Harbour-Valetta

Family holidays in Malta and Gozo: A favourite destination for Hollywood - and The Queen

Susan Springate

With GCSE exams finally over for our 16-year-old son, taking a mini-break in Malta and its sister island of Gozo seemed the perfect opportunity to enjoy some family time ahead of a busy summer. With its stunning coastline, all-year-round temperate climate and wealth of historic sites - that include prehistoric temples, Roman catacombs, medieval towns and the legacy of the Knights of St John (the Knights of Malta), who ruled the island from 1530 to 1798 – this idyllic Mediterranean archipelago, some 50 miles south of Sicily, had all the elements to satisfy the varying interests of this family of four, including our teenage son, Jack, and his ten-year-old brother Luc.

Culture alone however, was unlikely to cut it for our boys, who are sports mad and tend to give galleries and museums a wide berth. It was for this reason we kicked off our trip at the Corinthia Hotel, St Georges Bay, on the north-east side of the island, with its full agenda of watersports - and where the boys could dip their toes in to the magical world of scuba-diving with one of the free trial dives on offer there over the summer months.

Diving off the lido at Corinthia St Georges (Photos: Jack Springate)

The Maltese archipelago (which also includes Comino and Gozo) was voted the second-best dive destination in the world due to its abundance of reefs, caves and wrecks - and the Blue Hole, off the coast of Gozo, is reportedly one of French explorer, Jacques Cousteau’s favourite sites. I hadn’t dived since before Jack was born and was probably a little nervous, whilst my laid-back teenaged son was a total novice. Thank goodness for our serene Estonian dive instructor Kadri, who lulled us into the sea with the ease of a sea nymph – and had my son vowing to do his Padi Open Water Diver course as soon as possible. Our youngest son meanwhile, enjoyed a spot of snorkelling with my husband, off the hotel’s Lido, before splashing around in one of its six pools.

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With his first scuba dive under his weights-belt so to speak, we set off for a stroll around the capital city Valletta, just a short taxi ride away, which, as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is this year’s European Capital of Culture. Too often dismissed as a fusty stopping-off point for cruise ships, we were  overwhelmed by its charm and beauty. Standing on the ramparts of the famous Upper Barrakka Gardens at dusk, the distinctive limestone slabs of the Grand Harbour and the skyline of the fortified medieval Three Cities beyond, glowed a rosy hue in the dying light. So inspired was my son Jack that he reconnected with his former passion for photography for the rest of our stay – the results of which are published alongside. A stomach-lurching ride on the 60-metre-high outdoor lift from the gardens, takes you down to the waterfront, from where you can take the ferry across to Birgu, the oldest of the Three (Cities) and the first place the Knights of St John settled on arriving in Malta in 1530.

The glow of the harbour in Valletta at dusk

We, however, ambled our way back up through the narrow streets, with their overhanging enclosed balconies and Baroque churches. Other unmissable sights in Valletta include the ornate interior of St John’s Co-Cathedral, where you can see two remarkable paintings by hellraising artist Caravaggio – The St Jerome, and The Beheading of St John the Baptist, which is generally considered his finest work. Elsewhere, explore the 16th century bastion walls at City Gate, where Shard architect, Renzo Piano, has remodelled the gateway and Malta’s first purpose-built parliament, just inside.

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With two hungry boys in tow however, it was time to explore the city’s cuisine, pausing briefly for an aperitif at the laid-back Bridge Bar on 13 St John Street, where customers sit on cushions outside on the ancient bastion steps. A Valletta institution is Rubino on Old Bakery St, but we finally settled on Legligin, 119 St Lucy St, whose "Maltese Meze" – an authentic array of tapas including arjoli (made from sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives and anchovies), local goats' cheese and ravioli, as well as pheasant and the traditional slow-cooked rabbit hotpot – proved a culinary hit with myself and my husband and Jack, but fell foul of our ten-year-old Luc, who is a steak and chips man. The low-point came when they announced they didn’t serve soft drinks.

Exploring the streets of Mdina

One of the best things about Malta for my linguistically impaired family – although I speak French and Spanish– was the fact that English is Malta's second national language, after Maltese, which is a blend of Italian and Arabic. A British colony for almost 200 years before independence in 1964, Malta is still a member of the Commonwealth - and even has a special place in the heart of Her Majesty the Queen, who is said to have enjoyed some of the happiest days of her marriage here in the early 1950s.

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The old Villa entrance to the Corinthia Palace Hotel, where the Queen and Prince Charles and Camilla stayed in 2015

Still a Princess, she celebrated her 24th birthday here in 1950 and enjoyed an extended stay on the island when Prince Philip was serving in the Royal Navy as First Lieutenant on HMS Chequers. With baby Prince Charles in tow, the Princess was able to live a relatively normal life. “It was the only place that she was able to live the life of a naval officer's wife, just like all the other wives. It was wonderful for her and it's why they have such a nostalgia for Malta," Lady Pamela Hicks, who was a bridesmaid at her wedding, told me in a previous interview for HELLO!. The royal couple returned several times after this period, most recently in 2015 when, accompanied by Prince Charles and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall, they attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The trip also coincided with the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary and was dubbed “their second honeymoon” by newspapers in Malta and the UK.

