Day 1.  Travelling to Malta

Finding a good deal online for a winter week in Malta seemed irresistible and as it’s somewhere we haven’t already visited it’s an opportunity to explore a ‘new’ country.  Flights during the winter are infrequent, so we opted for an early morning departure from Manchester.

Premier Inn, Manchester Piccadilly

Rather than risk the weather and drive to the airport in the early hours, we decided to stay overnight at the Premier Inn Piccadilly in central Manchester enabling us to enjoy a meal out in the city centre and a few hours sleep before catching the 04.30 a.m. train to the airport 20 minutes away.  Our flight departed on time at 06.45 a.m. and we managed to catch up on some sleep during the 3 hour 15 minute journey to Luqa Airport.  Our hotel was located in Bugibba in the north of the island and there are frequent buses (X3) taking approximately 40 minutes.

7 Day Explorer Maltese Bus Permits

Malta does not have a rail line but a 7 day Explorer bus permit costs only €21 for 7 days unlimited travel on both Malta and Gozo.  This card can be purchased in either the airport or Valletta and Bugibba bus stations and is valid from its first use.  Please note that if you are travelling during the summer months then the cost doubles.

Room, Hotel San Antonio, Bugibba, Malta

Our hotel for the week was the DB San Antonio in Bugibba where we had found an all inclusive deal which would be a new experience for us as it’s not our usual choice.

The hotel’s outdoor pool with the sea beyond

Checking in time was from 3.00 p.m. so as we had arrived at 12 noon we were just expecting to leave our luggage, go out for some lunch and return later but the helpful receptionist let us check in straight away and fitted us with our tacky plastic wristbands to allow us to enjoy the hotel’s facilities without delay.  At least at this time of year my vivid yellow wristband could stay tucked away under the cuff of my cardigan – one advantage of being away when it’s cooler.

Promenade, Bugibba, Malta

The hotel was fully refurbished a year ago and our room was spacious and well appointed with a side sea and swimming pool view.  After freshening up, we went in search of the buffet lunch which was really quite good especially as we hadn’t eaten since about 5.00 a.m.  It’s unlikely we’ll be around at lunchtime very often as we like to spend our days exploring but it worked well today before setting off on foot for a walk round our resort.

Bugibba, Malta

Lonely Planet describes Bugibba as the fun resort of Malta but during mid winter many of its bars and cafes were closed and the resort had, thankfully, more of a refined air.  After strolling along the promenade and through the palm tree lined central square we returned to our hotel for a relaxing half hour in the steam room.

Tagine Restaurant

At this time of year the hotel offers three choices of dining – one restaurant that can be visited at any time and two others where reservations are necessary, so tonight we opted for ‘Tagine’ a Moroccan style restaurant with an intimate atmosphere and some delicious flavoured dishes.  To end the meal I sampled a glass of Moroccan tea and it tasted amazing, have you ever tried it?  I need to look out for it at home, or at least the recipe to make it!  To complete the evening we enjoyed speciality amaretto coffees in the bar and our verdict on our first day of ‘all inclusive’- well, I think we have been spoilt!  So much nicer than we ever anticipated!

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Day 2. Exploring Valletta

After a good night’s sleep we enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant and then walked the short distance to the Bugibba bus station to catch a bus into Malta’s capital Valletta.  It’s possible to take the 31, 45 and 48 buses and the journey takes approximately one hour on each service.

View from Valletta towards Sliema

Valletta is located on a narrow headland surrounded on both sides by a stunning natural harbour.  Alighting from the bus in the centre of Valletta we strolled the short distance to Freedom Square with its Renaissance sandstone facades of original Maltese style buildings glowing in the sunshine.  On our right we viewed the modernist Parliament House, completed in 2013 adjacent to the ruins of the Royal Opera House which has now been transformed into an open air theatre venue.  At least the new parliament building reflects the gold sandstone of its surroundings and doesn’t detract too much from the historic square.

Auberge de Castile et Leon

Walking uphill we reached the city ramparts where we found attractive gardens with archways leading out onto the city wall and the Saluting Battery.  From here we were rewarded with stunning views of Valletta’s grand harbour and the surrounding fortified towns.

Arched entrance to Saluting Battery, Valetta

The gun battery is reputedly one of the oldest in the world still in operation having protected the harbour against naval assault for almost 500 years.  The guns were originally fired at noon each day to enable ship’s masters to calibrate their on-board chronographs, the ritual has now been restored to mark the passage of mid-day.

Saluting Battery, Valletta, Malta

Next it was time to view the ceremonial Changing of the Guard outside the Grand Master’s Palace in St. George’s Square.  We watched the Armed Forces of Malta put on a show of pomp lasting 45 minutes with spectators having good viewpoints at the sides of the square.  Our guidebook indicated that the Changing of the Guard only takes place on the last Friday of the month at 10.30 a.m. but as we were there on a Wednesday at noon, I’m unsure why it was taking place then, but it was a bonus which we were happy to have seen.

