With its colourful history and beautiful beaches, Debbie Murray finds Malta makes a perfect getaway.
The mighty rock towering above us is a vivid reminder that Malta has been central to the history of the Mediterranean for thousands of years.
Just how the primitive folk of this small island managed to ease the 20-tonnes into place is mind-boggling, and today the rock forms part of the ancient temples at Mnajdra, which feature within an impressive heritage park.
The park also houses a museum, where exhibits explain how the temples were built as a way of exerting authority, and also to provide a structure to the ancient folks’ lives. For instance, they were constructed in such a way that the sun’s shadow indicates what time of the year and day it is – a very early example of a clock.
It’s no surprise that, as well as relaxation and the warm weather, Malta’s remarkable history is also a big attraction.
The island measures nine by 13 miles and has a population of 400,000. Before you’ve even landed, old stone buildings and ancient monuments come into view, such is their presence on this little island.
Many of these are churches. The saying goes that Malta has a church for every day of the year and, indeed, spires and domes dominate the skyline.
Crosses crop up everywhere, from the eight-pointed cross of the Order of St John which protected the country against the Ottoman Empire, to the George Cross awarded to Malta following the merciless bombing by the Axis powers during the Second World War.
There are also frequent reminders of recent colonial history. Though the days of British rule are long gone, clear British influences remain: English is the co-official national language alongside Maltese, and people drive on the left.
As well as being steeped in history, Malta is also ideally set up for exploring.
Our base is the four-star, all-inclusive Seabank Hotel, which underwent an extensive upgrade by Thomas Cook last winter.
Now featuring in their Holidays with Style programme, the rooms are chic and comfortable, there’s a large pool and four a la carte restaurants to choose from.
The friendly staff keep up an ongoing supply of cool drinks and, for the energetic, an array of activities includes pool volleyball and aqua gym.
The hotel overlooks Mellieha Beach, the longest sandy beach on the island. Gently shelving sands, an abundance of watersports and bars make this a great place to relax when you want a break from the hotel pool.
After a day lounging in the sun, we venture out to explore and head for the ancient walled city of Mdina, the name of which reveals Malta’s historic links to Arab countries.
A horse-drawn carriage ride is an interesting, if sometimes hairy, way to take in the tiny winding streets and stunning architecture.
A visit to the Carmelite Priory is a must. Dating back to the 17th-century, it’s survived countless invasions and today is open to the public.
There are many waterfront restaurants for lunch, but the Vittoriosa Waterfront serves delicious locally-caught fish - the sea bass is particularly good.
We plod on to the spectacular Palazzo Parisio, Malta’s most opulent aristocratic home, acquired in the 1800s by the Marquis Giuseppe Scicluna, a wealthy banker whose family introduced the local Cisk beer to the island.
It’s well worth a visit and the desserts served in the restaurant are a wonderful treat after gazing in awe at the glitzy rooms and impressive gardens.
With the Thomas Cook all-inclusive package, you don’t have to eat every night in the same place, and other outdoor restaurants in the area are options.
One, Maya Beach Club, on the waterfront of Mellieha Bay, has lovely views of boats bobbing in the shallow sea. Slightly further back, also with great views, is La Barca, where I tuck into rabbit – Malta’s national dish.
Local tradition is to eat it off the bone by hand, but I go for a stewed option – very tasty.
For less than five euros, you can hop on a ferry and reach Malta’s little sister island, Gozo, in around 25 minutes. Gozo is a major tourist haunt too, also heaving with history. The stones at Ggantija, the oldest free-standing structure in the world, puts our own Stonehenge somewhat in the shade at 7,000 years old.
Gozo’s Citadel was constructed to keep the inhabitants safe following years of invasions. Now it’s another tourist attraction, with a peaceful interior and great views.
The only restaurant within the walls is the delightful Ta’ Ricardu, a family-run establishment reached via a climb up some steep, stone steps.
Its trump cards are the locally-produced food and wine which the owner supervises all the way from the field to the plate. The menu includes home-made ravioli, Gozitan cheese – a white goat’s cheese eaten fresh or dried –and some of the best olives and sundried tomatoes I’ve ever sampled.
Gozo is promoted as an eco-tourist destination with an impressive “green” agenda. Our trip includes a visit to Ta’ Mena Estate, where the owners grow vines, fruit and vegetables.
We sample their Vermentino, a crisp, white wine, perfect to enjoy in the sunshine, and some crispy focaccia bread, cooked in an outdoor oven by the proprietor, Joe Spiteri.
Listening to Joe and his wife talk, it’s clear they put their heart and soul into their business, which sprang up from a roadside shop founded by Joe’s family.
Nestled between Malta and Gozo is the smallest island of Comino and a swim in its stunning Blue Lagoon is an unforgettable experience.
Debbie Murray was a guest of Thomas Cook Holidays with Style, which offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the Seabank Hotel & Spa, Mellieha Bay flying from Manchester from £470 on November 13.
Thomas Cook’s summer 2013 Malta holidays are now on sale. For reservations call 0844 871 6650 or visit www.Thomascookstyle.com.
For Malta travel guides, priced £4.99, call 01733 416 477 or visit www.thomascookpublishing.com