Saturday, November 25th 2017.

Destinations

Jonathan Ramael
MAGICAL MALTA
Vast Opportunities on a Tiny Island


By Jonathan Ramael

 

From 16 to 19 March, an international group of MICE professionals was invited to a fam trip on sunny Malta: a tiny island nation in the middle of the crystal clear Mediterranean. With a total territory of only 316 km2 and a population of 413,000 it’s one of Europe’s smallest countries. It’s been a full EU member since 2004 though, and it holds a lot of surprising secrets for its size.

 

Gozo Gozo Gozo

 

Malta was home to one of the continent’s oldest civilisations, and is riddled with temples and other structures predating even the Egyptian pyramids. Because of its strategic location, the island was held by a variety of conquerors and rulers during its long history, resulting in an interesting mixture of European, Mediterranean and Northern African influences. This wonderful diversity can be seen anywhere: in the architecture, the food and in the incomprehensible Maltese language. Almost all inhabitants speak perfect English though, and with Sicily so close, Italian is well known too.  The sun, the sea, the central location, the compact size, the sheer beauty of the dramatic sun-scorched cliffs rising from the deep blue water, the architecture, the world heritage sites, the fantastic food and above all the hospitality of the people: It makes Malta a more than fitting destination for holidays as well as business. Let us take a look at the island’s major cities and landmarks, its most impressive venues and its best restaurants.

 

The islands – Where to start?

GozoMalta is an island with an ancient past and rich cultural traditions. It is also a lively, international society oriented towards the present and the future. The mixture between traditional hospitality and a modern cosmopolitan view makes for a ton of interesting locations deserving a visit. These are the ones that stood out most to us:

Valletta: Malta’s capital is a masterpiece of baroque architecture, full of cathedrals, museums, monuments, modern shops and restaurants of all categories. Built by the Knightly Order of St. John in 1566 to counter the Turks eyeing the islands, it was destined to become an impregnable fortress containing an elegant city centre inside. Its mighty walls still stand today and its cannons still overlook the magnificent Grand Harbour – one of Europe’s biggest natural ports. The harbour turned into a popular cruise stop today and fancy yachts are all around. You’ll get the best possible view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens where the cannons are (they still fire a salute each day). This area can be privatised for parties or receptions and makes for a stunning event location.

Mdina:Mdina was Malta’s old capital, its history going back 4,000 years. Perched on top of a hill, it’s one of the world’s best preserved examples of a walled medieval city. It’s a town filled with residential palaces and the magnificent entrance gate leads to a network of narrow, winding streets strategically designed to limit vision to the length of a bowshot. Only a couple of 100 people still live here, among them the country’s richest families passing their beautiful homes on to the next generation. Dubbed “the silent city” because of the narrow streets limiting traffic, it’s a beautiful tranquil place with perfectly preserved historical buildings and monuments. It is especially charming at night, when the streetlights submerge everything in a strange, mysterious atmosphere.

St. Julians: A couple of kilometres from Valletta lies the exact opposite of Mdina. St Julians is a major residential and tourist centre, home to many of the newest hotels. It’s a vibrant, busy place with lots of dining and leisure possibilities, victoriasome small fishing ports, marina’s and a wonderful esplanade next to the sea for jogs, walks and drinks leading all the way to the capital. St. Julians is also home to Malta’s main nightlife centre, Paceville: a steep, narrow street with pubs and clubs on both sides. Definitely not a place to get bored!

Gozo: Gozo is Malta’s little sister (about three times smaller). Literally meaning “Joy”, it’s a much quieter place than the main island. Its 30,000 inhabitants lead a more rural, simple life. This is how Malta looked 50 years ago, before the rise of international tourism. According to Greek mythology, this was the island Odysseus was lured to by the nymph Calypso, trapping him here for 7 years. He probably had a smashing time, since it’s an absolutely stunning place. Like the rest of Malta, architecture is impressive here: there is an imposing citadel and some surprisingly big churches to be found. The absolute highlight of this island is Dwejra though, on the cliffs near the sea. Here is where you find the Azure Window, a famous natural landmark looking like a massive entrance gate to the Mediterranean. Behind it you’ll find the Blue Hole: a large rock pool and one of Malta’s most popular diving spots. The cliffs around the window can be used for exclusive BBQs: an event with an unbelievable backdrop. Gozo can be reached by ferry or by smaller boats. Don’t forget to stop by the tiny island of Comino on the way, where a total of 3 people still live. Here you’ll find the Blue Lagoon: a beautiful beach where the water is so blue you’d almost think it’s a CGI effect!

 

Event Venues – a surprisingly varied offer

For its size, Malta’s number of big hotels and event venues is quite remarkable. We’ll show you some of the best ones, limiting ourselves to the ones we actually visited.