Changing of the Guard, Valletta, Malta

Moving on, we continued exploring this delightful small capital with its steep narrow streets and its British style postboxes and telephone booths.  Motorists drive on the left and it even started drizzling making it feel even more like home, apart from it being considerably warmer.  Hopefully we’ll make a return visit to Valletta later in the week to take in more of its sights.

Telephone Kiosk and Postbox, Valletta

Returning to our hotel was easy as there was already a bus waiting to depart from the bus station.  Tea and cakes followed in the hotel’s cafe before relaxing in the hotel’s spa awhile before dinner.

Day 3.  A Ferry to Gozo

Drawing back the curtains we were dismayed to find it was raining heavily and a strong wind was blowing.  Not to be deterred, we kept with our original plans and caught a bus (No.221) to the Gozo ferry terminal at Cirkewwa, taking approximately 30 minutes.

During the winter months ferries depart for Gozo at 45 minute intervals and we only had a short time to wait until the 10.30 a.m. departure.  No tickets for the outbound journey are required but passengers need to purchase a ticket to return to Malta, costing  €4.65 each.

Mgarr, Gozo

The car ferry took 20 minutes to reach Mgarr and from the cafeteria we bought cups of tea which were very cheap at only 50 cents each.  Bus 301 is timed to meet the ferry at Mgarr and takes just 15 minutes to arrive in Gozo’s small capital city, Victoria.  From here, we were able to use our 7 day Explorer Card on the bus as it is also valid on Gozo.  Locals still refer to its capital as Lr Rabat although it was officially renamed Victoria to celebrate the British Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

St George’s Basilica, Victoria

Our first stop in Victoria was to St. George’s Basilica standing proudly at the head of a charming sandstone square.  Here we explored the sumptuous church interior and its Baroque edifice before climbing the narrow, winding streets up to the very centre of the island to reach an ornate archway entrance into The Citadel.

The Citadel. Victoria, Gozo

This miniature walled city sits on a rocky cliff commanding views of most of the island (or at least it would have done, had the visibility not been so poor).  A Citadel has existed here since Roman times but the current structure was built in the 17th century.  The Citadel has been included on Malta’s list of tentative UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1998.

Baroque Roman Catholic Cathedral, The Citadel, Gozo

Within the walls of The Citadel we were able to visit the Baroque Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption built in 1697 and the Archaeological Museum which offers free admission and focuses on the history of Gozo from pre-historic to medieval periods.

Walking along the Roman walls of The Citadel exploring the ruins

It was then time for a walk along the perimeter walls where it was so windy that it was difficult to keep the camera still to take photographs.  By chance, as we were walking round at mid-day we had timed it perfectly to watch the 17th century bronze cannon being fired at noon, its sound resonating across the valley.

Victoria, Gozo

It was then back down the steps into Victoria and a stroll through the maze of narrow lanes admiring homes with grand wrought iron balconies on their sandstone facades and small shopfronts with quaint old English style signs above their doors.  As the rain became heavier we decided to return by bus to the ferry terminal and make our way back to our hotel in Bugibba.  The bus connection in Cirkewwa was again reasonably good and this took us back to our hotel just in time to enjoy afternoon tea with scones, jam and cream in Cafe Mazoc and an opportunity to dry out.

Day 4.  Sliema – Malta’s Premier Resort

Thankfully, we woke to a bright, sunny morning after yesterday’s heavy rain and strong winds so after breakfast in our hotel we caught a bus to the large resort of Sliema situated in the north east of the island.  Buses are frequent but don’t expect to arrive at your destination very quickly as roads are narrow and congested so it takes quite a long time to get around the island.  Bus 212 takes the shortest time into Sliema and travels along the coast road so I would recommend this option.

Views across to Valletta from Sliema

The bus terminated along the seafront so we decided to firstly take a morning stroll along the palm tree lined promenade.  Sliema is the largest resort on the island with many hotels overlooking its sweeping bay.  Like Valletta, it is built on a promontory with water on both sides.  Pleasure boat trips can be taken from the sheltered harbour and a regular ferry taking 10 minutes runs across the bay to the capital city of Valletta where its golden sandstone domes can been seen from here gleaming brightly in the sunlight.  We strolled the length of the coastal path, probably around 2 km as far as the Msida marina where we enjoyed taking a look at boats of differing shapes and sizes bobbing up and down in the water.

Sliema harbour

Sliema still bustles with activity during the winter months and we found the resort to be much more stylish than Bugibba where we are based with a good range of higher quality shops and cafes.  We chose Bugibba primarily because of the hotel and its excellent public transport links but apart from the first afternoon, and post dinner strolls, we haven’t spent much time in the resort itself preferring to explore further afield.

