The experience of traveling through Malta is akin to watching a bartender mix you “a little something he’s been working on,” running up and down the bar for bottles so varied that you doubt all those diverse flavors could really end up being complementary. In the case of Malta, you start with a base pour from the surrounding Arab and Italian regions, cut through that natural richness with a sweet dash of Catholic oligarchy in the form of those infamous Knights, and then, to balance it all out, top off the glass with a bitter dash of British Empire.
It’s a sophisticated brew, that last note especially noticeable at The Phoenicia Malta, our first hotel on my recent tour of the country, their ballroom having been favored for dancing by Princess Elizabeth Windsor when she lived on the island as a newlywed to a naval officer between 1949 and 1951. Not much has changed at the elegant old world hotel, which boasts a breakfast spread worthy of a royal — or perhaps a dining hall on Game of Thrones, the first season of which was shot on Malta — and sits just a waltz away from the City Gate of Valletta. This landmark was renovated a decade ago by Renzo Piano, and provides a minimalist merger between the ancient city and its modern sensibilities.
Our next hotel, Iniala Harbour House, leans more on that current style. The former Ottoman bank sits right on Valletta’s Grand Harbor, boasting sleek fixtures and local contemporary art. On its roof you’ll find the Michelin-starred ION Harbour by Simon Rogan, which has a bold tasting menu. The dessert I sampled featured frozen Tunworth cheese with buckwheat crumb, fig and wild thyme. It had the consistency of a luxe breakfast cereal in milk. When ordering room service one always has to ask: is that turkey club really worth $40? Theirs is. Take it on the balcony while you scope the harbor’s many yachts.
A word to the wise for those who perked up at the mention of the Ottomans: Turkish Airlines currently offers a generous “Stopover in Istanbul” program that offers free accommodations to anyone passing through the city’s impressive new airport, which you’ll probably have to do if you visit Malta. It’s a wonderful and efficient way to see this sprawling city, from its recently completed projects like Galataport to the Hagia Sophia, among the world’s most ancient and impressive landmarks. The nearby and just reopened Roman cisterns are also a must-visit.
If Malta is an unorthodox cocktail, Istanbul is a wine that just keeps getting better with age. Just be sure to stay hydrated.
No trip to Malta could be complete without a trip to Gozo, the northernmost island in the Maltese archipelago. Gozo is more rustic than the main island, and well cooked examples of its impressive produce can be found at Victoria’s Maldonado Bistro. Its owner George Larry Zammit was quick to point out further differences between the two islands, like the way Gozotans order their cheesy breakfast pastizzi. Any trip to Gozo should also include a visit to the Cittadella, which houses the local cathedral, and was sacked by the Ottomans, but offers sweeping views that once helped the British spot incoming Italian bombers during World War II.