Malta: Where Romans Go To Holiday

St Julians (small)

Le Meridien on Balluta Bay, St. Julians. (photo Cathleen McCarthy)

Looking for something different to explore on your next trip to Italy? Consider an overnight in Malta. Access is easy and cheap: 90-minute flights from Rome start at $147 round-trip.

With its sunny climate and miles of shoreline, Malta has long attracted Europeans fleeing winter’s chill – and bargains are mounting as new and refurbished hotels compete for attention.

This little country is gearing up for a boom. Nowhere is that more apparent than the popular northeast coast where cranes are visible from the shore. St. Julians is the tourist mecca where most of the shopping and nightlife take place, and new hotels line its wave-worn limestone beaches, facing the vivid Mediterranean.

Two five-star hotels here completed major renovations recently: the Hilton on the Portomaso waterfront and Corinthia, which added a nightclub to its three restaurants on St. George’s peninsula. Nearby, the InterContinental sports a huge conference and fitness center with pools, squash courts and climbing wall.

Hotel Phoenicia (small)

Hotel Phoenicia in Valletta (photo Cathleen McCarthy)

Le Meridien opened four years ago on Balluta Bay, appealing to younger business travelers with a bright palette, hip ambience and full-service spa. Westin Dragonara is on its own little peninsula, a short walk from a casino and the nightclubs of Paceville. Best option: the Bay Suites added in 2006 with kitchenettes, black leather furnishings and your choice of bay-facing balconies or private seaside gardens.

Valletta, Malta’s capital, is a short ferry ride away or 30 minutes on the brightly-painted buses that wind along the craggy coastline. The Maltese government recently commissioned architect Renzo Piano to design a new open-air opera house, relocated parliament and revamped city gate, but the unveiling of his plan last summer sparked local controversy and the project is currently stalled.

Newest among Malta’s luxury hotels is the Grand Hotel Excelsior overlooking Valetta’s Marsamxett Harbor and Manoel Island. The Phoenicia, next door, was the luxury hotel on the island during the final decades of British rule. (Malta became independent in 1964.) A bit dowdy now compared to its slick competition, the still-elegant Phoenicia still boasts impeccable service and proximity to Valetta’s main attractions.

St. Paul's Cathedral in Mdina (photo Cathleen McCarthy)

St. Paul's Cathedral in Mdina (photo Cathleen McCarthy)

But the most beautiful spot on the main island of Malta is the ancient walled city of Mdina, a 15-minute drive from Valetta and St. Julians. Entering Malta’s original capital is like time-traveling back to medieval Rome. Very little has changed over the centuries, including the baroque homes of the nobles, St. Paul’s catacombs in neighboring Rabat, and the 17-century palazzo of the Xara Palace Hotel. If you can’t spend the night in this Relais & Châteaux property, a meal at de Mondion, with its breathtaking views of the city below, is well worth the splurge.