Comino Island Malta

Little Island, Lots To Do – Exploring Malta In April

 

Unlike some trips which you think about and plan for months (if not years), Malta was quite a late choice for us, booked on a whim only three weeks before we travelled. And to be honest I didn't know much about it. But it is popular at the moment, and the flights/accommodation are good value too so it seemed a good last-minute pick.

After booking I started researching things to do, and realised there is so much going on we would probably need more than one week!

For such a tiny country there really is a vast array of activities to suit all tastes, and almost every day turned out to be totally different.

Malta - the Three Cities from Valletta

Malta – the Three Cities from Valletta

On Arrival

The flight went well and arrived on time, though I have to say they were the grumpiest cabin crew I can remember! You normally expect at least a fake smile, but they barely even looked at you when serving the drinks.

We'd booked a shared transfer from the airport using Hoppa, for what seemed like a bargain price (around £6 return, for 2). Unfortunately the local provider had overbooked, and there wasn't room on the minibus for us. We ended up waiting 45 minutes, but we did then get a private car which took us direct to our hotel. For the price we'd paid we couldn't really complain.

The transfer gave us our first experience of Maltese driving… which is not for the faint-hearted! Added to this, wearing seatbelts (whilst compulsory) is not popular and the transfer driver never put his on, despite the car sounding a loud warning alarm for a good five minutes.

Malta has the highest road accident rate in Europe, but we were forewarned about this and had decided not to hire a car ourselves. Despite the narrow and windy roads, cars screeching round corners at high speeds was a regular occurence. To be fair we never witnessed an accident or even a bump, but many of the cars have scratches and dents as evidence, and it's probably best to shut your eyes at junctions…

Anyway we made it, arriving late afternoon and had a very warm welcome at our hotel (the Marina Hotel Corinthia in St Julian's) including a cool glass of fresh orange juice.

Balcony view

Balcony view

 

Our room was large and clean with a beautiful view out to sea in one direction (a less nice view with cranes and building works to the other, but I guess this will be finished at some point). We only had the standard room type (they call it Superior) but I believe the Deluxe rooms are higher up and further along the building which would have a better outlook. The breakfast terrace for everyone is lovely.

St Julian's (and indeed the whole coastline) is made up of several distinct bays, with the Corinthia being in St Georges Bay. It is a convenient location, although on the edge of the nightclub district of Paceville may not be to everyone's taste. We did walk through past the clubs and bars a few times, but it never gave us any trouble.

The next bay along is Spinola, and you'll see this on all the postcard images. It's very pretty and more upmarket, though you do pay for the view of course. We ate in a restaurant here on our first night (at the third attempt as places were ‘full' – though they didn't make much effort to fit you in). I ordered locally-caught swordfish steak which was huge, about a hand span in diameter! Peter had a full rack of ribs, and we were too full for dessert.

Top tip: If you are brave and decide to hire a car in Malta, excess waiver insurance would be a good idea.

Sunday – Sightseeing in Valletta

On Sundays there is a very popular fish market in Marsaxlokk, but being our first day we weren't up very early and didn't think we would make it before it all wound down.

It was sunny but very windy, so we thought going inland might be a good option and we were going to head for Mdina. The hotel staff directed us to the bus stop, but we had just missed one according to the timetable and they only ran once per hour on that route. In hindsight the timetables don't mean much!

Everywhere is well connected on Malta so we thought we'd get a weekly bus pass (Tallinja Card, €21 for unlimited trips) so we could explore at leisure. The hotel staff advised we could only buy this pass at the main bus stations (not true, but you'd need to look up stockists, or buy at the airport), so we then decided we should go to Valletta on that first trip to pick up a pass.

You can also get a 12 trip ticket for €15 and actually this would have been enough, as we didn't make it to all the places we thought we might. A single trip is only €1.50 too (€2 in summer) and you can go anywhere, including a change, within 2 hours.

Back streets of Valletta

Back streets of Valletta

 

So Valletta it was, the only downside on a Sunday being that St John's Co-Cathedral was closed for tourists. But we spent a pleasant day walking around the narrow streets, full of character and old charm. There are no cobbles to worry about, but a few of the back streets are a bit rough and there are many steep hills and steps.

Upper Barrakka Gardens

Upper Barrakka Gardens

Make sure you go up high on the town walls for stunning views of the Grand Harbour, and the Upper Barrakka Gardens are a small but peaceful retreat. If you are there at noon or 4pm you will see one of the old cannons fired across the bay.

Less peaceful was a big political rally being set up in the square behind, protesting against corruption and financial mis-dealings in the government. It seemed that half of Malta were pouring it, and you could probably hear it across half of Malta too!

Underground Lascaris War Rooms

Underground Lascaris War Rooms

In the afternoon we visited the underground Lascaris War Rooms which were cut down into the rocks to form the WW2 nerve centre. The island is in a key location between Italy and Africa, and suffered incredible amounts of bombing and attack. The bravery and resilience of the residents, who held out, were recognised by the award of the George Cross to the whole island and its people.

