European cities typically transform themselves during the run-up to their stint as a European Capital of Culture, but in the case of Valletta, the capital of Malta, the city is already primed for its close-up.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Valletta will be the European Capital of Culture in 2018, drawing attention not only to the city itself but to the islands of Malta, which, despite their beauty and proximity to Italy, don't get the attention they deserve.
On a recent visit, organized in part by the five-star Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, we discovered a destination whose size belies its allure. Yes, it's tiny — about 122 square miles — but the historical and cultural attractions, combined with an inviting culinary tradition and plenty of sunny beaches, cast a wide enough net to lure travelers with a range of interests.
Another major plus is that English is one of Malta's official languages.
"We had a record 1.5 million tourists by the end of 2013 plus a half-million cruise passengers," said Karmenu Vella, Malta's minister of tourism. He credited the country's English-speaking population in part for luring international visitors, given that Maltese, the other official language, is a tough-to-understand mix of Italian and Arabic.
Other enticements include the weather (while not hot, it was warm enough to swim in the Mediterranean Sea during our November visit), its Old World architecture, its reputation as a strong dive destination and most of all for visitors from the U.S., its rich culture and history.
"The product for U.S. visitors isn't the sun and sea," Vella said, admitting that access from the U.S. is too much of an issue to attract casual beachgoers.
Those in our group who flew out of New York took two flights to reach Valletta, for example, while I had to take a third flight to get me in and out of Boston.
That said, improved connections from European gateways have made the connections a little easier, he said, particularly via 2.5-hour flights from Paris and Frankfurt.
Accommodations run the spectrum from one- to five-star properties, with up to 45% of tourists opting for four stars, Vella said. By contrast, a whopping 75% of visitors who take the ferry to neighboring Gozo, one of the three Maltese Islands, stay in farmhouses or country villas.
Cruise passengers are another important market, with almost all of the major cruise lines that operate in Europe calling there on some itineraries as well as the smaller, luxury lines.
While none of the lines are currently doing turnarounds or homeporting in Malta, cruise passengers who alight for the day are increasingly coming back, Vella said.
Overall, tourism represents 25% of the nation's gross domestic product, and while the tourism office is proactively looking to attract higher visitor numbers, Vella said they are moving cautiously, mindful not to pull in more visitors than they can comfortably accommodate.
"We are looking for visitors, like those from the U.S., who spend the most but impact the environment the least," he said. "Sustainability is important to us, as is preserving the heritage of our country."
During our stay, we sampled a number of highlights, the most impressive of which are the disproportionately high number of Megalithic temples, some of which predate the pyramids by 1,000 years.
Visitors who only have time for one archaeological attraction should not miss the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an astonishing underground temple with multiple chambers that historians believe was an ancient burial site. The walls of the Hypogeum, a Unesco World Heritage site, contain well-preserved, prehistoric spiral drawings in red ochre that historians are unable to decipher to this day.
Another underground site, St. Paul's Catacombs in Rabat, showcases the earliest remnants of Christian life in Malta, dating from the fourth century, while St. John's Co-Cathedral, one of a staggering 365 churches on the islands, boasts the painting "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist" by Italian master Caravaggio.
For a panoramic view of Malta's Grand Harbor, which was renovated in stages during the last decade, we visited the Upper Barraka Gardens, followed by an evening tour of Mdina, a medieval walled town that once served at the country's capital.
One of my favorite activities was crossing the Grand Harbor by night to the ancient city of Birgu in a dghajsa, a traditional and picturesque fishermen's boat that took us across to the tiny city, where we navigated the narrow streets on foot.
Visitors looking for a low-key daytrip can cross via ferry or, as we did, via yacht to Gozo, a sister island that offers walking paths, beautiful views and unspoiled countryside.
An array of cuisine, accommodations
Dining is a big part of the Malta experience, and options vary from the gourmet — such as our private dinner at the Palazzo Vittoriosa in Birgu, a new bed-and-breakfast for luxury travelers, and at Barracuda Restaurant in St. Julian's — to the rustic, such as our lunch at the Cliffs Restaurant near the Blue Grotto and our mountaintop alfresco lunch at Ta' Mena Estate in Gozo.
As to accommodations, the 155-room Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa offers fine dining at the Rickshaw restaurant for Asian fare and continental cuisine at the hotel's gastronomic restaurant.
The property also features an entire menu of luxurious concierge services. We were transported to and from the airport in vintage Rolls-Royce autos, for example, and to dinner one night in Mdina Grand Prix classic cars. The hotel can also arrange a wine-tasting tour of the Meridiana wine estate nearby as well as guided tours and a whole range of spa treatments.
Other features include free WiFi throughout the hotel, complimentary minibars in suites, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, courtesy buses to sites on the island and meetings facilities.
Visit www.corinthia.com and www.visitmalta.com/en.