Malta Aims to Escape 'Best-Kept-Secret' Status

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Reed Travel Features

VALLETTA, Malta -- Located 60 miles off the coast of Sicily, Malta is the newest country member of Memtta. Long popular with Europeans as a vacation retreat -- Malta attracts more than 1 million visitors annually -- the island nation remains unfamiliar to most Americans. "We are the best-kept secret in the Mediterranean," Michael Piscopo, North American director for the Malta National Tourist Office, said.

But that interest is stirring, he said, as more cruise ships call at Valletta, and several U.S. tour operators have added programs to Malta. North American visitors to Malta increased by approximately 29% during the first half of 1997, compared with the same period last year. The tourist office seeks a modest goal of 50,000 North American visitors by the year 2000.

A nation made up of five islands, Malta is located almost smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Malta is well placed geographically and culturally, according to Piscopo, to work with other Memtta countries in expanding and enhancing regional tourism.

Malta offers fine weather, beach attractions, picturesque fishing villages and harbors. In addition, there is a showcase of art and archaeology on the island, visited through the centuries by welcome and unwelcome peoples: the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Crusaders, French and English.

Although the country could be called an open-air museum spanning 6,000 years of history, two periods are unique to Malta. Prehistory is marked here with neolithic temples older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. The area also bears the remains of tenants between 1530 and 1798, when the Knights of St. John ruled.

What to see:

* Valletta, Malta's 16th century capital city, dominates the island's historical harbor. The city is full of wonderful sights: the 16th-century Co-Cathedral of St. John, the Grand Master's Palace and its Armory, the Barracca Gardens and the massive bastions guarding the city. Also of interest is the Auberge de Castile.

* Mdina, a half-hour from Valletta, is entirely surrounded by massive walls built for protection a thousand years ago, with marvelous palaces and churches within. In the former capital, visit the Baroque Cathedral and Museum and the splendid Palazzo Vilhena.

* Gozo, a 20-minute ferry ride from Malta, is smaller, greener and more rural; the beaches with no adjacent high-rises are on Gozo. Of primary importance on the island is the Ggantija megalithic temple complex. Built in the fourth millennium B.C., it is the oldest freestanding structure in the world and is today a Unesco World Heritage Site.

For more information, contact the Malta National Tourist Office in New York at (212) 695-9520.

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