The Hilton Malta: We stayed in this impressive hotel on the St. Julians waterfront. It has all the class and facilities you’d come to expect from a Hilton hotel, and it has its own conference centre as well. The Grandmaster’s Suite is a modern and multifunctional hall capable of holding 1,330 people in theatre style. The beautiful balcony supports and extra 230. The hotel offers multiple smaller halls, rooms and a business centre. Its superb facilities and location in the middle of the liveliest part of the island make it an ideal choice for all types of events. www.hiltonmaltahotel.com

 

Gozo Gozo

 

The Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC):This humongous  building in Valletta used to be a hospital of the Knights of St. John and it is without a doubt the island’s most impressive event venue. It includes a 155m long hallway with an 11m high ceiling that can be used for banquets of 1,500 people on a seemingly endless table.  Under it lies a slightly smaller hall that looks even better and can seat about 900 people for dinner.  The Republic Hall has a gigantic stage and can seat 1,400 people in theatre style. The combination of the beautiful historical architecture with the staggering capacity makes this a must for larger events. www.mcc.com.mt

The Palazzo Parisio: This historic palace in the village of Naxxar comes with lush gardens and was once the home of one of the Grand Masters of St. John. Its interiors are rich with fine frescoes, magnificent marble, mirrored walls and rare paintings, making for an absolutely luxurious venue. The lavishly decorated ballroom can seat 120 people for dinner and its capacity can be expanded by opening up some of the other rooms. The garden can seat up to 300 people for dinner. www.palazzoparisio.com

Twenty Two: This is a completely different kind of venue. The Portomaso Business Tower next to the Hilton Hotel – St. Julians biggest landmark – holds an exclusive club on the top floor (yes, the 22th: you are very smart). It can be rented for parties and events for about 200 people (standing), or just used as a location to wind down after a conference. Being so high up, it will support your finest dance moves with a marvellous view over almost the entire island. We had a very good time in here. www.22.com.mt

 

To Dine or not to Dine? – a story of massive plates

Since Malta was conquered by almost every major power in the area, its kitchen has a lot of foreign influences. One thing is clear though: the Maltese like their food fresh, spicy and gigàntic. Most of our dinners were served on big plates in the centre of the table, enabling you to pick whatever you want. Most of the times we felt completely full after the first couple of plates, thinking we had the main course behind us. Surprise turned into despair when the actual main course was presented, meaning even more and even bigger plates. Since we are very polite people, we ate a bit of everything they served us, hating ourselves furiously after dessert. Despite the vastness of the courses, the quality of the dishes was sublime. Here are some of our favourite restaurants.

Ir-Razzett L-Abjad: This is a charming traditional Maltese farmhouse and a very popular wedding location (it can be used for exclusive and quite big events). When the weather permits it, you’ll dine outside, under the vines they make their own wine with. A small swimming pool can be used to swim off the pounds gained during dinner. http://razzettlabjad.com

 

Gozo Gozo

 

Sharma: This restaurant in Mdina combines Arabic and Mediterranean influences, in its decor as well as its cuisine. It looks great and the food was absolutely stunning. This was our personal favourite of the entire trip. Perfect for dinner parties in a more intimate setting. www.sharma.com.mt

The Ta Mena Estate: This estate on Gozo is famous for its delicious natural produce. This agri-tourism complex will bring you in touch with nature, introducing you to some of the typical foods, wines and liquors, all produced on the grounds itself. It can be rented exclusively for events. www.tamena-gozo.com

The Chophouse: A big restaurant on the promenade in Sliema (between St. Julians & Valletta), offering a magnificent view over the capital. It can be taken exclusively for large groups. http://chophouse.com.mt

 

Incentive activities – the choice is yours!

jeepAll of our activities were organised by Special Interest Travel (SIT). This DMC has over three decades of experience hosting corporate and incentive groups in the Maltese islands and are accredited by the Malta Tourism Authority. They have a wide knowledge of all original and unusual locations available and offer unique interactive concepts. We went on a bumpy jeep ride on Gozo and sailed the seas on an old yacht and later in speedboats. But there’s much more to choose from. You name it, they can probably arrange it: Spa packages including Finnish saunas and Turkish baths, archaeological tours into the stone age temples, religious tours in the footsteps of St. Paul (Malta is a very religious island), walking or bicycle tours through the countryside, painting packages on the most beautiful spots of the island, photography classes, diving tours, fishing adventures, culinary tours, shore excursions or winemaking and farming tours. It can all be done.  Contact them via www.sit.com.mt or speak directly to General Manager Jason Caruana: jcaruana@sit.com.mt for sample proposals.

 

The verdict

Malta is very centrally located: less than 3 hours from Brussels and Amsterdam (flights leave from Zaventem on a daily basis: check www.airmalta.com). Its compact size (flying over it, it almost looks like someone’s backyard) combined with the cultural richness, the variety of possible activities, the number of first class venues, the multilingual population, the vibrant nightlife and the incredible hospitality of just about everyone makes it a wonderful and practical place to organize meetings, incentives and events. Since it was our first visit, we were pleasantly surprised by the depth of the place and we’ll keep dreaming of that deep blue sea for weeks to come.

We would like to thank the Malta Tourism Authority (www.visitmalta.com), Special Interest Travel (www.sit.com.mt), Hilton Malta (www.hiltonmaltahotel.com) and Air Malta (www.airmalta.com) for making this experience possible.

We would also like to thank our Belgian colleagues for their pleasant company during the entire trip:
Jacques Spelkens, GDF Suez
Patricia Vanderplasschen, EIGA
Patrick Lefèbvre, Pracsis
Katrien Onderbeke, EMI Music
Barbara Nowak, NV Nutricia

And of course especially Marianne Hoogeveen, VisitMalta- marianne.hoogeveen@malta.be!

 

Gozo Gozo

 

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