The guide was excellent and very keen for us to take photos and spread the word. More rooms are still being restored and not yet open to the public. If you have any interest in war history this place is a must.

Top tip: The buses are a great way to get around and see the country; just don't rely on the timetables. Buy a multi-trip pass at the airport – it won't activate until you use it the first time.

Monday – Sightseeing in Mdina

Now knowing the (supposed) bus times we headed for Mdina again, but the bus was not on time and was very full! This was typical throughout the week. Standing was the norm, with passengers crammed to the windows – drivers would keep squeezing a few more on… but regularly (and a bit randomly) didn't stop to pick up any more and left people waiting by the side of the road.

I mentioned the Maltese driving, and the buses are no exception so make sure you hang on tight at all times! I was almost thrown through the front window when it pulled away at some traffic lights, as I'd let go momentarily to let someone pass.

Entrance gate to Mdina

Entrance gate to Mdina

Mdina, the walled former capital, is lovely – very cool and peaceful as you wander the narrow streets flanked by huge sandstone walls. The views from the top take in most of the island, and we could see our hotel location plus the church dome at Mosta en-route – which survived a WW2 bomb that penetrated the roof and rolled down the aisle. It didn't explode and the 300-strong congregation survived, something revered as a miracle.

Mdina view

Cool and peaceful in Mdina

Outside the Mdina walls is Rabat, a more bustling area whose streets were decorated with lights and garlands (the Maltese are very religious, and each town has it's own saint's day and festival with fierce competition to put on the best show).

Continuing our underground theme, we took a tour of St Agatha's Catacombs, which are underground cemeteries built by the Romans and later used as a hiding place of St Agatha who had escaped a forced marriage in Sicily. The ceilings are low so mind your heads! It's a bit awkward navigating the corridors and steps so wear flat non-slip shoes.

Mdina streets

Mdina streets

We finished the afternoon at the Fontanella Tea Garden, taking in fabulous views and eating fabulous cake. The Maltese really love their pastries, you'll find a dazzling array of cakes and desserts everywhere, along with street stalls selling pies, bread, pizza etc. Another thing they often do is bring a tray of desserts out to show you, rather than relying on a printed menu. Makes it hard to resist!

Top tip: Enjoy cakes at the Fontanella Tea Garden, but do expect it to be busy.

Tuesday – Boat Trip to Comino

Malta has two smaller islands to the north, Gozo and the tiny Comino (permanent population of 4).

A bus took us to the port of Cirkewwa where we bought return tickets to Comino (€10 each – you can also go on to Gozo if you wish and then get the ferry back).

But thanks to a mad bus driver we were quite lucky to get there at all! Going too fast up the hills and round the corners with a full bus of passengers, we weren't far from our destination when a very unpleasant burning smell started coming from the back of the bus. After stopping for a while, getting out to look, and making a phone call the driver carried on – but only to the next stop where he announced the service had terminated and we had to wait for another bus to pick us all up! This was only half the saga that day though, we had to get home too…

Comino's Blue Lagoon

Comino's Blue Lagoon

The boat trip took around 20 minutes, sailing into the Blue Lagoon, a beautiful bay with incredibly blue and clear waters. Sadly it is full of tourists, you can swim here but expect to fight for your space; I can only imagine what it would be like in summer.

Fortunately you don't have to go far to get away from the crowds, I'm sure most of them barely leave the quayside. Out on the cliff top paths you'll enjoy stunning views in peace and quiet.

Stunning views on Comino

Stunning views on Comino

It's very hot, dry and arid, and there weren't as many flowers as I'd been led to believe for springtime. But there were butterflies flitting around and once we got amongst some tree cover saw some unusual birds too, including a Hoopoe. This is a key migration route so is great for bird watching, though sadly hunting and poaching are rife.

We found a quiet beach to sit on for a while, but hadn't taken our swimwear. We did have a paddle though and the water was pretty chilly!

Good footwear is essential

Good footwear is essential

If you do want to explore the coastlines then sturdy shoes are a must; the paths are very rocky and sometimes steep (don't try to do it in flip flops and a bikini, please). This would be true across the islands. Make sure you have plenty of sunscreen, a hat, and water too as there's little shade or shelter. Comino does have some snack vans by the Blue Lagoon, but taking a picnic and certainly plenty to drink would be a good idea.

More views from Comino

The boat trip back went via some caves for a close-up view, before stopping first at Marfa and then shortly after at Cirkewwa. We got off at Marfa, which proved to be a mistake as it was much harder to catch a bus (with room) there than from the end of the line.

However as we were hungry and needed a pit stop, we got the first bus that came along as they all go to the same few places to begin with. We found a nice bar in Mellieha Bay overlooking what is the largest sandy beach on the island.

