Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Ever notice how every January travel industry insiders fall all over themselves making predictions for the coming year?

This year, I'm joining in.

My pick for a hot new destination in Europe for 2017 is Malta, located about 50 nautical miles off the coast of Sicily.

"New destination?" you might ask, skeptically. Well, no, not in the chronological sense. In fact, Malta boasts one of the oldest civilizations in Europe, as evidenced by the 1,000 Megalithic temples, some of which are so old they predate the pyramids by a millennium.

But in terms of tourism, this is a destination that has remained surprisingly under the radar of mainstream Americans, despite its many charms.

I suspect that will change in 2017.

For one thing, the Malta Tourism Authority has been accepted as a Virtuoso luxury travel partner, which should open the destination to a host of travel agents.

"The value of Malta's membership in Virtuoso is that it provides [us] access far beyond the U.S. market," said Paul Bugeja, CEO of the Malta Tourism Authority.

The timing of the alliance is another plus, as Malta gears up for Valletta 2018, when the country's capital, itself a Unesco World Heritage Site, will become a European Capital of Culture.

Also new is a Jewish Heritage Experience, created in partnership with North American-based destination marketing company Exclusively Malta and the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa.  The customized program focuses on the history of the Maltese Jewish community from the fourth century through WWII and the present, and participants can meet with locals and attend religious services.

As to accommodations, there are properties for most budgets, including four- and five-star hotels on Malta's main island and farmhouses on neighboring Gozo.

Travelers who like tours can take advantage of Avanti Destinations' addition of Malta to its lineup for independent travel to Europe in 2017 and 2018.

In the interest of adding my two cents to the list of reasons to visit Malta, here are a few of my favorite things about this lovely destination.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the one attraction to see if you're pressed for time. Adorned with stunningly preserved prehistoric art, this underground temple is so old that historians aren't really sure what it was used for and by whom.

St. Paul's Catacombs in Rabat, a fourth-century, underground maze, offers a glimpse of early Christian life on the island, although claustrophobes might consider giving this one a miss.

There are a whopping 365 churches on the islands, but St. John's Co-Cathedral houses "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist," a glorious work by Italian master Caravaggio. If this painting were in Florence, I guarantee the lines to see it would be around the block. During my visit, there were only a handful of people there.

The medieval, walled town of Mdina, once the country's capital, offers fairy tale charm, especially at night when the main buildings are illuminated.

Birgu, a tiny, picturesque city that looks like a film set, is especially magical when viewed at night from a traditional fisherman's boat, available at the Grand Harbor.

Gozo, one the Malta's three main islands, is accessible from the main island by ferry or yacht and boasts unspoiled countryside for those looking for outdoor adventure.

English is one of the country's two official languages, a legacy of more than a century of British rule. This is a huge advantage for visitors who like interacting with locals, because the Maltese language is a challenging hybrid of Italian and Arabic.

Finally, the weather tends to be mild year-round. While Americans are not going to fly all the way to Malta to swim, lie on the beach or go scuba diving, they can do all three here, even into the shoulder season.

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