This section will, I hope, give you a few hints and ideas of how to get to Malta and, just as importantly, how to get around the island once you arrive.
If this is going to be your first visit to the George Cross Island then if you are a Brit you can relax – the locals nearly all speak English. For visiting Aussies, and there are thousands every year, many locals also speak Strine too! Such are the links between Malta and Australia.
As a two-year-old I flew from Malta to England (so I’m told) in a twin-engined Vickers Viking. Five years later as a very aware and curious seven-year-old I returned to Malta in a four-engined Vickers Viscount. I guess that was progress but both journeys still necessitated a re-fuelling stop in the south of France, the twelve hundred nautical mile sector proving too long for both aircraft types. In theory the Viscount could make it but not without adequate reserves and a headwind could cause a nasty stop in the oggin! The Mediterranean is not the Hudson River in New York.
Thankfully aviation has come a long way and today you can fly from one of many civil airports in the UK, non-stop, to Malta’s International Airport. The ubiquitous Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 will provide the vast majority of flights and are quite comfortable for your journeys of usually no more than three and a quarter hours – slightly longer from Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast for obvious reasons.
The time difference between anywhere in the UK and Malta is always only one hour whether the UK is on either GMT or BST and your tickets and/or booking confirmation will always show the local times for departure and arrivals. Do not be hoodwinked into thinking that a benevolent tailwind will bring you home an hour quicker! If only.
Long since gone are days when BEA had a virtual monopoly of the UK to Malta route. Today you can go onto skyscanner.com and take your pick from a variety of airlines and routes. So wherever you live in the UK you can find an airline and an airport that is convenient for YOU. Living as I do in Yorkshire my default choice is to fly from Leeds Bradford Airport from where I can often find myself with a choice of two or even three airlines.
To my knowledge only Air Malta offers Club or Business Class so if you require extra space or comfort then you must consult the airline to see which seats offer extra leg-room. These are often located in the rows designated for emergency exits but these can vary between different marques of the same aircraft types so be warned. Check before you ‘click and book’ online.
You can however rest assured that your flight will be non-stop barring diversions for bad weather or other unforeseen reasons. For aviation buffs amongst you the main runway orientation is 13/31 which means its orientation is roughly NW/SE. If you are lucky your approach and descent into Malta will be from the North West on runway one-three, particularly if you arrive in daylight. Your final approach will be over Malta’s sister island Gozo and then you descend over Mellieha and St. Paul’s Bay. If seated on the port (left hand) side of the plane you will catch a magnificent glimpse of the iconic Mosta dome, the third largest in Christendom. Seconds after that you will be on the ground.
‘Merhba t’Malta. Welcome to Malta!’
If you have booked a package which includes airport transfers to your hotel then on clearing Customs and Immigration keep your eyes skinned for a ‘rep’ from your travel company. He or she will be holding up a placard, perhaps saying ‘Mercury’ or ‘Chevron’ or if you are just a small party or travelling solo it might just display your surname ‘Mr Bloggs.’ Once you have been introduced to your rep then it is usually only a short walk on the concourse to your minibus or chauffeured car.
On the other hand if you have booked your flights independently and need to travel to your hotel then I recommend you take a white licensed taxi. There is a prominent taxi-booking booth by the main exit. Tell the clerk which hotel you want to go to and the lady will quote a fixed price. You pay in cash (Euros) and you will be handed a voucher which you give to the driver of the nearest taxi outside. The price is usually around twenty Euros. If you are tired after your flight this is the best way, trust me. It’s true that there are designated Airport buses but unless you know the routes, times and your precise destination I would avoid them, at least on your first visit.
As in most parts of the world taxi drivers are a mine of information – and gossip! By the time you reach your destination it is likely that you will know where the driver lives, the names of his wife and kids, which Premiership football team he supports and how many relatives he has in England or Australia – or both! Tipping is practised and a couple of Euros ‘for a beer’ is always well received after the driver has placed your suitcases into the hotel lobby. Some will hand you their own business card and ask you to call them if you need a taxi during your visit. These guys are usually genuine and just looking to top-up their income a tad. This can be very useful when you make your return journey to the airport at the end of your holiday, assuming that you haven’t booked a package tour. I have done this several times. Cheers, Mario!
