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One-hundred miles off the coast of Sicily on the way to North Africa, Malta is an island deep-rooted in early Mediterranean history. Virtually every ancient world power crossed its shores. The Romans, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, they all saw Malta as a strategic refuge easy to defend because of its rising seashores and tall vistas looking to the sea in all directions. The great Odysseus stopped there on his long journey home to Greece after the Trojan War. Even Napoleon controlled the island before the British wrestled it away.

An independent country today and a member of the European Community, Malta is known for a laid back pace, quaint ancient villages, terrific diving and overall beauty. In addition to the island of Malta, the area is an island group composed of five islands, two of which are uninhabited. All can be reached by speedboat or ferry and the waters between the islands can be as interesting and exciting as the islands themselves. Boats of all kind filled with Europeans, local fisherman earning their daily keep, and the young jet set crowd traverse the Mediterranean.

For an all-inclusive air/land package to Malta and its surrounding islands, Academic Tours (tel. 800/875-9171; www.academictours.com) has some extremely well-priced tours. A nine-day/seven-night trip to Malta starts from only $750 including airfare and accommodations. Travel is only good in April and May. A single supplement costs $95 or $135 extra depending on where you stay and an extra hundred gets you an upgrade to a four-star hotel instead of the two three-star hotels from which you can choose. This bang for the buck trip comes with daily breakfast, airport transfers, pre-trip reading material and all local taxes. It does not include any security fees or air departure taxes or visa fees. (A visa is not required if you're a United States citizen, and your stay is good for up to three months.) The air travel, which drops you at Malta's International Airport in Valletta, the island's capital, leaves from Washington D.C., Boston, New York's John F. Kennedy's Airport and Newark. This is not an escorted tour so you're free to experience the island and its environs as you wish. Excursions are available at extra costs. If you want to extend your stay, the site lists some great special offers from small island hotels that range in price from $19 per night to $35 per night. Can't beat that.

If you want a guided tour of Malta, Academic Tours has those as well (www.academictours.com/malta/mlaadven.html). A nine-day/seven-night adventure tour that covers Malta and all the surrounding islands, major museums, scenic hikes, and the island group's many historic churches. Starting from $1,199 with departures from April through October, the trip includes all air, lodging, transportation, guide fees, daily breakfast and lunches on the full day tours. Nighttime is yours, and Malta has a bustling nightlife culture with outdoor cafes, large discoth¿ques featuring well-known DJs, and a lively street culture. Like other European islands such as Ibiza, some parts of Malta never sleep.

Before heading to Malta, check out www.visitmalta.com. The comprehensive website (whose pages take a little time to load) gives an in-depth look at Maltese culture, taking into account the country's 7,000 years of history and its unique blend of many different cultural influences. The site is especially helpful in getting transportation information in and around the islands and for a listing of local sightseeing excursions. It also provides links to important sites for the independent traveler such as Malta Air (tel. 800/756-2582; www.maltaair.com), which often runs specials to select European cities such as Budapest and Paris.

Donna Franca Tours (tel. 800/225-6290; www.donnafranca.com) also offers all-inclusive trips to Malta. A current special, which departs for the last time around March 31, 2005, is a seven-day/ five-night deluxe guided tour of the island group. Costing $1,144 per person based on double occupancy (the single supplement is $399), this trip includes roundtrip airfare from New York, Boston, Miami, Orlando and Washington D.C.; five nights at a first-rate hotel; and daily breakfast and dinner. If you like, you can tack the Donna Franca Malta trip onto the tour operators Sicilian experiences to get a flavor for the entire region.

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