On leaving there our epic trip home began… Several buses went past, all full, and the drivers refused to stop. We took a Valletta-bound bus with the idea of changing at St Paul's Bay where we had a few more options. But still they didn't stop for us, and it was getting later and darker. It took around 70 minutes before we were finally back on a bus to St Julian's (standing up, of course).

We had hoped to visit Gozo too during our week, but after the whole bus experience we didn't fancy doing it again!

Top tip: Don't get off the boat at Marfa, go back to Cirkewwa to catch a bus. If you have somewhere to be (such as a cruise ship departure), allow plenty of time – although connections to Valletta are the most regular.

Wednesday – Relaxing by the Pool

After Tuesday's experiences we didn't fancy going anywhere today. It was also forecast to be the hottest day of the week, so we had a lazy day relaxing by the hotel pool with a book.

Hotel pool

Hotel pool

We did go to Sliema in evening (by bus!) which is a few bays around the coast. It's bustling with a nice promenade that was very popular with joggers. The locals like to take an evening stroll along here.

We didn't choose a great place to eat to be honest, but that did mean we didn't stay for dessert and as we walked home we discovered Cara's Cafe – another place serving the most wonderful cakes. They did other food too, but most people seemed to be in for a beer or coffee and cake.

Cakes in Cara's Cafe

Just a few of the cakes in Cara's Cafe

Top tip: Take an evening stroll along the promenade; you can walk all the way from St Julian's through to Sliema.

Thursday – Fishing Village of Marsaxlokk

The longest bus ride in Malta takes about 50 minutes, but you will sometimes have to take two trips. So it was to get to Marsaxlokk on the southern coast, with a change needed in Valletta. The whole journey took about an hour and a half, but it is a good way to see the island as you go.

Marsaxlokk is a busy fishing village which hasn't changed much for centuries. The pretty painted ‘Luzzo' boats bob in the harbour, and locals and tourists alike enjoy the fish restaurants lined along the quay front.

Fishermen in Marsaxlokk

Fishermen in Marsaxlokk

On Sundays everyone flocks to the fish market to get their pick of the catch, but on other days the fish is sold in Valletta and the market instead concentrates on tourist trinkets (but still, some nice items with locally made lace, ceramics, etc).

There is a charm to the village, but unfortunately the view outwards is blighted by a power station on one side of the bay and a cargo port on the other. We took a walk out around the headland towards the port (rocky paths, again you need proper shoes) and watched some of the huge cargo ships being unloaded. They're not pretty but I do find them fascinating.

We saw four sailing in or out, all loaded with containers. The amount of goods they transport and the vast distances they sail around the world is mind-blowing. I wondered where they were heading off to next; to me there's just ‘something' about watching a ship sail away into the horizon on a trip that will probably take weeks if not months; it makes you feel very small in the scheme of things. When you're sat looking at the walls of an office most days, it's so easy to forget how much world is out there.

Marsaxlokk

Stop for a drink or lunch on the quay front

Heading back to the quay we sat down for a drink. There's a vast choice of fresh fish as you would expect, but after large hotel breakfasts we tend not to eat lunch. However when the waitress came over to take our order, she very rudely informed us that we couldn't sit in the ‘prime' seats if we weren't eating, we would have to go inside! It wasn't even busy.

I have to say the Maltese people as a whole were not the friendliest or happiest (although there were exceptions, the hotel staff were lovely). Anyway we moved along to a place that would have us, though the service was painfully slow.

In the evening we headed back to Spinola Bay and had probably our nicest meal of the week at San Giuliano. Very lovely and welcoming staff here, nice food and a fabulous view. A fish counter shows the day's local catch for you to choose from.

Locally caught fish to choose from

Locally caught fish to choose from

I opted for mixed fried fish with a salad, Peter had rack of lamb and fortunately they asked how he would like it cooked as he prefers it well done. Lovely desserts too of course!

With sides, wine and tip the bill was around €90. It's not that cheap to eat out in Malta, and I did underestimate our budget a bit. There are of course cheaper options than San Giuliano, but for the ‘nice' places allow at least €60 for two. The hotel restaurants are recommended too.

Top tip: Time your visit to Marsaxlokk for a fresh fish lunch on the quay. Locals head there at the weekends so it will be busy then.

Friday – Final Day

We had a fairly lazy day to end the week. Taking a wander from our hotel we explored the other direction including facilities at the Corinthia (sister) hotel which we could also use. This hotel did seem posher than ours with better views. Doubtless more expensive too though.

Top tip: For the best views in the St Georges Bay area, stay at the Corinthia or the Radisson Blu (although the Corinthia Marina is nice too).

 

Saturday – Homeward Bound…

We had a nice late checkout at 12 noon so no rush, I packed up our final things and we enjoyed sitting on our balcony a little longer.

We'd had a great time, a real mixture of exploring and relaxing. There was plenty more we could have done and seen, and perhaps the only real disappointment was that we didn't get to Gozo; if we come back that will be first on the list.

Also read: What We Packed – Malta In Spring

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