Read almost any tourism brochure on the Maltese Islands, from package holiday descriptions to official marketing blurb, and it will nearly always trot out these points as top benefits of visiting Malta. We delve behind the clichés to try an honest assessment of them.
1. Year-round sun
Visit between May – October and the chances are you’ll have a week of near unbroken sun, though can easily face strong winds!. Certainly during the three peak summer months that’s true. But what about those storms? Visit from Oct-March/April, and you could hit a week that’s mostly storms. It’s a case of ‘you take your chances’. From any time now through end October you can face torrential rain from incessant and damaging thunder storms – sometimes lasting hours. Malta escaped the worst last year, but our neighbour Sicily saw devastating mudslides. I’d prefer to say ‘year-round light‘ than sun, as even during bad weather weeks you’ll always sense the sun about to break through, and see the play of light over the sea. With the sun still strong well into late autumn, the heat dries off the rain water in no time. Malta in winter has an exciting variety of weather. But the maritime climate does mean that after Christmas, temperatures can plummet down overnight and the air is very chill, humid and damp. So come armed with suitably warm clothing from Jan-March.
2. Warm, friendly folk
Stand in any airport check-in queue for Malta, especially in the UK, and you’ll hear fellow passengers say they are traveling to Malta to stay with Maltese friends. This is quite common; at least for British people who’ve been coming to Malta for years. Friendships, once formed, are long and lasting it seems. And the Maltese are welcoming, curious and ready to chat to visitors. That said, you can’t generalise. Malta has its share of rudeness, as any country – on the roads in particular – and how welcome you are made to feel may well relate to which country you’re from. Irregular migration into Malta (Malta’s response to which has been well publicised in international media of late), has led to a rise in xenophobia here. But on the up side, you’ll find people who really go the extra mile to help. I know a hotel guest relations’ manager who went home to get her own heaters one winter to ensure a couple weren’t cold in their hotel room! Not sure what that says about the hotel though.
3. Value for money
Both yes and no. Getting here nowadays with the likes of Ryan Air, EasyJet et al can make the start of holiday cheap (depending on when you travel) and package tours are still amazing value here, especially in shoulder and off-peak months. Air Malta often has cheaper air fares here in comparison to the low costs, so do check them out. Car hire is cheaper than in most of Europe. Snacks can be cheap if you opt for the local hobz (bread filled with a tuna-tomato-caper mix). Or try a beer and pastizzi at a local bar for the ultimate in value (if not always health). Two or three-course evening meals out can be as expensive as those in European cities. We had two main course pasta dishes, one child lunch (nuggets etc), two glasses of house wine and a bottle of local mineral water for around Euro 40 last Saturday lunchtime. Not a bad price since we were sitting al fresco in a picturesque square in Mdina. You’ll find fewer places offering the type of good value two-course lunch menu that you find in countries like France or Italy.
4. Easy to get to and easy to get around
Malta is a two or three hour flight from most major European cities, so if you’ve young kids in tow, it’s about the ideal, maximum length of flight. It is increasingly served from European second cities nowadays as low-cost airlines expand their routes. But, if you do end up moving to Malta, and need to fly out rather than in, it can be tough still to find a good value flight. Low costs can be surprisingly not so ‘low cost’ if you need baggage. Malta is small so is easy to get around once you’re here. Buses, well, are having some teething problems now following Arriva’s arrival taking over all services from the iconic, old Malta buses. Expect delays, odd routes and a two-tier fare structure with more expensive tickets for non residents. Around 50 per cent of tourists still use the buses as it saves the hassle of driving on the left if they’re not from the UK, and the worry about an accident. But hiring a car does have its advantages.
5. English speaking (plus quite a few other lingos too)
Yes, one of Malta’s greatest advantages over other Mediterranean islands is that it’s English speaking. English is a joint, official language alongside Maltese, which is of semitic origin. Day to day, you’ll never have any problem getting around and getting by if you’re English speaking. Malta is a major English language teaching destination these days so that speaks for its credentials as an English-speaking nation. Most Maltese have fairly good Italian too. There’s such a mix of nationalities living in Malta these days (legal immigration has been responsible for a lot of the 10 per cent rise in the population of the past year), that you’ll find waiting and hotel staff, diving instructors and more who are native German, Russian, Polish speakers for example.
In the end, how you experience Malta has a lot to do with the time of year you visit, whether you know people living here, and how welcoming the staff at your chosen hotel are. Experiential travel shouldn’t be predictable though; and that goes for travel to Malta too.
Photo: Albert Edelman. See more of his shots on Fickr.