Malta, situated just off the coast of Sicily, has been making waves in the cruise industry recently, and for those of us who have been there, it seems like a recognition long overdue. In 2017, there was a 24 percent spike in cruise passengers over the previous year, thanks in part to the increase of American cruise lines calling at the destination. But the real draw is the appeal of Malta itself, heightened this year by the fact the Maltese capital of Valetta has been chosen Europe’s Capital of Culture 2018. In short, there’s no better time to pack up the kids and go.
Just a few years ago, only a few mainstream cruise lines called at the destination, but at last count there are 13, including Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises and Windstar.
Because so many of these cruise passengers — most only there for the day — are active on social media, their impressions of the charms of the Maltese islands also played a role in the boost in popularity.
Interestingly, Malta tourism reports cruise passengers who visited the islands on a cruise often come back for a longer stay, and tourism to the destination is booming from all markets. From January to December 2017, nearly 2.3 million tourists visited the islands, an almost 16 percent increase over 2016.
What’s more, a lot of these people are coming from the U.S. — a whopping 35.2 percent more in 2017 over the previous year.
So what’s the appeal? Picture the three Maltese islands — Malta, Gozo and Comino — situated more or less in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and boasting more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country in the world. The main island is Malta, whose capital, Valletta, is so picturesque it’s not only one of the UNESCO sights, it’s also the European Capital of Culture for 2018.
What this means for cruise passengers this year is a whole menu of celebrations planned in the city, once a fortress built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century. Events include exhibitions, concerts and theatrical performances in a variety of venues and in the streets, which offer a mix of ancient, medieval and early modern architecture.
In any year, however, the destination is a show-stopper. Malta is positively bursting with Megalithic temples, for example — about 1,000 in all — some a thousand years older than the pyramids. Some of them are so old, archeological experts aren’t even sure what they are, who made them or what they were used for.
If you only have time to visit one, make it the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum — another UNESCO World Heritage site — with its vast underground caves and mysterious frescoes.
Families can also take a ferry or private boat to the neighboring island of Gozo, less inhabited and offering plenty of rustic charm, including inviting beaches and picnic sites.
Finally, add plenty of beaches; a sunny, temperate climate; and farm-to-table dining, and you have an Instagram-worthy vacation for every member of the family.