TOURS TO THE TEST
We take on Malta by jeep, horse, boat and Segway. Words by Sophy Grimshaw. Photographs by Theo Albert
THIS MONTH TRAVELLERS will pour into Malta - a former British colony on the Med dotted with red telephone boxes as well as palm trees - for the Isle of MTV Malta Special, a festival headlined by Flo Rider and will.i.am. But while pop stars and colonists come and go, the most appealing features of the islands of Malta and Gozo are essentially unchanging: prehistoric temples, Ancient Roman salt pans cut into the coastline, wild countryside and awesome natural rock formations with names like the Blue Grotto and the Azure Window. You won't regret coming here to see Malta and Gozo for yourself, but what's the best way to do it? We road tested the tour options for you.
JUMP IN THE BACK AND HANG ON TIGHT
"SORRY ABOUT THE BUMPS," George, the driver, shouts to the passengers in the back as our jeep traverses another stretch of pot-holes and we cling to its metal frame. As well as making you feel vaguely like you're in an adventure movie, a jeep safari is a practical way to get around the Maltese island of Gozo.
The jeep can navigate off-road tracks that other vehicles can't, and the open-air backseat, with just a canvas awning to shade you, allows for expansive views of the island as you go. Gozo is more lush and agricultural than neighbouring Malta, with a slower pace of life. As well as long stretches of farmland and wild vegetation, from the back of a jeep you'll get a view of life in its sleepy towns, including the capital, Victoria (known locally as Rabat).
Not far from Gozo's harbour, make a pit stop at local produce shop Savina (Magro Food Village, L-Ghassara Road, Xewkija, tel. +356 21 562 236,www.savina.com.mt) to stock up on the local honey, sea salt, olive oil, sheep's cheese and whatever else you can stash under the seat of the jeep.
Better yet, ask your driver to deliver you to Ta' Mena Estate in the Marsalforn Valley, the farm and vineyard of Philip Spiteri and his family. You can arrange a visit to pick your own fresh fruit here, or tour the vineyard and taste its wines. The estate's produce is for sale, including olive oil, sweet tomato paste and the local soft drink of choice, orange blossom water. "I was seeing agritourism getting trendy abroad and I thought, well, this is nothing new to me, this is how I grew up," says Spiteri. "Now we're running the first agritourism complex in the Maltese islands."
There's no overnight accommodation on the estate yet, but Gozo is full of converted farmhouse B&Bs and is just 25 minutes from Malta by ferry.
In a jeep you can also tackle the tiny coastal track that runs parallel to salt pans created by the Romans. With the water lapping beneath the wheels, you're almost in the sea as you pass by to peer at these rock-pool-like constructions from the 1st century BC. The pools trap seawater as the tide comes in, leaving salt deposits when it evaporates. Another must-see feature of Gozo's coastline is a natural rock arch nicknamed the Azure Window, for the way it frames a stretch of sea.
Ask your driver to take youto the Ġgantija Temples, too. Set in a landscape of lush grass and wildflowers, these prehistoric places of worship are estimated to be up to 7,000 years old, and the oldest freestanding structures in the world. Built prior to the invention of the wheel, legend has it that the stones were transported here by a female giant.
You can see sights that would otherwise be quite a trek, all in one day.
With bumpy roads and no seat belts, just a strap to cling to for dear life, it's not for the easily motion sick.
HOW TO DO IT
Frank's Garage offers group and private tours of Malta and Gozo. www.franksgarageltd.com/ malta-gozo-tours
SEE THE MALTESE COUNTRYSIDE WITH A NEW FRIEND
WHY SETTLE FOR HORSEPOWER when you can tour Malta on an actual horse? In the village of Bidnija on Malta, Bidnija Horse Riding school is part of the family business of the animal-loving Jimmy Buhagiar. He says he speaks little English because he never went to school, but instead worked with horses from the time he was a child. At the age of seven he was riding alone halfway across Malta. Now he and his family care for 30 horses at their stables, offering riding tours of the Maltese countryside, and also supplying horse "actors" to Hollywood productions.
Guaranteed good weather and low production costs mean that movies are frequently shot on Malta. Buhagiar points out his two grey "stunt horses", to be seen leaping over fire in the forthcoming movie Sinbad.
Among the horses our small group will be riding on today is a black steed called Zorro, who appeared in the Brad Pitt movie Troy and TV series Game of Thrones. Buhagiar says Zorro is excellent at staying calm during fight scenes, and is one of 15 horses here that are best for beginners. He saddles up a dappled white horse called Ice Cream; I'm assigned a gentle-natured chestnut horse called Gabel. Riding at a coward's pace, I find the added height of a view from horseback allows for expansive views of the sweep of lush Bidnija countryside around us. Has Gabel been in any movies? "No," he's "not good" at acting, for reasons that aren't explained. We can't all be stars.
When it comes to vehicles, a living creature is in a class of its own, and the team at Bidnija will put first-time riders at ease.