Waves crashing into shore along the Mediterranean at Sliema

Along the seafront we came across a branch of the British retailer Marks & Spencer so being curious to see if they stocked similar goods as at home, we stepped inside.  The store is quite small but vertical and on the top (4th) floor we found a pleasant cafe, known simply as ‘The Kitchen’ which had some outdoor balcony seating overlooking the harbour – a perfect location for our mid morning cups of coffee with possibly the best views in town.

Sandstone rock slabs acting as a beach in Sliema

Heading up the hill from here we found lots more stores, many of which were also British such as Dorothy Perkins and Next then nearby we came to the far side of the bay known as the Tower Road waterfront with its high rise hotels overlooking the Mediterranean.  These hotels were constructed during the boom in mass tourism when concrete was king and when there were few, if any concerns on spoiling the natural beauty of the area.  As there are so many hotels and holiday apartments here, the resort is likely to be crowded in high season.  There isn’t a sandy beach but sandstone rock slabs bordering the sea act as a beach during the warmer months providing access into the warm water.

Returning to our hotel mid afternoon we were just in time for sandwiches and cakes before a relaxing dip in the indoor pool (the outdoor one being much too cold at this time of year).

Starter of Carpaccio of Beef in DBistro Restaurant

This evening we had reserved a table in the fine dining restaurant attached to the hotel.  Guests can eat there one evening during their stay so we thought we would try it out.  My starter of Carpaccio of Beef with shaved Parmesan was extremely good, then it was a large steak for my main course and a trio of white, milk and dark chocolate desserts to complete the meal.

Trio of Chocolate Desserts

Our meal was delicious and service attentive.  The main hotel restaurant where we eat breakfast and most evening meals is buffet style, the food there also being of a good standard but the eating area is extremely large with tables in rows lacking intimacy.

Day 5.  Mdina – the Silent City

This is what we had been waiting for – clear blue skies and a warm sunny morning, just perfect for our visit to Mdina which is easily accessible by bus (No.186 taking 45 minutes) from Bugibba.  As vehicular access is limited to residents in Mdina, buses stop alongside the Howard Gardens in Rabat which are located just outside the ancient stone archway to the silent city known as the Cittadella.  This archway is known as the Mdina Gate and was constructed in 1724 as the main entrance to the fortified city.

Mdina Gate entrance to the fortified city

Mdina traces its history back 4000 years and it is here where St. Paul the Apostle was said to have become shipwrecked and lived on the islands.  Strolling through the golden stone arch we were transported into a miniature walled city with it’s mix of Medieval and Baroque architecture where time has stood still.  It was home then and still is today, to Maltese noble families with impressive palaces lining its narrow, shady, stone paved streets and was the Maltese capital until the Knights of Malta arrived in 1530.  Mdina’s current population of 300 preserves its cultural heritage, being on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Entrance to the National Museum of Natural History, Mdina

Taking a walk along the walls where extensive restoration work over the last 8 years has just been completed we enjoyed far reaching views from the Bastion over eastern Malta.  Descending the steps from the wall we arrived at the elaborate French Baroque Palazzo Vilhena built in 1727 and now home to the National Museum of Natural History.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina

Close by, we came to Cathedral Square, dominated by the Baroque style, 12th century Roman Catholic St. Paul’s Cathedral dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle.  The original church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and the one we see today was built in its place.  Moving on, we explored the labyrinth of narrow, twisting lanes before leaving the Silent City and taking a look around the small town of Rabat which we approached through the attractive Howard Gardens.  The park has an open air cafe and is the starting point for horse drawn carriage rides through Mdina.  It was extremely warm as we settled down for cups of coffee in the main square overlooking the Church of St. Paul and we enjoyed soaking up some rays of sun before our return to the cooler climate of Northern Europe in a few days time.

Parish church of St. Paul, Rabat

On our way back to Bugibba we stopped off in Mosta as we wished to see the Rotunda (The Parish Church of the Assumption).  This huge church has the third largest unsupported Dome in the world.  Disappointingly, the church was closed to visitors so we were unable to view its interior.  Mosta itself seemed to be more of a commercial centre and lacked the charm of the smaller towns in the north of the island.  Returning to Bugibba from here was very quick and easy as up to six buses pass through the town.  After a late lunch we sat in the sun awhile reading before relaxing in the spa later.

Day 6.  St. Julian’s Bay, Malta

Fortunately the warm sunshine is continuing so after breakfast we took the Sliema bus (No.212) as far as Spinola Bay located in St. Julian’s.  This charming, photogenic small bay with traditional fishing boats is lined on one side with numerous bars and restaurants and contains the largest proportion of 5 star hotels on the island.

