November 17, 2003 -- Think you've discovered Europe? Think again. In the middle of the Mediterranean, there's a trio of islands with a 7,000-year history where the friendly locals speak British-inflected English, where prehistoric, Arab and Christian civilizations have left their marks and where the medieval streets are studded with gorgeous cathedrals. Europeans have known about Malta for centuries, but it doesn't attract many North American tourists.
Early visitors to Malta include the mythic hero Ulysses and gospel scribe St. Paul. The island spent 200 years under Arab domination, 400 years as a possession of Sicily and 300 years under the command of the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights of Malta. Formed by dissolute younger sons of Europe's nobility who found strength and fame successfully defending the island from a Turkish army, the Knights later founded the capital city of Valletta as "a city built by gentlemen, for gentlemen," according to its founder, Grand Master Jean de la Vallette.
Malta was conquered by Napoleon and then by the British, who held the island from 1810 until 1964 and gave the inhabitants the fabulous gift of speaking perfect English -- along with their native language, a Semitic tongue, and usually some Italian as well.
We have a tiny little guide to Malta online at www.frommers.com/destinations/malta, and excerpt from our European cruise guide. For a more in-depth look at Malta, read a rather evocative article from the Sydney Morning Herald at www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/06/24/1023864546937.html. You can also check out the official Maltese tourism Web site at www.visitmalta.com.
Getting to the Malt(a) Shoppe
Malta isn't a big destination for US tourists in part because it's difficult to get there. Alitalia and Lufthansa both fly from the US via their European hubs, but for sky-high prices.
The cheapest way to get to Malta as an independent traveler is to book a sale fare to London and from there to fly Air Malta (www.airmalta.com), which doesn't fly to the US but is perfectly happy to sell tickets over the Internet to North Americans, in US dollars. Roundtrips from London to Malta start at about $176 plus $40 or so in tax. Tack that on to the London sale fares currently available from Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com/promotion.view.do?id=2042) and you get flights from Boston for $396; from New York for $354; from Washington for $404; from LA and San Francisco for $464; and from Orlando and Miami for $532, all plus a wallet-draining $140 in tax between the two flights.
Since it's complicated to get to Malta, the various air-and-hotel package deals we're seeing right can help but look very appealing. We haven't verified the quality of any of the hotels in these packages, but they're all from reliable tour operators.
The cheapest is from Academic Tours (www.academictours.com/malta/hand.html; 800/875-9171), which can put you in the three-star Metropole Hotel for seven nights for as little as $655 plus tax, double occupancy. Expect taxes to come to $140 or so. Fares before tax from various US cities include:
- New York, Boston: $655
- Atlanta: $790
- Chicago: $795
- Philadelphia: $805
- Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas: $820
The above prices are for Dec. 1-14 departures; for departures in January-March 2004, add $20.
Solo travelers should be especially interested in the package from Amelia International (www.ameliainternational.com/html/malta_special/index.html; 800/742-4591) gives you six nights in Malta staying at the four-star Kennedy Nova hotel starting at $699, double occupancy. The single supplement on this one is decidedly non-brutal, only $90. Fares for departures from now through Dec. 14 and from Jan. 4 to March 24, 2004 include:
- New York, Washington DC, Boston: $699
- LA, SF, Miami, Orlando: $799
At Mediterranean Destinations Limited (MDL) (www.ibrcusa.com/mdl/maltaw.htm; 610/789-1500) they have a wide range of hotels available, and they'll throw in a day trip to the nearby island of Gozo with your six-night package. They'll put you in the four-star Hotel Santana or Hotel Karanne from December 25 through March 2003 for the following per-person prices, before tax:
- New York, Washington DC, Boston: $725
- Miami, Orlando, LA, SF: $775
For departures between now and December 14, prices are even cheaper:
- New York, Washington DC, Boston: $680
- Miami, Orlando, LA, SF: $735
To share your own Maltese adventures, ask a question or read what fellow travelers have written about some of these tour operators and Malta, move it on over to our Malta Message Boards.