As I settled in for the three hour flight that would bring me from the rainy UK to the sunny Mediterranean, I flipped through the Lonely Planet guide to Malta, hoping it might bring some insights into the island I was about to arrive on. Because frankly, I was clueless.
I’d booked the trip for one simple reason — Anders was there, working as a dive instructor. He accepted the job around the time I was planning my trip to Europe, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to see my favorite Dane while I was in the region. The bonus was, I’d have a new country to explore. The double bonus was I’d have, if not a local, at least a temporary local, to play tour guide.
Upon landing, I took a deep breathe, gathered my rental car, and prepared myself for navigating opposite-side-of-the-road driving to my base the other side of the island. I only knew one other traveler who’d been to Malta, and when I told her I was staying in Buġibba, her response was, “Hmm. Don’t judge Malta by Buġibba.” She also warned me about the driving.
Half an hour later, as the coastal road curved to reveal St. Paul’s Bay, I laughed in memory of the comment — she was right. The town appeared to be a shrine to cell-block, 70’s style architecture in various shades of crumbling beige. But I didn’t mind a bit. I knew there was plenty of beauty awaiting me — and there will be many upcoming posts that prove it!
July and August are peak season on the tiny island of Malta, when the population of just over 400,000 (the tiniest in the EU!) swells to accommodate a flood of tourists seeking blue waters and sunny skies. I arrived right in the middle of it, and Anders warned me that he might not get even a single day off work during my week long stay. No worries, I assured him — I’d work or explore solo during the day, and we’d take the island by storm in the evening.
And by “take the island by storm in the evening” I clearly mean dinner on the cheap at home and falling asleep by ten, for at least half the nights I was there. What can I say? While for many Malta is all about the nightlife, Anders was exhausted from work and I was detoxing from London, and we were happy to leave the foam parties and the nightclubs to the hoards of British merrymakers. But for my first night, we fought the call of the pillow and made our way to nearby St. Julian’s for a sunset dinner at the harbor.
St. Julian’s is not much more charming than St. Paul’s in terms of pure appearances, but what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in atmosphere. We ended up here often, meeting friends for dinner or a drink or strolling along the waterfront.
While my day trips around the island deserve posts of their own, on the days I wasn’t exploring, I was working. After one day spent cooped up in Anders’ apartment, I knew I needed to find a better office for the next. So I grabbed my laptop and made my way to Cafe del Mar, where the 15€ entrance fee (about $20) was well worth it for the view and the wifi. While tame during the day, the stylish pool turns into an upscale nightclub in the evenings. I happily worked the day away here, stopping occasionally for a delicious lunch or a swim.
While for me it was a blissed-out temporary office, I’d recommend an afternoon here to any traveler in Malta who needs a break from sightseeing. It is a diamond in the rough of St. Paul’s Bay.
My time in Malta was a bit different than I’d expect most travelers’ trips to be. Instead of spending my days on the beach I was often on my laptop, instead of spending my nights partying I spent them playing catch up with Anders, and instead of a hotel or hostel I bunked in with three busy dive instructors. Those parts might not seem so fun to the casual observer. But there are serious benefits to seeing Malta like a (semi) local.
One such example? Circumnavigating the island of Comino on the private speedboat of a Maltese friend. Small world story alert: Miles, one of Anders’ co-workers at his dive shop in Malta, was a fellow underwater videographer from my days in Koh Tao. Back in Thailand, Miles had fallen for Erica, who was doing her Divemaster training on the island. Eventually, he decided to follow her back home. I had met Erica and two of her Maltese friends briefly when I was back on Koh Tao last year — imagine my surprise when I rocked up on Malta and found a whole Koh Tao crew there! Erica and Miles were kind enough to take us out on her family boat one afternoon for a blissful day of swimming and snorkeling around Comino.
The country of Malta is actually made up of three islands — Malta, Gozo, and Comino. Comino is not much more than a small, barely inhabited slab of limestone wedged between Malta and Gozo. But it holds many beautiful surprises, from hidden caves to dramatic sea cliffs to one very famous Blue Lagoon. As we threw out the anchor on the east side of the island and swam from cave to cave, clamoring through the interconnecting tunnels and swimming through the cobalt channels, I cursed myself for forgetting my underwater camera.
Making our way to the other side of the island, we approached the Blue Lagoon, creator of thousands of postcard images of Malta. From everything I’d heard and read, while stunning, the bay was seriously overrun in the summer and not quite as idyllic as the postcards portrayed. As we approached, I was mesmerized by the turquoise waters. As we got closer, the pounding music from the other boats got louder, and we debated whether or not to drop anchor. The decision was made for us quite dramatically when, to our great horror/amusement, a human turd floated past. With peals of laughter, we peeled out of there and made our way to less poopy waters.
It’s not hard to find a beautiful place to drift for a while around Comino.
Of course, the best part of the day was the company. I loved catching up with Miles about all our mutual friends back on Koh Tao, chatting to Erica about growing up on Malta, and listening to the boys banter about work and island life.
I didn’t see Malta like a typical tourist — and I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Stay tuned for plenty of posts about my road trips through Malta and Gozo, and my dives in the Mediterranean Sea!