Michelin-starred restaurants, boutiques and superyachts – the new face of Malta is emerging
Every day at noon, cannons fire from the 16th century salute battery overlooking Fort Saint-Ange and the large port of Valletta. Once the muffled noises have subsided, Vera Lynn’s sentimental melodies crackle from the speakers and merge into plumes of smoke.
Imbued with nostalgia and reveling in the glitz and glory of the past, Valletta is the jewel in Malta’s ancient crown, attracting nearly two million tourists a year. But today, as I walk through the fortifications built by the Knights of St. John, a ruling military and religious order that rose from the Crusades, it’s a refreshing calm. The only liner in the port left yesterday, leaving a handful of foreigners to admire the ramparts in peace.
Open to doubly vaccinated visitors without the need for quarantine in either direction, Malta’s tri-island state of Gozo and Camino is slowly welcoming tourists. But even in a destination whose future has always been shaped by its past, things will never be the same again.
One of the many innovators determined to move forward is entrepreneur and philanthropist Mark Weingard, whose boutique property Iniala Harbor House was launched last November amid the pandemic.
Spread over four townhouses in amber limestone and vaults overlooking the port, the project lasted five years. Inside, the original features – such as a “garigor” spiral staircase and a fresco on the ceiling – have been restored and brought up to date with contemporary works of art.
In my suite (so spacious it could accommodate long stays with a separate living room, hallway and walk-in closet) the wallpaper is based on skyline prints by a local Maltese photographer, while the furnishings in a delicious combination of copper and cream, having all the spice of a Manhattan penthouse.
At the ION rooftop restaurant, I dine alfresco with a Michelin-starred meal from British chef Alex Dilling, currently on loan for 100 days from The Greenhouse in London. Committed to experimenting with local ingredients, he uses oysters for a flavorful version of a Bavarian and raises a humble tomato with a silky leaf of thickened almond milk.
A shift towards more luxurious offerings is being sustained elsewhere in the city, both on land and at sea. Superyacht trader Jamie Houston – who provides guest services at Iniala – has decided to base his charter business CarBlu in Malta. , due to both its geographical location and the relaxed atmosphere that Europe’s most famous rivieras lack.
I join him for an afternoon cruise on Midnight Madness, an 86-foot Italian-built beauty capable of quickly squeezing between bays without even a drop of prosecco spilled on deck. Completely refitted, a set of Louis Vuitton embossed leather drawers in the main cabin is the only vestige of his past life. Available for hourly and daily charters, it can take 12, making a two-hour trip surprisingly achievable at under € 160 per person.
Anchored in a quiet bay in the south of the island, where brilliant limestone cliffs shine brighter than the moon, Jamie opens the back to reveal a toy box of water sports gadgets: paddleboards, snorkels and a raft. pneumatic towed by an outboard for exciting rides. Lying face down, I scream as we crash into the waves, eventually losing control (and half of my bikini) in a tight turn. White background flashing in the air, it’s not the look Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – who spent their honeymoon on a yacht here – might adopt, but it’s fun nonetheless.
A starry frame
A setting for historical dramas and fantasy science fiction, Malta has hosted countless film and television productions, with many A-listers choosing to stay in Mdina, the ‘silent city’ and ancient capital located in the middle of the Isle.
The clack of hooves on the cobblestones transports me to another era when I arrive at the highest point of an otherwise flat island, an area colonized by the Phoenicians 4,000 years ago. During the day, the fortified citadel is filled with horse-drawn carriages loaded with tourists. But in the early morning, only the birds fly between the shadows in the gaunt alleys.
The only place to stay is the Xara Palace, a former noble residence revitalized by the Zammit Tabona family and filled with antiques acquired across the islands – heavy wooden church doors frame a living room, while a stall balcony choir now serves as a reception.
Centered around a glazed courtyard or facing the Maltese vineyards and the sea, 17 suites bathe in discreet grandeur. I stay in a newly renovated room, where Charles and Camilla once slept, and enjoy a meal fit for a king at the De Mondion restaurant. Chef Kevin Bonello won his Michelin star with a parade of refined dishes: Sicilian red prawns invigorated with a garum spritz, and beet gnocchi filled with a Count punch.
A meeting point in the Mediterranean
A piece that does not quite fit into the European puzzle, Malta is a fusion of flavors and a crossroads of cultural styles. From the narrow, winding streets of the Arab-built citadels to the illuminated letterboxes stamped with His Majesty’s stamp, every ruling overlord has left his mark. It’s the perfect place to savor sweet Sicilian cannoli stuffed with ricotta, sitting under the fluttering Saint George flag. Even the language is a curious mix of Semitic vocabulary written with a Latin alphabet and sprinkled with a strange English word.
The crucible takes on its full meaning given Malta’s position: floating between Italy, Libya and Tunisia in the Mediterranean Sea, it was an important market for traders, a strategic point of view for the conquerors and a sacred place of worship for megalithic civilizations.
Although the Republic of Malta is a small island state – covering an area 100 times the size of Cornwall – the sheer volume of historic sites is overwhelming, making the job of tour curator a must.
“I call it a rock; it’s not even an island! laughs Jasmine Mifsud, a 23-year-old archaeologist who works for Past Preservers, an agency of historical experts who consult film crews on castings and locations. As part of a new partnership with tour operator Original Travel, it now guides tourists to Malta and neighboring Gozo, with the ability to sneak behind the scenes at certain sites.
At Hagar Qim, we pass through a complex of megalithic temples built to honor a fertility goddess known as the “fat lady”; outside the fishing port of Marsaxlokk, this is the opportunity to meet archaeologists excavating a site not yet open to the public; and at Popeye Village we see the perfectly preserved 1980s musical film set with Robin Williams – far from antiquity, it’s part of Island State history nonetheless.
All over Malta, historical artefacts highlight periods of war balanced by decades of peace. But today, old decors set the stage for new developments, saluting the future with the power of 100 full-blown cannons.
How to plan your trip
Original Travel (020 3582 4990; originaltravel.co.uk) offers a five night holiday in Malta from £ 3,450 per person (two people) including three nights in B&B in Iniala and two nights in B&B at Xara Palace, the round-trip flights, all transfers and a full-day guided tour with a Past Preservers guide.
For more information, visit visitmalta.com.