MALTA is working hard to change its image.

The sea may be every shade of azure and turquoise but to me – a Malta virgin – the Mediterranean isle had been painted in a hue that was a little uninspiring.

I had preconceptions of buckets and spades and British holidaymakers of a certain age.

Staid, conservative, bland. A destination you’d choose for an easy family week of sun and sand? Undoubtedly.

But the setting for a girly weekend away of culture and cocktails – on a par with Amsterdam, Barcelona or Paris?

I wasn’t necessarily convinced.

Well, Malta, please take this as an apology.

The reputation of this fiercely proud country as a holiday spot for unadventurous Brits couldn’t be further from the truth.

Yes, we enjoyed beautiful beaches. But we also took in breathtaking landscapes, explored history, architecture and art by the bucket load and took in the cafe culture and vibrant nightlife of a cosmopolitan capital.

So for this group of twentysomethings, we certainly weren’t short of things to do – or delicious home-grown Maltese wine to sip.

I stayed at the five-star Phonecia Hotel – one of capital city Valletta’s best-established luxury spots, which names Her Majesty as one of its former guests.

A short hop, skip and a jump away were the gates to Valletta, a medieval walled city perched on the edge of the breathtaking grand harbour.

Valletta, a UNESCO world heritage site, has just been named European Capital of Culture for 2018 and the accolade’s impact is visible everywhere.

The avant garde design of a modern new parliament building has transformed the main thoroughfare into the city, and what were previously grubby car parks outside some of Valletta’s best attractions have become bustling squares.

The maze of narrow cobbled streets and sun dappled buildings house not just museums and galleries but trendy bars and inventive restaurants.

Upper Barrakka Gardens, on the ramparts of St Peter and St Paul Bastion, commands outlandishly picturesque views of the city’s Grand Harbour and waterfront.

With the port still very much active, watching the comings and goings of gargantuan cruise liners evoked Malta’s rich military past.

With the help of our enthusiastic guide Clive Cortis we saw that Malta can definitely do the ‘wow’ landscapes – from the understated beauty of Ramla Bay in the island of Gozo, the archipelago’s little sister – to the breathtaking scale of the Dingli Cliffs, one of the earliest bastions of the Knights of St John.

A few minutes floating in the crystalline waters of the Blue Lagoon, a natural inlet between Gozo and the tiny Comino showed me the country can do unreal beauty as well as any other island in the Med.

And it can do unpolished and authentic, as we experienced when we tasted wine, olive oil and Kunserva, traditional Maltese tomato paste, at the Ta’ Mena estate.

But for those who want it, there is also glamour to be found – at affordable prices.

We commandeered a luxury yacht and sailed from the Msida Marina to watch the sun set, sipping wine and eating Bigilla – a bean pate, Malta’s answer to hummus – for the equivalent of less than a hundred Euros each.

Eating afternoon tea in the leafy surrounds of the Palazzo Parisio, Malta’s most opulent aristocratic home, melting into relaxed puddles of our former selves after oriental head massages at the Kempinski Hotel and drinking margaritas on Hugo Terrace’s roof bar was well within the budget of the average four-day trip.

We spotted Game of Thrones sets from a horse and carriage ride through the enchanting ancient walled city of Mdina, where the medieval and baroque jostle.

And we ate unpretentiously-prepared fresh seafood on the sea front in Xlendi Bay and nouveau cuisine in the contemporary St Julian’s.

Forgive me Malta, for I misjudged you. Less than three hours flight from the UK, this island is a little pocket of minibreak paradise.


To find out more about Malta, go to

Tui Benjamin flew to Malta from Manchester via EasyJet. There are also flights from Manchester via Jet2 and Air Malta, the national carrier. For more information go to

She stayed at the Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta, where rooms start at £55 per person sharing per night, valid for advance online bookings. To book call 0800 862 0025 or visit