Subject: Malta report
Hi Cornelia,

Your question on Malta has prompted me to post a report on my week there at the beginning of this month - although I am afraid that I will be absolutely no help on the needs of your toddler travelling companion! Do hope that someone else can come to the fore on that aspect - along with accommodation options.

We stayed with friends in a lovely apartment, complete with huge rooftop terrace overlooking the sea, in Sliema, so I won't be much help with hotel recommendations, other than to say that there seem to be as many hotels in Malta as there are residents, and that they cover the gamut of price brackets.

There are several reports in the Zine archives on Malta, which I assume you have already found? If not, have a look at those, as there are some good recommendations for sights and places to visit.

Our stay in Malta was fascinating - and we easily filled a week with sightseeing and travelling around the island, despite its tiny area (around 30 to 35 km x 20 to 25 km at its longest and widest points, depending on which guide book you use).

Our touring included a day trip to Gozo, where my advice would be to take some extra time, if you have the opportunity. There is a plethora of tours once you arrive but if you are starting in Valletta or Sliema, you do spend quite a bit of the day getting up to the ferry and returning from it, so the sightseeing time on Gozo itself is a little curtailed.

Depending on your interests, you could easily spend your time lounging by a swimming pool or indulging in water sports of various types, either by staying at one of the many resort style hotels or by joining one of the many beach clubs. We were fortunate to have visiting privileges at one of the swanky ones but I did notice that some of them provided day membership - perhaps they all do. You should be warned that sandy beaches are few and far between, hence the prevalence of the beach clubs, with sun lounges set out on rocky shelves and bars and restaurants in close proximity.

If you prefer to check out the culture and history, you will be well occupied. The Neolithic temples around Malta and Gozo are amazing, if your tastes run to such things - and well worth a visit, even if you are not an enthusiast. Again a warning: One of the major sites, Hypogeum (a World Heritage site), takes visitors only in groups of ten at time, and advance booking is essential. A couple of weeks ago, the earliest booking available was ten days downtrack. The booking number I have is 82 55 79.

Temples well worth a visit - and reachable by tour bus (mostly small red mini-buses - not all with evidence of suspension!), some by local commuter bus and others by taxi hire include Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Tarxien. The archaeological museum in Valletta is small but again a must do, if the temples are of interest to you.

Valletta itself is fascinating to wander around - especially early in the morning before the tour buses arrive, as I found by accident on my last visit in there. St John's Cathedral, which has an entrance fee during the day, is open free in the early morning and is quiet, almost empty and cool, compared with later in the day when it is crammed full of visitors mesmerised by the mysteries of the mosaics and the Preti paintings. You will need to wait until around 9.30 am (I think) for the opening of the museum, with its tapestries and its astonishing Caravaggios.

As we stayed in Sliema, an adjoining precinct to Valletta, we took a ferry across - about ten minutes ride and a good vantage point to see the fortifications - on two occasions, and a local bus on another. The bus for local commuter trips cost (about 20 minutes ride in this case) cost 15c (The exchange rate when I was there was around one Maltese Lira to 2.5 Euro, around $US 2.50, and $Aust 5!)

In addition to the temples, the Catacombs in Rabat are also of interest. We had an excellent guided tour of the 'private' catacombs of St Agatha, and St Paul's public catacombs are in the immediate vicinity also. There are tours (the red buses again) which take you there - but do make sure that they are going at times that the catacombs are actually open! It doesn't seem to be automatic, according to traveller's tales that we heard. By the way, if you prefer airconditioned vehicles, do ask about that in advance of booking any tours etc also - and then ask the second question: Will the airconditioning be turned on? Sounds ridiculous? We saw many vehicles proclaiming to be airconditioned but very few with operating systems despite the heat and humidity. It bothers some people, not others, of course.

Mdina, the old capital is impressive during the day, with its amazing buildings - but stunning at night. A good place to have dinner - and if you are up for a splurge, the Xara Relais and Chateau Hotel is there. I can't give a first hand report on the accommodation or on their rooftop restaurant (we had our own!) but they do have an informal courtyard bistro/pizzeria, which gives you an opportunity to dine cheaply in the magnificent floodlit courtyard.

On the subject of food, if you like seafood and have transport, we had a wonderful meal at Marascala, at Grabiel Restaurant. Not especially cheap but extremely good value and worth the half hour drive down south east of Valletta. We decided to share their special fried seafood banquet - which may not sound too attractive but had been highly recommended to us. We were a group of five very good eaters, so I was somewhat bemused when our host ordered the banquet for three! What came along was a procession of innumerable platters of the most delicious seafood - tiny prawns, minute whitebait - the best I've had in a long time, the tiniest calamari, baby octopus, clams, mussels - and on and on, plus vegetables and salads. With our best efforts, the five of us could not manage to demolish the serving for three people, regardless of how good it all was.

The local wine is very drinkable - although it is still a mystery to me how they grow enough grapes from the inhospitable soil to produce the quantities of wine we saw around the place. Enquiries about importation of grapes were met with scorn and total rejection.

We also took a day's sailing trip - in theory, right around the island, and into the Blue Lagoon. However, the weather was not the best and the group was offered a replacement trip the next day or a curtailed trip on that day. We were leaving for Italy the next day, so took our chances, and missed out on the Blue Lagoon. The day was pleasant but I think there are probably better ways of spending the time and money, which was around $Aust 120 - or 60 Euros.

I have rambled on for too long but if you have any specific questions, feel free to follow up.

Enjoy your trip - and good luck with the toddler!

Joan Melbourne, Australia