Lido and waterfront St. Julian’s Malta

Strolling along the broad, tree lined promenade made for an extremely pleasant walk towards Sliema, passing an outdoor lido and two water polo courts along our way.  There are no sandy beaches but sunbathing is possible from flat sandstone rocks at the water’s edge.

Promenade between St. Julian’s and Sliema, Malta

The path winds its way round the bay passing through gardens with inviting open air cafes, finally reaching its more exclusive neighbour Sliema which we first visited a couple of days ago.  Exuding an elegant charm, smart cafes spill out along the promenade providing diners with uninterrupted views of the shimmering Mediterranean.

Sliema, Malta

A little window shopping followed our coffee break before we returned to Bugibba in the early afternoon to relax by the pool and make the most of the warm winter sunshine.  For dinner this evening we had reserved a table for a second time in Tagine, the hotel’s Moroccan restaurant.  This was my favourite of the dining options on offer, food being good in each of them but this one has a more intimate and cosy feel.

Evening entertainment in the hotel bar

After eating dinner we took our seats in the bar for the nightly entertainment programme at 9.30 p.m. each evening, tonight’s theme being ‘Route 66’ a combination of Country & Western dancing and singing featuring some Taylor Swift songs.  The one hour floor shows by a professional company are of a high standard and make an entertaining end to the evening whilst sipping a cocktail.

Day 7.  A return visit to Valletta

A dull, breezy morning for our second visit to the island’s capital, Valletta.  Buses from Bugibba run at approximately 15 minute intervals taking about one hour to reach Valletta.  Roads are both narrow and congested and the constant stop start motion of the bus always seems to make us feel drowsy.

National Library of Malta, Valletta

It was bustling as we crossed the footbridge from the bus station into the pedestrianised old town but away from the main square we were soon able to avoid the crowds.  There are many fine sandstone buildings to admire including the National Library of Malta with its pleasant terrace cafe, featured above.

Guard outside Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta

It was then onto St. George’s Square which was cordoned off to visitors on our visit last Wednesday whilst the Changing of the Guard ceremony took place.  This morning we were able to admire the sentry guards close up standing to attention outside the Grand Master’s Palace.

St. George’s Square, Valletta

Feeling it was time for our morning coffees we discovered Cafe Cordina, a Valletta tradition with an elegant interior on Republic Street which was a grand affair but with affordable prices.

Cafe Cordina, Valletta

Feeling refreshed, our next stop was to the Argotti Botanical Gardens at Floriana not far from the Grand Hotel Excelsior and created originally for the Grand Master Pinto.  The gardens are laid out with fountains, potted palms, oleander and cacti with a small walled garden used by the University of Malta for educational purposes.  Looking out over the walled gardens we were rewarded with spectacular views of Valletta’s Grand Harbour.

Argotti Botanical Gardens, Valletta

A little window shopping followed before we headed back to our hotel in Bugibba by bus.  Our original plan had been to take the small ferry across the harbour to Sliema and return by bus from there but as it was windy the service was temporarily suspended.

Typical Maltese architecture

Back at the hotel the remainder of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the spa and then enjoying tea and cakes in Cafe Mazoc chatting to the friendly bar staff none of whom appeared to be from Malta but instead from Serbia, The Philippines and the UK!   After dinner we watched the nightly entertainment for the final time in the hotel bar then returned to our room to pack up our belongings.

Day 8.  Our final day in Malta

As we had arranged a late evening flight back to the UK we still had a complete day to relax in Bugibba.  Check out time was 11.00 am so we popped down to the spa for a post breakfast sauna before vacating our room.  We were pleasantly surprised to be able to retain our wristbands and continue to use the hotel’s facilities for the remainder of the day which was an added bonus.

Cafe Mazoc, Hotel DB San Antonio, Bugibba

Having been based in Bugibba all week, we haven’t actually seen much of the resort and so it was decided that we would take a stroll along the seafront to the neighbouring resort of Qawra.  Strolling along a short distance we came across the Malta National Aquarium overlooking St. Paul’s Bay.

Malta National Aquarium

Qawra is also very quiet during the winter months with several hotels and bars closed until Easter.  The surrounding bay is a centre for water sports and boat tours can be taken to the neighbouring islands of Cosimo and Gozo during the summer season.  Returning back to our hotel we relaxed in the cafe bar awhile partaking of tea and cakes one final time this holiday.

Tea time treats

We set off for the airport at 7.00 p.m, an early morning arrival coupled with a late evening departure maximised our time in Malta giving us 8 full days.  The weather has been changeable but much warmer than back home in the U.K. so no complaints there.  Our hotel, The DB San Antonio exceeded expectations in every respect and what made our stay extra special were the staff who were the friendliest, kindest and most helpful we’ve come across for sometime.

Departing from Malta International Airport

Our flight left on time and shortly after midnight we arrived back into a cold Manchester after a very enjoyable first visit to Malta.  Hopefully, we’ll have an opportunity to return before too long!