The Malta experience is one you won't forget. A country of diverse influences, languages, landscapes and people -- I had no idea what to expect flying into the tiny island this summer.
Not wanting to return to the party-packed islands of Spain to end my euro-summer (Ibiza, I'm looking at you) I decided to explore somewhere potentially not overrun with backpacking tourists, away from the well-worn party trail. After much deliberation I settled for somewhere I knew nothing about instead -- Malta.
Given Malta's proximity to Sicily, I assumed it would have a strong Italian influence. Not so much. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but certainly not the multi-cultural sunburnt gem that this island turned out to be.
Malta is home to the native Maltese people and Gozitans from the less-popular neighbouring island of Gozo. However, you may find it hard to spot a 'native'. Students from all over Europe come to Malta to learn English, as English is actually the first-spoken language in all major towns. It's very strange to hear English spoken everywhere and somewhat disappointing for those of us trying to get away from English-speaking countries!
Along with the official language --Maltese -- there's also Sicilian, Italian and Arabic floating around. A toothless, smiling beach attendant described Malta to me as the European Africa. Interesting, and I could see why. Mostly you will find Europeans who have settled either permanently or with their holiday homes in Malta (much like Spain) who have bought businesses, along with international students and tourists.
St Julians is the major nightlife hub of Malta. And unfortunately it's become exceedingly tacky over the years. Now it mainly appeals to the underage students smashing shot after shot in the clubs until dawn. While there are some excellent hotels in this area, I would recommend steering clear and visiting some of the tiny, vine-covered bars in the capital of nearby Valetta. Sliema, the closest neighbouring district is also home to some gorgeous waterfront bars and restaurants. It depends on what you are after, but if you want the best nightclubs in the Med, you are better off sticking with Ibiza. They do it better.
The Blue Lagoon of Comino, which is located between the islands of Malta and Gozo, is stunning for snorkelling and those sweeping panoramic iPhone snaps. A lot of boats dock here but the area is large enough not to feel overrun with people. Stunning.
Mellieha is home to Popeye's Village which is definitely somewhere you want to check out, especially if you have kids, or are simply a big kid at heart looking for somewhere really cool to have an afternoon beer. Driving is the best way to get there.
Valetta the nation's capital, speaks for itself upon arrival. A magnificent walled city like nowhere else. You will instantly get the feel of the old port town whilst walking inside these walls and down the impossibly cobbled streets. With interesting cafes you need to duck to enter, shops and local characters to be found on every corner, it's a must.
The Azure window is a gorgeous natural structure located on Gozo, and the diving in this area, if you are certified, is incredible. The prettiest natural attraction on Gozo.
The Blue Grotto on the main island of Malta is a fantastic day trip to take. The local bus will get you there but requires a changeover at the airport, so I would either recommend driving or taking one of the many 'hop-on-hop-off' bus services available, as they will take you to a few sights around the country, and arrive at Grotto quicker.
There is a fantastic swimming inlet here where the boats leave from, where you will find everyone jumping off the rocks and snorkelling. If you didn't want to pay to visit the Grotto this is also a lovely experience. It's a cheap boat trip though and worth it, although it should be noted that checking the weather and tides with a representative before travelling across to the other side of Malta is highly recommended, as the boats won't go out if the swell is dangerous.
Truly a country of contrasts, Malta is unlike any other island in the Med I have had the pleasure of visiting on my travels. While I would say it's probably not the most beautiful, it's certainly the most interesting.