Darren Norris visited the Mediterranean nation with the preconceived idea that it was only for the middle-aged and upwards — and only to be explored in the summer. He was wrong on both counts, he admits.

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MALTA: A hot attraction with a chilled side... any time of the year

Darren Norris visited the Mediterranean nation with the preconceived idea that it was only for the middle-aged and upwards — and only to be explored in the summer. He was wrong on both counts, he admits.

MALTA: A hot attraction with a chilled side... any time of the year

The ‘S’ word was swiftly banned. No, not that one — the ‘S’ in this case stands for segway tour the most memorable and occasionally, most -frayed experience of day one of a three-day trip to Malta.

For the uninitiated, as I was, a segway is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle that can reach a speed of 20 kilometres per hour. To go straight on, you push your body forward, while to slow down and/or stop you pull your body back. Sounds straight forward, doesn’t it? Not for your humble correspondent, who produced a pretty passible impression of an idiot abroad.

In my defence, due to the ambitious programme of activities our group was looking to get through, our training was significantly shorter than what our segway expert Peter would normally provide. What training we had did not bode well for me.

Think Bambi on ice or Danny Welbeck in a one-on-one and you get the idea. Going uphill was one thing, downhill quite another. Peter wore the look of a worried man and kept me firmly in his sights as we began our cruise around Gozo, Malta’s sister island.

Sensibly, the other members of our group gave me plenty of room to wreak havoc. The one thing I had in my favour was scope for improvement, lots and lots of it. Slowly, I warmed to the task and it was a fantastic method of getting a quick view of the island.

It being the start of March the greenness of the place stood out. The ground had not yet felt the effects of the sun. Quite a bit of rain had fallen the previous week so we had to avoid the occasional puddle of water, a reminder of home. Temperatures were around the 14-16 degree mark, pleasant but not overly hot and less than half the sizzling heights they can hit in the summer.

The views were stunning. Gozo means joy in Castilian and being there is just that. The standout sight is a statue of the Risen Christ at the top of Tas-Salvatur Hill (The Saviour’s Hill). The statue is a scaled down version of the one that famously soars over Rio. The Gozo version clearly doesn’t have the same wow factor, but it still represents quite the sight.

Malta is a well-known resort for tying the knot, with 6,000 of the 30,000 Irish people that visit the island annually doing so for the purpose of attending a wedding. During the segway tour, it was easy to see the attraction as we passed a number of idyllic spots by the sea where newly-weds were in the process of getting that perfect picture. When the segway tour came to an end, we proceeded to Ta’Mena Estate for lunch beneath the Mediterranean sun.

What followed was a six-course meal washed down with wine, while a goat from the farm on the estate kept us entertained. Talk of the segway experience featured prominently during the meal, but the two members of our party who had opted not to participate quickly grew bored of the subject. Hence the ban on the ‘S’ word.

Not being a fish lover or the most adventurous of eaters, generally, what was presented held limited appeal, but the other members of the group loved it and the pride the chef took in his work was clear.

For me, the tastiest course involved mushrooms, cheese and sausages within a stuffed onion. On initial viewing, it was unappealing, but it turned out to be a surprising delight.

Suitably full, our next destination was Dwejra, where we visited the Azure Window, a limestone natural arch popular with scuba divers. It’s another stunning place and one that fans of Game of Thrones will be familiar with.

The day had begun with a ferry trip to Gozo from Cirkewwa and onto Ggantija Temples, the oldest freestanding structures in the world. The complex, excavated from 1816-1820, comprises two Neolithic temples dating from 7,000 years ago. It was quite the sight.

A busy first day ended with a return to our base in St Julian’s, where, in the established tradition of Irish people abroad, we visited an Irish bar. It was the day of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with England and the result — a 19-9 win en route to a second successive Championship — left us more than happy with the world.

That night provided a first opportunity to wander around St Julian’s and it helped to rid me of some of my preconceptions of Malta. I had gone there with the notion that Malta was no place for young men — or in my case youngish — but I was wrong. Paceville is packed with bars and clubs and has a lovely, chilled vibe. If crazy nightlife is your thing, this place has plenty to offer.

Our base, the five-star Corinthia Hotel in St George’s Bay, was perfect as, while nice and private, it was also within easy walking distance of the heart of St Julian’s. My room boasted a balcony, a sublime view of the Mediterranean and a minibar. As temperatures were in the low to mid- teens, the vast outdoor swimming pool was unused but it was easy to imagine it packed with people when the weather picked up. There’s also an indoor pool with a jacuzzi and sauna and a vast complex offers a variety of places to eat to suit every budget.

Day two was Valetta day and Malta’s capital city didn’t disappoint. Of all the sights we were treated to in Malta, nothing was on a par with Upper Barrakka Gardens, an idyllic setting that offers a view of the Grand Harbour that words can’t do justice to. It simply has to be seen to be appreciated.

Then it was on to St John’s Co-Cathedral, a gem of baroque art and architecture. From there, was had an opportunity to wander around the main shopping area of Valetta.

Most of the standard shops are represented, but if you’re shopping on a budget the market stalls are to be recommended. After lunch, we headed to the cinema to watch The Malta Experience. We left 40 minutes later with a far deeper respect for and understanding of Malta and its turbulent history.

Then, it was on to the Grand Harbour, which we had previously seen at a distance. We were then taken on a dghajsa, a typical Maltese gondola, for a tour of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, better known as the Three Cities, a term which was first used during the French occupation when Napoleon decreed Malta was to be divided into a number of administrative units. It was another smashing experience.

That night we visited the Caviar and Bull Restaurant in the hotel complex. The food, not cheap, was magnificent. Our final day took us to Mdina, Malta’s first capital city. Mdina is known as ‘The Silent City’ and its most notable feature is its fortification walls. The impression I got from my time there was that it’s similar to Gozo, in the sense that the pace of life moves far more slowly than in Valetta. It’s intriguing, boasting many shops selling touristy things, and is worth a visit.However, I’m not sure you’d do so twice.

Before my trip, I had two preconceptions about Malta. Firstly, that it was a place for the middle-aged and onwards and, secondly, that it was only worth a visit in summer. I was wrong on both counts. Malta has something for every age group and there’s plenty to see and do if you opt to visit outside of summer — it’s about far more than the sun.

Malta is a well-known resort for tying the knot, with 6,000 of the 30,000 Irish people that visit the island annually doing so for the purpose of attending a wedding.

How to get there

Ryanair flies five times per week direct from Dublin to Malta International Airport in the summer and three times a week in the winter.

See www.ryanair.com for best available offers.

Where to stay

The Corinthia Hotel by St George’s Bay in St Julians (www.corinthiahotels.com) is quite superb.

Where to eat

The hotel complex offers a variety of places to eat that should suit every budget.

St Julians boasts an endless selection of places to eat.

Links

Concorde Travel: www.concordetravel.ie

Lowcostholidays: www.lowcostholidays.ie

Mercury Direct.ie: www.mercurydirect.ie

Budget Travel: www.budgettravel.ie

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