Time for Canadians to Discover Malta, One of Europe's Hidden Gems

Christophe Berger, Director, Visit Malta Incentives and Meetings (L) and Michelle Buttigieg, Representative, Malta Tourism Authority. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Malta doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as Italy and France. But it should.

A stunning set of islands southwest of Sicily, and one of the most historic places in Europe, Malta is a place that attracts some 20,000 Canadians a year. Small potatoes, perhaps, but they’re working hard to improve their numbers.

Malta tourism staged an event in downtown Toronto on 09MAR, treating advisors to fine food and drink and extolling the virtues of a tiny but mighty European destination with a marvellously multicultural scene.

Visitors (I was there for a day on a Silversea cruise a few years back) will find British-style red phone booths. Many locals say “grazie” to express thanks and refer to God as Allah, even though the country is almost entirely Roman Catholic.

“I think one of the most surprising things about Malta for Canadians is that we speak English,” Michelle Buttigieg, a representative of the Malta Tourism Authority, told Open Jaw. “There’s amazing history in Malta, but also fabulous kayaking and swimming and culture and food. It’s a small place, but incredibly diverse.”

Malta is a very multicultural destination, with touches of Britain, Italy, France, North Africa, and other regions. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Buttigieg said visitors can take tours that allow them to sip coffee or prosecco with locals. Malta also has a variety of accommodations, including luxury hotels, villas and boutique properties.

Malta also is home to six Michelin-starred restaurants, and diners can enjoy some of the freshest seafood in Europe, as well as French and Italian cuisine.

Canada’s multicultural status is mostly because Canadians have invited folks from all over the world to the country. Malta’s is partly because folks for centuries have been unable to keep their hands off the place.

Scientists have discovered ancient temples on the island built by a mysterious people from Sicily some 3,600 years ago, a thousand years before the pyramids of Egypt rose into the sky. Later came The Phoenicians and the Romans and Vandals. Arabs were in control from around 900 to 1100. After that came the Normans and the Spanish. Then Napoleon and the French, and then the Brits, who have historically been quite happy to take on an encampment of French soldiers.

The city of Valletta at sunset. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Visitors to the main city of Valletta will find a graceful, soft golden glow cast by the local stone buildings and wooden balconies painted forest green. Malta also boasts European cafés, lovely beaches and gold-laden churches, some of the most beautiful in Europe. You’ll also find elegant shops and lively bars showing football on the telly.

There’s also fabulous weather; Malta residents not even feeling the need for central heating in a country so close to the shores of North Africa and where 13 Celsius is a cold winter’s day.

Mdina is an ancient, walled city on a hill in the inland portion of Malta. It’s said that the apostle St. Paul lived here after being shipwrecked.

“We’re even mentioned in the Bible,” Buttigieg said with a smile. “Malta is a great place for faith-based travel.”

Paul Neilsen of Paragon Travel (L) and Mary Grace Lynch, Sales and Operations Manager, Alpine Sterling DMC. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The city of Valletta also has the only signed Caravaggio painting in the world.

The Maltese island of Gozo (just 67 square km) features creamy-coloured natural rock arches that stretch over impossibly blue Mediterranean water.

One advisor told Open Jaw she quite enjoyed the Malta presentation. “It’s something you have to offer a client, because they might not ask about Malta.”

There are easy connections to Malta via Germany (flying Air Canada or Lufthansa), as well as on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, tourism officials said. You also can take a 20-minute flight to Sicily or a 90-minute ferry from Sicily, or a short flight from Rome or Naples.

Discover the World Canada now represents Air Malta in Canada, with an email address set up for agents in Canada: airmalta@discovertheworld.ca. They also offer support for Sales and Groups.

Jim Byers

Jim Byers is a freelance travel writer based in Toronto. He was formerly travel editor at the Toronto Star and now writes for a variety of publications in Canada and around the world. He's also a regular guest on CBC, CTV News, Global News and other television and radio networks.

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