Nick and Susan at the gate of Mdina

We experienced something of the royal treatment ourselves when we stayed at the Corinthia Palace Hotel - where the royal party stayed on that trip - which is located in the heart of the island and adjacent to the Presidential Palace and the surrounding San Anton Gardens which are open to the public. Watching fireworks from our balcony after dinner was a highlight - and proved to be a regular sight throughout our stay - which coincided with the feast days of several of the patron saints of various villages, who compete to stage the most spectacular display. Little wonder then that there are some 30 fireworks factories on this island of 436,000 inhabitants.

The Corinthia Palace is a perfect base from which to visit the medieval city of Mdina, the historic capital of Malta and locally known as the ‘silent city’ as there are very few people who still live within its walls. A short taxi ride will deposit you outside its medieval main gateway from where you can lose yourself in its network of labyrinthine streets and crenallated bastions glowing in the evening light. It’s not difficult to see why so many film crews have chosen Mdina - and Malta as a whole - as a backrop for so many productions including the first series of Game of Thrones, where Mdina stood in for the city of King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros. Valletta meanwhile, served as a backdrop for Gladiator in 1999, Troy in 2003, Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips in 2013 and even transformed into twenties Istanbul for Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express.

Susan and Jack at Salt Pans, Gozo

Elsewhere, the desolate 17th century watchtower on the tiny and largely uninhabited island of Comino became the prison for a television series of The Count of Monte Cristo, whilst the third movie of the Narnia tales, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, was filmed in and around Malta too. Our lovely guide Clive Cortis (maltaprivateguide.com)  revealed he was one of hundreds of Maltese who spent a week as an extra on Gladiator with his thumb down shouting, “Kill him!”  And it’s been good for business too as Clive has introduced a Game of Thrones tour into his agenda, which also takes in the Azure Window in Gozo, which was the scene of the Dothraki wedding feast between Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen on the coast of Pentos in Episode 1. Unfortunately, the Azure Window no longer exists: in 2017, the rock formation succumbed to the elements and collapsed into the sea after heavy storms.

This hasn’t deterred the many film crews that have come here since, including Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who shot scenes for their 2015 movie By the Sea in and around our hotel Ta Cenc on the island of Gozo. You can take your own cinematic amble down the towering cliffs to the hotel’s restaurant the Kantra, overlooking a horse-shoe shaped bay and swim in the cool transparent waters after lunch. It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic backdrop for the hotel which is set in fragrant gardens of oleander and bougainvillea, with two swimming pools – one for adults and one for children – whilst dinner is served under the shelter of a 400-year-old carob tree. Past guests have included Sean Connery as well as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

The Citadel on Gozo with the Maltese flag

Other sights on the island of Gozo include the Neolithic Ggantija Temples, which predate the Egyptian pyramids and the red sands of Ramla Bay, which is overlooked by Calypso’s Cave where Homer’s Odysseus is said to have spent seven years under the spell of the sea nymph Calyso. Further along are the salt pans of Xwejni Bay, something of a maritime mirage, as their waters appear to merge with the sky above – and proved another major focus of Jack’s camera lens, as did the Citadel, where it is now possible to walk right round the great bastion walls and take in the panoramic views of the island and beyond. The Venetian style architecture prevalent in Valletta is very much on display here in Gozo’s adjacent capital city of Victoria too, where the sheer rococo flamboyance of St George’s Church in the main square is only surpassed by the staggering number of masses available here everyday: 10, the first one starting at 5.15 am. We briefly paused inside and I couldn’t help noticing Jack lingering as if in contemplation …. a quick prayer for a favourable set of GCSE results perhaps? Just in case!

FAMILY TRIED-AND-TESTED CHEAT SHEET

When to go: Malta is beautiful all year round and you can still swim in the sea through into November. The best time to travel is out of season when it is less busy; in Spring, when the wild flowers are stunning and autumn, when Gozo in particular, is covered in a carpet of green and ideal for walking. The summer months of July and August can be very dry, hot and busy.

Where to stay: We stayed at the Corinthia Hotel, St George’s Bay (Tel No: +356 2370 0000 corinthia.com/stgeorges ) where a Family Room, accommodating two adults and two children on a Bed and Breakfast basis starts at Euros 320 during the summer season. Prices for a suite at The Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa (Tel No: +356 2144 0301 corinthia.com/palace) start from €330/night with Breakfast included.

Ta Cenc Hotel (Tel No: +356 22191000 www.tacenc.com )in Gozo meanwhile offer family suites for €318 in summer months. Several airlines fly daily to Malta including Air Malta, British Airways and EasyJet.

What not to miss: Kayaking along the coast before enjoying a lazy lunch of fresh fish and local Maltese wine at Il Kartell Restaurant in Marsalforn.

What to avoid: Paceville, Saint Julian’s is the hub of Malta’s nightlife, so you might want to avoid this area if you are en famille.

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