Not suitable for anyone who can't handle all the fun of the farm. Expect to meet dogs, goats, geese, a cow and a donkey here too.
HOW TO DO IT
Bidnija offers one-hour sessions for €20, two hours for €35, tel. +356 7999 2326, www.bidnijahorseriding.com
GET OUT ON THE OPEN WATER
"I'M AN OLD MAN NOW, I'm 72 , but I'm still out on the water because I love boats and it's what I've always done," says former sailor Walter Ahar. His dghajsa, a wooden gondola-style boat, is currently taking us from Valletta's Grand Harbour - where the new Renzo Piano-designed parliament building is under construction - across the water to Malta's historic "Three Cities" of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua.
This traditional row boat now has a motor for added convenience, and is one of less than 100 that remain on Malta. Ahar says this is down to how much it costs to insure them - an investment that only hardcore boat lovers such as himself are willing to take on. It's a short, peaceful ride with an arresting view of the harbour receding behind us, and definitely beats taking the bus. At one point Ahar, a Maltese native who spent several years as a sailor in the UK, points out the British pub he owns, the Manchester Conquest. After just 15 minutes or so we've arrived in Vittoriosa, where the Knights of St John once resided, free to disembark and explore.
If travel by water is your thing, don't miss the chance to journey inside the Blue Grotto, either. This series of natural cave formations lies to the west of Malta, near the village of Żurrieq, and is only accessible by boat. Some natural light penetrates the caverns, falling in such a way that in the mornings the phosphorescent colours of underwater flora are reflected onto the cave walls, to mesmerising effect.
A boat trip is one of the best ways - and sometimes the only way - to see Malta's natural beauty spots, such as the face of Dingli Cliffs and inside the Blue Grotto.
Many, but not all, boat trips are short, specific journeys.
HOW TO DO IT
A trip with Walter Ahar in his dghajsa costs €40 per boat, for up to six people. Tel. +356 7962 0034. A kiosk at Wied iz-Z.urrieq harbour, close to the Blue Grotto, sells tickets for boat rides inside the caves at €7 for adults and €3.50 for children. Boats run regularly from 9am to 4.30pm during the summer, but this varies with the weather. www.bluegrottomalta.com.mt
"I READ A NEWSPAPER article in which Steve Jobs mentioned the Segway and I thought it was some kind of cool new Apple computer. So I looked it up, and it turned out to be this," says Alex Pace, who runs Segway Malta, offering a variety of tours of the island using the two-wheeled transport. "When I tried it, I was totally hooked on it."
Although fundamentally silly looking, when it comes to getting around Malta the Segway is more than a gimmick. In the capital of Valletta, it's the vehicle favoured by local police to survey the steep, narrow streets.
"Perhaps the main advantage is the speed, compared with just walking," says Pace, who demonstrates how to lean, as though falling, to propel the Segway forward. Just a slight movement is required to turn it left or right. "But it's also a lot of fun." You need to bend your knees to absorb friction on bumpy surfaces., and to stop you simply lean backwards. Overall, the Segway moves as though it's an extension of your body, so the experience of riding it is more akin to skiing than, say, cycling.
Famously, the owner of the company that makes Segways tragically died in 2010, when he fell off a cliff while riding one. We try to put this out of our minds as we ride along the Dingli Cliffs, which apparently afford some of the "most striking views and sheerest drops" in Malta. In fact it never feels at all unsafe here, and there's a good mix of road and off-road terrain to help you get to grips with the technique. It's strangely addictive.
If you're touring Valletta, Segway Malta offers a 90-minute overview of the streets of this UNESCO World Heritage site, but you'll need to be back on foot to visit some of the capital's must-sees. Start with St John's Co-Cathedral, dripping with baroque detailing and home to two works by the master painter Caravaggio, who once lived on the island.
On a Segway, you can get further, faster.
You may feel vaguely silly.
HOW TO DO IT
A 90-minute session with Segway Malta costs €50 per person, including photos and HD footage.Tel. +356 2099 8925, www.segwaymalta.com
3 PLACES TO STAY
CORNUCOPIA HOTEL,10 GNIEN IMRIK STREET, XAGHRA Tel. +356 2155 6486, www.cornucopiahotel.com
Doubles from €73.50 On the island of Gozo, many opt for converted farmhouse accommodation, now with varying degrees of bling. Cornucopia has a homey, Mediterranean style.
BRITISH HOTEL,40 BATTERY STREET, VALLETTA Tel. +356 2122 4730, www.britishhotel.com
Doubles from €65 Modestly priced and central, the longest-established family run hotel in Valletta has balconies and a terrace with views of the Grand Harbour.
FORTINA SPA RESORT, TIGNE SEAFRONT, SLIEMA Tel. +356 2346 2346, www.fortinasparesort.com
Doubles from €124 This five-star (pictured) is replete with swimming pools, several restaurants, and sweeping views of Valletta across the water. It also boasts "spa bedrooms" with a jacuzzi and more.