Malta and Sicily mix archaeology, value and open-door hospitality

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NEW YORK -- Two Mediterranean neighbors, Malta and Sicily, make for a great combination vacation, offering both value and hospitality, operators to the destinations said.

"In both Sicily and Malta," said Walt Boden, managing director of Academic Tours, Brooklyn, N.Y., "the hospitality is extraordinary. If you don't get invited home to dinner by someone the first few days you're there, something's wrong."

As for value, Boden said Malta in particular is "probably the least expensive European destination I know."

During Malta's off-season, November through March, Boden said travelers can stay for a week in a three-star hotel for $200 and in a four-star hotel for $250.

Sicily's archaeological sites, said Ira Wallace, president of Travel With the Experts, Manasquan, N.J., makes for an easier package sell than Malta alone.

Archaeological points of interest on Sicily include excavation and prehistoric sites, such as the caves in Barrafranca, as well as Greek and Roman theaters and temples.

Wallace said tourists interested in seeing the archaeological sites on Sicily "really do require a guide," as on-site documentation in English is scant.

Most travelers heed his advice when visiting Sicily, Wallace said, to "go with a guided tour as the best and least-expensive way to see all the major sites."

To get to Sicily from Malta, travelers can fly from Valletta, capital of Malta, to either Catania, on the eastern part of Sicily, or Palermo, on the northern coast.

Either way, it's a half-hour flight that costs about $160 roundtrip.

The other option, available from mid-March to mid-November, is to take a fast ferry from Valletta to either Catania, a three-hour trip that costs $80 with return, or Ragusa in the south of Sicily, which takes 90 minutes and costs $60 roundtrip.

As for the ferry service, which recently added a new catamaran carrying up to 427 passengers and 25 cars, Boden said it's fine for one-day excursions to Sicily from Malta.

However, Boden and Wallace separately cautioned that seas can be choppy, making service unreliable -- a possibility that does not figure into the fly-drive scenario.

Both operators said travelers should not expect to be able to bring a rental car from Malta, where driving is British-style, over to Sicily, where it is American-style, nor would they want to even if they could.

"If you are doing a day trip, [the catamaran ferry] is wonderful," Boden said. "If you are moving your luggage personally, I wouldn't recommend it. You're going to have to carry your own luggage up to the ship and unload it on the other side.

"Some people think [the catamaran ferry] is romantic," he said, "but they're thinking of the old-time ferries."

Full-day excursions offered by both operators from Malta to Sicily are $76 per person, with transfers included.

A daily excursion arrives in Pozzalo, Sicily, and takes visitors to Mount Etna, said to be the largest and most-active volcano in Europe as well as to the resort town of Taormina.

A separate weekly tour, which visits the baroque, 18th century churches of Noto, Modica and Ragusa, departs every Friday.

For more information about Malta or Sicily, contact the Malta Tourist Office at (877) GO MALTA or (973) 884-0899, or visit the Web at www.visitmalta.com.

Additional information is available from the Italian Government Tourist Board at (212) 245-5095 or through its Web site, at www.italiantourism.com.

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