Malta is one of those places that, on your first visit, makes you wonder why on earth you’ve never been before. The tiny Mediterranean island is drenched in history, from megalithic temples older than Stonehenge to the medieval “Silent City” of Mdina and the capital Valletta – a gem of baroque architecture and churches built by the Knights of Malta that is set to be Culture Capital of Europe in 2018. All of this married with crystal-clear sea, caves to swim in and a sunshine average that never drops below four hours a day. It’s no wonder a young Princess Elizabeth is said to have spent some of her happiest days living on the island from 1949 to 951, when her new husband Prince Philip was working as a first lieutenant in the navy and the pair would spend Sunday afternoons at tea dances in the ballroom of The Phoenicia hotel.
For those who have yet to visit, the reason may be the island’s somewhat sparse pickings in terms of sophisticated lodgings. But not for much longer, thanks to a game-changing 24-room boutique hotel, set to open in January. Iniala Harbour House is the vision of former banker Mark Weingard, who has been described as the world’s luckiest unlucky man; he was, thankfully, late for a meeting in the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11; he was on the coast in Thailand when the tsunami hit in 2004, but left unscathed; and tragically, his fiancée died in the terrorist bombings in Kuta, Bali, in 2002. Weingard chose to honour her memory by creating the Annika Linden Centre and, later, the Inspirasia Foundation, charities that now help up to 40,000 people with disabilities and fund education and healthcare initiatives in Bali.
Born in Manchester, Weingard first came to Malta aged four with his parents. “It was 1970 and it was my first overseas holiday,” he says. He didn’t return until five years ago, when he was searching for a new base – somewhere Mediterranean, with a great lifestyle and a welcoming fiscal environment. It was late one night after a good dinner in Valletta that he quizzed his driver Mario: “If you had money, where would you buy property?” Mario whizzed him to the olive-tree‑lined street of St Barbara Bastion, in prime Valletta, overlooking the fortified walls to the Grand Harbour and Three Cities beyond. Weingard was sold; and the next day began playing real-life Monopoly – a spending spree that has resulted in nine transactions within the area – to create Iniala Harbour House, a jigsaw puzzle made up of two townhouses, a former bank and several vaults that once stored dynamite but will now house the hotel’s subterranean gym and spa.
This Maltese venture is not Weingard’s first time at the hospitality rodeo. “I wanted to go into hotel management as a kid; I went to work as a waiter, aged 19, at the Westmoreland Hotel in London,” he explains. “But I was so bad, I dropped every plate and got put off, so I went into banking.” Cut to 2008, when he sold his financial technology business for what he describes as, “a lot of money”. It was then Weingard decided to make a change. “I could have stayed in financial technology and created more companies, but I wanted to take a new journey, do something different.” So in 2013, he opened Iniala Beach House, a design-led property he built from the ground up on the west coast of Thailand.
Here in Malta design is even further to the fore – this time, showcased within a unique historic context. Weingard has enlisted three different high‑profile firms (Autoban, A-cero and the Malta-based Daaa Haus) to work on each of the houses and create discrete spaces from the charmingly higgledy-piggledy shaped rooms. Using different designers means there’s something for everyone: from a minimal, stone-clad penthouse suite with a rooftop plunge pool, to a moody vaulted room with a floating mezzanine walkway and basement Jacuzzi, or a weather-beaten-wood-clad two-bedroom suite with a dining table, full kitchen and spectacular triple-casement views over the Grand Harbour.
Strict planning regulations are in place; the Maltese authorities have learnt from their mistakes, having allowed beautiful baroque townhouses in neighbouring Sliema to be yanked down in the 1970s to make way for steel and glass apartment blocks. At Iniala, historical elements are being carefully retained and restored: a painted cupola ceiling, a Maltese staircase – a narrow set of steps originally built for staff to access their top‑floor quarters without disturbing the noblesse on the piano nobile – and the colourful, glazed balconies on the façades. Each of the houses will have its own lobby, but they will be united by a rooftop restaurant and bar that runs their collective breadth.
But for all the luxurious trappings Iniala is set to deliver, Weingard insists on never losing sight of the hotel’s situation. This is a man who has fallen in love with Malta and wants to share it with like‑minded folk. So while he aims to create the island’s top restaurant, he also wants to encourage people to eat out at, for example, Da Pippo, the locals’ favourite for long Friday lunches, or The Harbour Club, built on the site of an old well. “We’re aiming to have a signing facility with 20 other restaurants on the island,” he says. “It’s as if you went to stay with your greatest friend who is living in the city and wants to take you to all the best places to eat, drink and visit.”
In order to gauge how much time hotel residents have to discover Malta, there will be an “experience-ometer” in every room. “Our aim is to provide guests with keys to the inside city,” says Weingard. This will include historian-guided special access to the second world war subterranean bomb shelters that run the length and breadth of Valletta; diving trips led by world-famous underwater photographer Kurt Arrigo to the collapsed Azure Window on the neighbouring island of Gozo; and hopping on Weingard’s own Riva for jaunts tocrystalline caves – accessible only by boat – before returning to Valletta’s harbour for sundowners, watching the limestone fortifications turn golden-umber in the sunset.
While any conversation with Weingard makes it clear that being a philanthropic paladin is what drives him – in 2018 he will donate 100 per cent of the profits from the Thai hotel to his charitable foundation (“I’m creating hotels to fund my charity work,” he explains. “That’s what I live for”) – en route he is aiming to set high new standards for Maltese hospitality, laying the groundwork for his future guests’ first visit to this island to not be their last. “I want people to say: ‘I’ve never stayed anywhere like that before.’”