Malta: the grand harbour

The Knights who ruled over Malta built huge palaces on the island, some of which are now being converted into opulent hotels.These are getting ready to host Queen Elizabeth and top hoteliers from across the world, putting this little island country in the spotlight.

The Valletta skyline with the dome of the Carmelite Church and St. Pauls Anglican Cathedral. Neale Clark / Robert Harding World Imagery / Corbis
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Within a couple of hours of arriving in Malta, I feel as if I have entered some kind of parallel universe. I’d landed that morning at the same time as the Grand Master of the Knights of St John, who was on a state visit. In Valletta, the island’s 16th-century capital, huge flags are billowing from every tower.

And then, as I stroll down through the limestone arches and balconies of Republic Street to the sound of distant drums, a monk emerges from one side street and a pirate from another. They cross in the sunshine right in front of me and then disappear back into the gloom on the opposite side. The pirate, I presume, must be part of some kind of re-enactment, and the monk … I guess he was just on his way to work.

This island republic, adrift in the southern Mediterranean between Sicily and the Libyan coast, has long been a haven for the likes of monks, knights and pirates. Its Neolithic, Roman and Arab backstory has been overlaid by the defining history of the mysterious and powerful crusading Knights of St John – led by the Grand Master – who controlled the island for about 300 years, maintaining a fearsome fleet of warships in what is one of the world’s most sheltered and strategic natural harbours.

But I am in Malta because I’ve heard that it is changing.

The spotlight is about to fall on it; first, when Queen Elizabeth and several key members of the British Royal Family arrive for the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in November; then, there's a Congress for Relais & Châteaux executives, with top hoteliers flocking to Malta from all over the world. Some of the delegation will be lodging at the five-star Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux in Mdina, the island's 800-year-old former capital. Mdina is a traffic-free hilltop city made of glowing golden limestone that is regularly used as a location for the television series Game of Thrones. The morning I arrive to look at the hotel, I find myself once again entering into another parallel universe; horsemen in armour are riding the streets, marching bands are rounding the corner by the cathedral and falconers in costume are posing by the battlements with all kinds of hunting birds. It isn't a film set, but it feels like one. Medieval fairs like this are apparently a regular occurrence in Mdina, and it feels completely natural in this historic setting.

Equally beautifully located, once I find it, is the Xara Palace itself (; 0035 621 450 560, from €205 [Dh804] for a double room without breakfast), a 17-room nobleman's house discreetly lodged into the old city's massive walls. Its atrium is lined with arches and marble and some of its rooms have al fresco Jacuzzis up on the lookouts where Arab soldiers would have once patrolled. From the hotel's terraced restaurant, the Mondion, I have a spectacular view of the olive groves and vineyards below.

Big old buildings like the Xara Palace were built by knights and merchants all over the island, but because they aren’t directly on the water’s edge, and because they weren’t big enough for package-tour operators, only a few have actually been converted into hotels – so far. But that is changing fast; an astonishing 17 new properties are scheduled to open in downtown Valletta in the next couple of years, and all of them will be in historic old houses. The insides will have galleried courtyards and sometimes a roof terrace with a fabulous view over the Grand Harbour, with glimpses of cloistered nuns pacing back and forth on adjacent convent terraces, deep in meditative thought.

As I visit a couple of these newcomers I am instantly reminded of Marrakech's riads, particularly how their plain exteriors belie the magical worlds that lie inside. For example, Trabuxu Boutique Living (; 0035 621 226 196, from €100[Dh400] for a double room including breakfast) turns out to be a quirky designer establishment in the rougher artisanal end of town, gathered around an inner courtyard, with nine rooms, trompe l'oeil paintings and a loft apartment with arched ceilings and full kitchen.

More strait-laced and far more lavish is the Palazzo Prince d'Orange (; 0035 699 993 190, from €115 [Dh451] for a double room, excluding breakfast) where huge renovations have created five suites, all dressed up to the nines in classical and baroque style, with kitchens, high ceilings and chandeliers. Plus a private elevator direct to your suite, and a personal mobile phone for the duration of your stay.

Next, I move on to taste the new, contextual type of tourism that is attracting the clients who want to stay in these places. Thanks to my guide Natasha, I get a glimpse of the shadowy organisation of the Knights of St John, and the architectural and artistic legacy they left behind. We walk around Valletta’s Co-Cathedral, a living testament to the Knights’ wealth and power, where every square inch of the floor is adorned with inlaid marble, every square metre of the arched roof covered with frescoes, and every square centimetre of the walls carved and gilded with gold. Natasha explains how, during their rule, the Knights built huge fortresses, palaces, churches and monasteries all over the island, all of it with slave labour.

From the Co-Cathedral she takes me across the Knights’ greatest asset, the Grand Harbour, slipping under the stern of one of the giant cruise ships, which now tie up here every day. Waiting for me in one of the marinas on the other side is the 25-metre superyacht MY Aria, ready to cast off and cruise out into the waters where warships once rode at anchor.

There we snack on prawns and tuna on the back deck while the Aria saunters around the peninsulas of the Three Cities – Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea – that sit opposite Valletta. The backdrop is an unravelling panorama of fortresses and domes, and in front of them, a formidable array of the sleekest, most luxurious of superyachts – the new clients of this famous old harbour.

Natasha is the managing director of Beyond3sixty, operators of a new tourism programme on the island called Private Malta, and under her guidance I go deeper under Malta’s skin, behind some of the grandest of closed doors.

The programme has been developed in partnership with one of the island's longest established five-star hotels, the Corinthia Palace (; 0035 621 440 301, double rooms from €175 [Dh686], excluding breakfast), which sits with its large spa right opposite Malta's Presidential Palace in the village of Attard. Between the two buildings is the walled garden of San Anton, a beautifully shaded oasis of orange groves, peacocks, aviaries, and fountains with tortoises; I walk there in the cool of the early morning, trying to decide whether this is Roman or Arab in origin; it feels like another parallel universe.

Natasha can’t get me into the Presidential Palace, but she does get me into Villa Bologna, a rambling mansion originally built by a merchant in 1745, and latterly lived in by one of Malta’s prime ministers, Gerald Strickland, during the colonial period when Malta was ruled by the British. It too has the most fabulous gardens; an orange grove fragranced with blossom, an art deco fountain, and pillars adorned with moonflowers (a white trumpet of a flower which blooms only after dark). Here I have a private lunch of cold beef and smoked salmon on the sun-filled terrace.

I also have a guided tour of Palazzo Parisio, a property built by a Knight of St John, and owned and lived in by the noble Scicluna family, with its gardens converted into an elegant canopied restaurant. The Palazzo’s formal rooms upstairs are a showcase of immaculately preserved late 19th-century Italian artistry, and are used for weddings and special events. This Palazzo too will be opening a boutique hotel in due course.

And thanks to Private Malta, I end up in the private residence of a modern-day descendant of the very same prime minister who once owned Villa Bologna. Robert Strickland’s rambling Villa Parisio in the nearby village of Lija has no fewer than seven walled gardens, but it is his account of his family’s involvement with the last 100 years of Malta’s history that is the most colourful part of my visit. As is his collection of many decades of personal Christmas cards sent to his aunt by Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen, he says, may well be paying him a visit in Lija when she’s on the island in November. I can vouch for the fact that she will be royally entertained.