I grew up on Gozo, the smaller of Malta’s two main islands, which still has a very quaint, 1950s beauty to it – a beauty that locals are fighting to preserve. For me, Gozo is pure holidays. But many of my friends have been fascinated by it too. Last summer I took Luke Edward Hall and Duncan Campbell there, and we went to a beach I used to love as a kid; they couldn’t get over the fact that in the middle of July it was virtually empty, and with just one little kiosk selling drinks. They said it was like going back in time. And that’s real, in Malta, that sense of preserved history.
Because the sea around both Malta and Gozo is so beautiful it’s all about getting out on the boat. We’ll stop at beach clubs or nice restaurants for lunch – on Gozo, it’s Kantra restaurant, at the simple but nice Hotel Ta’ Cenc, where they do great Sicilian food; on Malta, I like Baia Beach Club in Mellieha, which has very good seafood – and then a swim here or there.
But increasingly this isn’t just a summer destination. People are understanding this is a country, not just a big island resort, and more and more are coming in winter. That’s mostly because there’s more to do in Valletta [one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2018]. Valletta used to be like Havana the first time I visited 20 years ago, with its extraordinary, decaying beauty. Now there is architecture by Renzo Piano and, soon, the late Zaha Hadid. And it feels like there’s something new every time I land – excellent small hotels, more than five art galleries in the past eight or nine months. The Hotel Phoenicia, which has been around forever, is where I stayed while my house in Valletta was being renovated. I have a nostalgic view of it – I recall its charms from the days before its renovation, which is perhaps unfair because it’s still a very good hotel.
Then there is the legacy of the Knights of Saint John, who built the capital Valletta and erected Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, with its Caravaggios and tapestries after Rubens. And what other Mediterranean island has two excellent opera houses on one street, as Gozo does?
But at the end of the day this is still a place that’s timeless. It maintains that mix of bits of Sicily, Naples and Marrakech. Or perhaps better to say that it evokes all those places in certain moments, but is still very much its own place.