Special Correspondent Naomi Stock plotted, planned and executed a trip to Malta last month. This is her report, complete with photos!
How to Escape:
Step 1: buy tickets
Step 2: pack bags
Step 3: go!
Sometime this fall, I decided I needed to escape. The weather was getting colder, work was slowing down, and school was starting back up. I found myself Googling things like “best beach vacations” and “best October weather.” I requested 10 days off from work, and before it was even approved I was in Google flights “Explore”, searching the cheapest destinations from Anchorage for my dates. I set a couple price trackers on Albania, Mexico, Malta, and Hawaii and I waited.
The moment my vacation days were approved, I checked the flights again. I’ve always wanted to go to Malta. $700 round trip and the 8 day vacation was mine! I researched accommodations: multiple hostel dorm rooms were listed for about $12 a night. I booked my first two nights at Hostel Malti in St. Julian’s, Malta.
The worst part about an exciting vacation is the waiting, the dead time between buying a ticket and boarding the plane. I researched more hostels and looked at pictures of beaches and scrolled through available Airbnb experiences (snorkeling, historical tour of Valletta, wine tasting tour). I sorted through my cutest summer outfits, and dug my swimsuit out of the back of my otherwise very Alaskan closet. I told everyone about my trip, and subsequently explained:
‘Malta is a country in the European Union, made up of three tiny islands: Malta, Comino, and Gozo. The islands can be found in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily, north of Africa, and west of Greece. I’ve always wanted to go!’
Not so many people have heard of Malta as have heard of Greece, or Sicily, or the Maldives, or whatever other beaches people are escaping to these days. That was a big part of the draw for me, the ability to go somewhere that was unique and not necessarily crowded or touristy. Malta is pretty well known to Europeans as a destination, but is still fairly unheard of to many Americans.
On the morning of October 17th I put on my mask and flew the familiar route from Anchorage to Seattle, where I took two trains to the international terminal at SeaTac Airport. At the gate, I had to show my passport and CDC vaccine card for the agent to print the rest of my boarding passes. I was given a surgical mask to wear in place of my cloth one, in order to follow airline guidelines. The Lufthansa Airbus A330 that flew us to Frankfurt was more than half empty: every passenger was stretched out in their own three-seat row. I watched Black Widow for the first time, and Good Will Hunting for the umpteenth. Lufthansa provided pasta with red sauce for dinner, and a breakfast wrap for breakfast, both vegetarian.
(Sunset, flying over northeast Canada on Sunday night, followed by the sunrise over the Netherlands on Monday morning.)
Nine and a half hours later, in Germany on Monday afternoon, I was tired and a little stiff, but ready to make the last leg of my journey. I pulled a couple of euros out of an airport ATM and boarded the flight to Malta. We landed almost an hour early and the warm and humid sea air hit me immediately. I was finally living my Maltese dream.
Waiting for the bus to take me into the city, I learned the first important thing about Malta: the buses are always late. I paid €1.50 for the first bus, and then €3 for the second, because it was a special “direct” line with fewer stops. I got off in St. Julian’s, just north of the capital city of Valletta. St. Julian’s is known as the area for younger tourists, with a high concentration of hostels and bars and trendy restaurants. I hiked up a few blocks of hills and stairs to my hostel, where I made a few friends before going straight to bed.
Here comes the crazy part: I’m still in school. Online school. That’s right, zoom class with a ten hour time difference. Cue me, at 3:30 am, trying to sneak as quietly as possible out of my dorm room with my laptop and my notebook into the common room, where I log into SPAN 490 and discuss hispanic-american literature for an hour.
Having to get up at an ungodly hour to log onto zoom university had its perks. I’m not exactly a morning person, and I never would have seen so many sunrises without Professor Fagan getting me up so early.
(sunrise and coffee with a new friend from Turkey on the first day)
During the rest of the week I fell into an easy pattern: wake up early for class, research my next beach destination, pack my swimsuit and my book, and catch a tardy bus. I’d get to the beach early, find a good spot and settle in with a book and a €5 rental recliner. I bought water, fruit, crackers, and cheese at the supermarket most days to save money on food at the beach. I’d alternate between swimming, people watching, reading, and chatting occasionally with the British people who seemed to be everywhere.
