altThe Mediterranean island nation of Malta is a golden destination for sailors and when you arrive at Grand Harbour at the fortified city of Valletta you realize why. This perfect natural harbour, one of several on the island, has offered shelter to seafarers since ancient times.

Add to this Malta's strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean, 90 km. south of Sicily and 290 km. from the northern coast of Africa, and it's easy to understand why Malta has been conquered and ruled by nearly every major power that has shaped the history of this part of the world from the Stone-Age and Bronze-Age peoples, to Romans and Phoenicians, Arabs, Normans and Carthaginians, Castilians, French and British. Taking control of Malta meant taking control of the Mediterranean since the island's location and deep natural harbours were an enticement to trade and also allowed control over the fleets of ships travelling across the Mediterranean during times of war.

It is Malta's location in the Mediterranean combined with its harbours that make it an attractive destination for the modern cruising sailor too. Tranquil anchorages as well as good marina facilities await visiting seafarers and with Malta's long-standing marine heritage, all the supporting services a sailor could dream of can be found here.

And Malta's central location also makes it a good base from which to visit the great cruising destinations that surround it – Sicily, mainland Italy, the Greek Islands, and Tunisia, to name a few.

The Republic of Malta is an archipelago of five islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino, together with two other uninhabited islands Cominetto and Filfla. Malta is the main island and commercial center with an area of 246 sq. km. and a population of around 400,000. But although Malta is small, the diversity of entertainment, historical sites, festivals and numerous outdoor activities will keep you busy for weeks on end.

Although Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964, after about 160 years of British colonization, its British heritage is still strong and English remains one of the official languages along with Maltese. The majority are fluent in both, so communication is never a problem. It is a real tribute to the people of Malta that throughout centuries of occupation, the Maltese maintained their own language and culture while at the same time keeping up good relations with their oppressors. The result is a nation of friendly and diplomatic people who excel at hospitality and have a great appreciation for those who share their love of the sea.

Surrounded on three sides by the sea, the views are impressive as you amble along the ramparts and through Valletta's many narrow streets now filled with shops, boutiques, restaurants and museums. The elaborate limestone fortifications that contain the city were constructed by the Knights of St. John in the 16th and 17th century in response to the Seige of Malta when the Knights, led by Grand Master Jean De La Vallette, successfully defeated the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1565. During the 270 years that the Knights were in charge of the island they built these astounding fortifications, magnificent churches, and lavish monuments most of which still stand today.

The easiest and most affordable way to get from one place to another around the island of Malta is to ride one of Malta's characterful buses. It's like a visit to a museum with buses from 40 years ago still in regular service today. The buses are beautifully restored and lovingly decorated inside often with large religious shrines mounted beside or above the proud drivers. Is this in hopes of keeping these old buses running?

It is believed that Malta was first settled in Neolithic times and some of the world's oldest prehistoric tombs, standing stones, and temples can be found here. The most impressive are Hagar Qim and the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum. The Hypogeum is a fantastic site of underground rock tombs, passageways, rooms and halls uniquely hand-carved to resemble an above-ground temple and is the only prehistoric underground temple in the world. To prevent deterioration, admission is restricted to 80 people per day, so be sure to reserve tickets well in advance.

Marsaxlokk is a traditional fishing village and perhaps the most picturesque seaside location in Malta. The village’s name comes from marsa, which means "port" and xlokk, which is the local name for “south east” where the village is located. Colourful traditional fishing boats called “luzzus” bob on moorings in the bay while on the quay fishermen tend their nets and leave them to dry in the sun while you enjoy the catch of the day at a waterside restaurant.

In 60 AD, St. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta and brought Christianity to the island. In the city of Rabat you can find a small cave in which St. Paul apparently sought refuge, recovered from his trauma, and established the first church. Rabat is also known for its many underground catacombs (now emptied) where the Maltese sought refuge from the massive bombing during World War II which lead King George VI to award the nation the George Cross medal.

Besides the many historical sites in Malta one of the island's popular attractions is the numerous village "festas". These festivities honour the patron saint of the village and involve marching bands, colourful street decorations, spectacular firework displays, and memorable religious processions where the statue of saint is carried through the often steep and slippery village streets. The most spectacular processions happen at Easter.

Mdina is the original capital city of Malta and is situated on the highest point in the center of the island. It is an elegant walled medieval town and was home to Maltese nobility during the Knights' reign. Only residents' cars are allowed within the city walls, so it is a quiet place to spend an afternoon wandering the narrow twisting streets and taking in the views of the island.

Whether you sail over in your own boat or take the 20-minute ferry ride, a trip to Gozo, Malta's sister island, is well worth it. This lovely rural island is believed to be the home of Calypso, the sea nymph who imprisoned the Greek hero Odysseus on her island – as told in Homer's Odyssey. The Azure Window, a natural stone arch; and the prehistoric temple ruins of Ggantija and the Basilica of Ta' Pinu are the main attractions of this unique island.

A lovely daysail from Valletta is to head west for the tiny island of Comino, half way between Malta and Gozo, to visit the Blue Lagoon. The island, fragrant with wildflowers and thyme has a rugged coastline with sea caves for snorkelling and a turquoise blue lagoon where you can relax and take in the views at anchor. Standing guard is a watchtower built in the 17th century to protect the channel separating Malta and Gozo from invading corsairs.

One of the joys of cruising is sampling the local foods and in Malta they specialize in delicious fresh-baked goodies – sweet confectioneries like peanut brittle and nougat, lovely pastries, hot pies, and festival breads. Heavenly! Even regular bread is a winner here. It's sold twice a day so you have it hot and crisp out of the oven, both morning and afternoon.

www.malta.com

by Sheryl and Paul Shard

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