Mel Homer finds Malta is a great place to sip Aperol spritz and watch the world spin past.
Malta is one of those destinations you can never quite place. I had no real idea of exactly where it lay in the Mediterranean. Google says it's about 90km south of Sicily, which equates to about a three-hour flight from London.
That may be because the country is so small, the main island (one of three that make up Malta) being just 27km wide.
I would never have googled Malta, nor visited, were it not for the fact that one of my dearest friends has recently moved there. But I found out why movie-makers love it — parts of Game of Thrones, Gladiator and Troy were filmed here. It's incredibly beautiful, with golden-hued ancient buildings, azure waters and the most photogenic selection of old doors you will find in Europe.
Here my five top things to do in Malta
1. Mdina mindfulness
I found it impossible not to hum Tone Loc's Funky Cold Medina under my breath the entire duration of my visit to the hilltop walled city of Mdina. It's the oldest inhabited city on the island, dating back 4000 years and is known as The Silent City. With only a few residents' cars allowed within the walls, it's a peaceful place. If you tire of wandering the little alleyways and marvelling at the caramel-coloured Maltese limestone buildings, there are restaurants along the wall that offer a chilled drink, a cool breeze and views out to the coast.
2. Watchtower walking
Malta's coastline is dotted with watchtowers built by the Knights of Malta in the 17th century. They were built within sight of each other, so if invaders were spotted at sea the watchers could set a fire and warn the others. Many still stand today and some are open to the public. When the weather is cooler there are great walks between them. If you're in Malta in summer, as I was, and it's too hot to hike, they make a spectacular feature for your sunset pics.
3. Dive in!
Auckland Airport rolls out new scanners as part of move towards biometric screening
The water surrounding Malta is so clear and blue and beautiful it looks like it belongs in a 1960s movie. I half-expected to see Sophia Loren or Brigitte Bardot lounging on a rock, smoking and dangling a delicate toe in the sea. There are a few beaches, but most of the island is rocky. At the beginning of summer the council goes around the entire island fixing ladders off the rocks into the water, and at the end of the season they collect them all back up again. Diving into the Med from the rocks is a very pleasurable experience, particularly if you're not a fan of sand in your bikini. The rocks are smooth and the perfect place for groups of friends to lounge around.
Sandy beach-wise, Gnejna and Riviera Beach in the northwest of the Island are good choices, Riviera having the added bonus of a restaurant/cocktail bar overlooking the water, and an excellent watchtower on the cliffs above to walk to. Of the rock "beaches" — St Paul's in the northeast has a lovely natural pool. My favourite spot was a secluded little cove on the edge of St Thomas Bay in the southeastern corner of the island, with a dusty track down to it, smooth rocks to lie on, and the clearest water in Malta.
4. Viva Valletta
No trip to Malta is complete without wandering the narrow streets of the capital, Valletta, a Unesco World Heritage site - one of several on the island. If shopping is your thing this is the place to indulge. Most of Europe's top retail outlets are here, including the French chain store Kiabi, which is like a Glassons and Hallensteins and Cotton on Kids all rolled in to one. But with French style. Valletta is a beautiful city, rich with history, churches and monuments. It's home to one of Europe's oldest working theatres, Manoel Theatre, which was built by the Knights in 1731. It's also very small, covering less than a sq km, so even with its steep streets, everything in the capital is within easy walking distance.
5. Ghosts and ruins
Wander through Grand Harbour, and admire the superyachts that call this port home during the season. There are many marina-side restaurants here offering great food with typical Maltese hospitality. After lunch, take a walk further along the harbourside to Fort St Angelo. The huge limestone fort dominates the tip of Vittoriosa and was (like much of Malta) built by the Knights on the ruins of a castle, then used by the French army, followed by the British army and navy, as a headquarters. It's undergone restoration works and is open to the public. There's a little dirt track to the side of the fort walls which you can clamber along, then head through a doorway and you pop out of some rocks with a stunning vista over the water to Valletta.
According to local legend, a number of ghosts haunt the fort, including the Grey Lady, the mistress of a Sicilian captain who lived in the castle in the 13th century and came to a bad end. She was frequently seen by soldiers during World War II, and it is said she saved their lives during aerial bombardment.