Malta for this summer and have been expanding our programme, including two new routes from Belfast International and Edinburgh.”

What’s new

Boutique bonanza: Boutique hotel openings are ongoing, often within historic buildings renovated by contemporary designers. They include Deep Blu in Żurrieq, Capital Boutique Hotel in Valletta, Ushuaia Playa Xemxija in St Paul’s Bay, IBB Hotel Palazzo Bettina Malta in Burgu and DOMS Boutique Hotel at Mellieha.

Luxury living: There have been a succession of four- and five-star hotel openings, including the Barceló Fortina Malta Hotel, AC Hotel by Marriott St Julian’s, and Hotel Mistral, Hotel Scirocco and Hotel Levante and ME Residences, all affiliated by Meliá. The Dolmen Hotel Malta is set to become a DoubleTree by Hilton this year.

New art festival: Taking place between March and May, the inaugural Malta Biennale 2024 is a contemporary art event presenting works by individual artists. The Biennale will coincide with Malta’s traditional fiesta season that includes cultural events, processions, religious ceremonies, firework displays and more. maltabiennale.art

Trade tools: Visit Malta has relaunched the Malta Training Programme with refreshed content for travel agents and has signed up for Big Agent Rewards. Agents have access to four new courses with three more due to go live. The platform also features a new badge system, in conjunction with the Rewards programme, to identify key agents undertaking training and delivering on bookings with the aim to offer them a place on future Malta Academy Fam trips. malta-training.com

Malta must-sees

Malta Valleta
Valletta’s Three cities

Self-drive Valletta: A great way to explore the historic Three Cities, inhabited since Phoenician times – Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea – is to hop aboard a self-drive Rolling Geeks golf buggy. Its pre-programmed GPS both guides the tour through the streets and alleyways and explains the sights at your own pace.

Passing beautiful Baroque architecture, boutiques, bars and restaurants. Each car seating up to four requires one driving licence. rolling-geeks.com

Check out the cathedral: The capital, Valletta, is a Unesco World Heritage site and was founded in 1566 by the Christian order the Knights of St John. A must-see is St John’s Cathedral, which has a beautiful painted vaulted ceiling, intricately carved stone, 29 huge tapestries that have recently been returned after a 16-year restoration, and one of Caravaggio’s most famous works, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. stjohnscocathedral.com

Go to Gozo: A quick and cheap ferry ride transports you back a few decades to this much more rural and laid back island. Clients will discover the golden sands of Ramla Bay, the Ggantija Temples, (built before Stonehenge), ancient salt pans, Dwejra Bay, with its dramatic coastal formations, and Rabat (or Victoria), the capital of the island.

Dive to a shipwreck: Diving is very popular here, with around 50,000 people doing so each year. The Blue Lagoon at the virtually undeveloped Comino is a diving hotspot. The little fisherman’s bay, Ghar Lapsi, near Siġġiewi on the south coast of Malta is another. And Valletta’s harbour has a historic shipwreck, HMS Maori, which served in World War Two before being sunk by Nazi planes and is ideal for beginners. Divewise offers courses, gear and excursions. divewise.com.mt

Where to book it

Jet2Holidays
A seven-night Malta And Gozo break departing from Manchester on May 9 and staying at the three-star Luna Holiday Complex in a standard studio is priced from £689pp. It includes a 22kg baggage allowance and return transfers.
jet2holidays.com