IN some ways, Malta has been a victim of its own success. Every winter, hordes of UK retirees seeking sun and good-value accommodation flock to its shores for extended breaks.
While it may be good for business, the downside is the reputation that Malta has acquired. “Think old people on holiday and you think Malta,” said Belleair Holidays agency sales manager Emma Yorke.
Preconceptions persist that Malta is, frankly, a little dull; that its mid-market resorts are brimming with pensioners and restaurants stick to non-offensive British fare to be on the safe side.
But with new five-star properties opening across the island, and an ever-growing club scene (Paul Oakenfold was out there last summer DJ-ing to 5,000-strong crowds for two nights), the tourist board is determined to shake up the island’s staid image.
Malta Tourism Authority director of marketing Jeffrey Cutaja said: “We need to change the perception of Malta, and we’re working really hard to do this. The luxury market is growing, there are fantastic spas, and we’ve so much to offer younger visitors too.”
A British colony until 1964, and just a three-hour flight away, Malta’s World War II history, gentle climate and low prices have kept the older core market coming back. But during a three-day stay in January it was my mission to discover Malta’s other side – the new-found luxury and more youthful appeal.
It’s a short drive from the airport to the InterContinental in St Julian’s Bay. I checked in and started exploring. The lobby café was full of well-dressed 30-somethings.
It all felt very contemporary, with hardly a grey hair in sight.
St Julian’s used to be a fishing village. Today there is a cluster of four and five-star hotels, from the Hilton to the Westin, many of which opened fairly recently. The Portomaso development along the coast has boutique shops, a marina and a new seafront promenade.
But the latest addition to the top-end choice is on the opposite end of the island – the Radisson SAS Golden Sands in the northwest. Opened with a fanfare in November last year, it hosted the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, with 53 heads of state, including the Queen, soon after.
On a prized position overlooking a sandy beach, half of the 337 rooms are suites – the very best have four bedrooms each, with a whirlpool bath on the terrace (the Sultan of Brunei suite did not disappoint).
There are all the usual facilities you’d expect from a resort filled with five-star hotels, but it’s the location and relaxing atmosphere that score top marks. Managing director John Dandria said: “It’s a new destination in Malta, away from the busy resorts. We offer peace, quiet and luxury far from the mass market.”
Other luxury properties in the pipeline include the 282-room Le Meridien St Julian’s, which opens this spring in the grounds of a 19th-century villa, and the Grand Hotel Excelsior, set in the 16th-century walls of Valletta, due to open in the autumn.
For a more boutique experience, there is the Xara Palace, a Relais and Chateaux property with just 17 duplex suites, built into the medieval bastions of the fortified city of Medina, the island’s capital until 1598. It’s completely charming, has a fascinating history and boasts fantastic views from its terrace.
On day two, I took a boat over to the sister island of Gozo – known for its great diving.
The Kempinski San Lawrenz Resort and Spa, one of the island’s two top hotels, has an award-winning spa offering authentic Ayurveda treatments (the therapists, ingredients and furniture come from Kerala in southern India). Rooms have recently been upgraded, a third pool has been added and, with two extra storeys just built, there are now 122 rooms – together with a new section of 58 private residences.
I hadn’t been there long and preconceptions of a slightly down-market destination with few holidaymakers under 60 were vanishing fast. I had seen some wonderful hotels, sniffed out some great restaurants and started to explore the picturesque historic towns and palaces.
On the last night it was time to check out the nightlife. Bay Street in St Julian’s was crammed with party-goers hopping from bar to bar, and the clubs stay open all night. There is everything from techno to salsa here, and it was still in full swing when I headed back to the comfort of the InterContinental at 2am.
Belleair’s Yorke summed it up: “Things are moving on from the traditional resorts. There is a slow revolution. With places upgrading and new options, you can stay in the lap of luxury. There is one hell of a club scene, too, and so much to do. Malta just hasn’t got the message across yet.”
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