If you are planning your first trip to Malta, perhaps on a recommendation from a friend, then you have two very important decisions to make. Firstly exactly where in Malta you wish to stay and secondly when to travel. Both these crucial decisions can make or break it for you.
Let’s deal with the where first. Malta is not a big island – it’s about half as big again as Jersey if you have been there. It measures approximately sixteen miles by ten but its coastline is very irregular with many bays and inlets including of course the famous Grand Harbour, one of the world’s most perfect maritime havens. I recommend that you buy an Insight Flexi Map of Malta for around a fiver from WH Smiths or online. It is laminated (and thus waterproof) and easy to fold. Remember to take it to Malta with you!
What kind of holiday do you want? How physically mobile are you? What are your special interests, if any? All these factors have to be taken into consideration. If you’re a young family with kids who want a beach, pool and sunshine holiday then you will be well catered for by a plethora of hotels and beach resorts in the Mellieha, Buggiba and Qawra areas in the north of the island. If night-life is your scene then the Paceville and Sliema areas will definitely float your boat. The history buffs amongst you would be advised to try the capital Valletta although hotels in this amazing city tend to be more expensive.
Malta has, as you might expect, a Mediterranean climate. This is true both geographically and meteorologically. Winters are mild, at least by UK standards, and summers are very hot. If you cannot deal with high temperatures and a fierce sun then you must avoid June to September. You will boil. If you’re looking for warm and sunny days with temperatures around the twenty Celsius mark then Spring and Autumn are just perfect for you. Having said that you can get prolonged spells of warm and sunny weather in Malta’s winter too but winter storms can be quite spectacular. It was one such storm that brought about St. Paul’s shipwrecking and the arrival of Christianity to Malta.
So where does that leave you as you mull over a brochure or two or surf the internet on a wet and chilly Wednesday afternoon in Blighty? If you are retired and the actual timing of your first trip is up to you and not your workplace holiday rota, then I would say choose March/April or October/November for your first visit. The resort and venue is of course your choice and a multitude of websites and hotels will tempt you with deals. The north of the island, although more scenic, is quite hilly so if walking is your thing be warned. The resorts to the south like Marsascala and Marsaxlokk are relatively flat and offer fishing village type atmospheres. A downside though is that public transport to these areas can be slow and tedious. If you want a taste of everything that is Malta then a hotel in Sliema will offer you sea, restaurants and night-life with good bus connections to almost everywhere.
Which brings me nicely to transport and getting around. There are no trains or subway on Malta. There was a train that ran from Valletta to Rabat and M’Tarfa a hundred years ago, primarily to convey battle casualties to a military hospital. Sadly it closed decades ago which is a great shame. If it was still operative today then it would be a major tourist attraction. So you are left with either buses or private cars. Although driving is on the left in Malta (as in the UK and Australia) my recommendation would be to stick to the buses, at least for your first trip, to get your bearings. There are far too many cars in Malta and it seems to be that every male driver under fifty has the genes of Ayrton Senna in his double helix.
The former colourful buses from the makers like Bedford and Plaxtons have mostly disappeared but their modern replacements are clean, air-conditioned and very efficient. The network extends to almost the whole of the island so wherever you want to visit is within reach. Some journeys will necessitate taking two buses with a change at Valletta along the lines of the “hub and spoke” principle. Your hotel will give you a free map of the bus routes which are colour-coded and easy to follow. If you have to change buses at Valletta then an electronic information board will give you a bus number, the bay number it will depart from and the time of departure. One thing I have learnt is that you must allow plenty of time for your journey. If you are travelling from say Sliema to Marsaxlokk for a mooch around and lunch at one of the many seafood cafes then allow a whole day for your excursion. You will enjoy it all the more at a leisurely pace anyway.
This is not intended to be a complete tourist guide. Places of interest abound, particularly if history is your chosen subject – Malta has over seven thousand years of it and some of its sites pre-date the Egyptian pyramids. Can you believe that? Buy a Berlitz or Dorling Kindersley guide for more details if you want to overdose on places of interest.
For the foodies amongst you I can advise that Malta’s seafood is excellent and its wines are a revelation. You can trust me on that one, and I always take a bottle or two home with me which I buy at the airport. There are scores of eateries to choose from. Just leave that to Google or ask the staff in your hotel. The locals always know the best places!
Have fun and enjoy your first visit to ‘My Island.’ I’m willing to bet that, for many of you, it will be the first of many.
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