(more sunrises in St. Julian’s, which I made my home base)
One day I took a ferry from the main island of Malta to the smaller, more rural island of Gozo where I went to a slightly rockier beach and snorkeled for a couple of hours. I had mussels for dinner, sitting right on the edge of the bay, watching schools of fish swim by as I flirted with my waiter.
(sunset from the Gozo ferry)
Another day I found myself the first to arrive on the wide beach of Riviera Bay, where I found the clearest water I have ever seen in my life. For more than an hour I was alone on the beach with a sailboat anchored in the bay. The beach was a hefty 200-something steps down from the road, but there were encouraging words painted every 50 steps or so for the journey back up to the bus stop.
Riviera was my favorite beach, with its shallow, crystal-clear water. I returned another day to watch the sunset after exploring the neighboring Golden Bay, which was more crowded and less impressive.
(Sunset at Riviera Bay)
Of course, I also went rock climbing. I mean, just look at those rocks! Gozo Adventures put me in touch with a guide, Stevie, who has been climbing in Malta for years and does one-on-one trips. I emailed Stevie, letting him know I had brought some of my own gear and what my level of experience is, and he made time for me on Saturday afternoon. He and his wife, Alex, picked me up at the Gozo ferry terminal and we drove to the northwest coast of the island to climb on limestone sea cliffs. For about four hours, we climbed. Stevie told me about how his grandparents lived in Malta, and he had moved there about 15 years ago to develop new climbs on behalf of the Maltese government. He is responsible for the development of approximately 90% of the established climbs on the islands, Gozo especially, and he co wrote the guidebook for climbing in Malta. Stevie can be reached at [email protected] by anyone interested in trying rock climbing in Malta.
While we climbed, waves crashed against the base of the cliffs and some of the handholds were slick with sea water. Looking behind me at a fuzzy horizon where the sea blended into the sky, it felt like I was climbing at the end of the earth. I found it hard to imagine that just beyond that horizon lay Sicily, and beyond that, the whole of Europe.
The limestone arch where we climbed is known as Wied Il-Mielaħ, and it is a popular tourist attraction for those willing to make the trek. This resulted in the unique experience of being pointed at and having photos taken of us while climbing certain routes, like we were part of the attraction, until we rounded a corner out of view.
(Public domain photos of Wied Il-Mielaħ)
(Sea cliffs on Gozo where I sport climbed)
That same day, I made some friends, an American, a Dutchman, and three British girls, and we all went to dinner together on Gozo. The American joined me the next day, my last day, to see the popular tourist attraction known as the Blue Lagoon. It is on the smallest island of Comino, which has a permanent population of only two residents. Ferries run constantly between Malta, Gozo, and Comino, bringing tourists to the rocky outcrops surrounding the Blue Lagoon, which is, of course, known for its turquoise blue waters.
(Two different perspectives of the clear blue water of the Blue Lagoon on a cloudy day.)
I spent the afternoon swimming in the stunning, shallow water, people watching, and reading. I made the valuable investment of a piña colada inside a pineapple, and after a couple hours caught a ferry back to Malta with my new friend, where we met back up with the British girls for my last dinner in paradise.
Traveling these days has certainly changed from a few years ago. My vaccine card was tucked into my passport wherever I went, and felt just as valuable. I had to get a PCR test in Malta no more than 3 days before my return in order to be allowed back into the United States. Passport control was preceded by health checkpoints asking for vaccine cards and negative tests. Masks were strictly required on all those tardy buses in Malta.
Despite it all, the beaches were still sandy, and the sea was still salty. The sun was still shining, most days at least, and I was able to escape. A vacation, just for me. No arguing about where to go, how much money to spend, or what to eat. I had the freedom of exploring a new place all on my own, and I’ll recommend the experience to anyone who will listen.
Book your ticket, and pack your bags. Paradise is waiting!
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