Wandering around the walled city of Mdina by day or night, it’s perfectly possible to imagine oneself in a historical epic. As you wind round the narrow streets, occasionally interrupted by breathtakingly striking buildings, you half-expect some dashing knight to rush past you, sword in hand, hotly pursued by half a dozen brigands. As you gently venture past a particularly obstinate group of tourists, the temptation might be to wish that you, too, could go fully armed into a melee of rather less deadly foes, and by hacking and slashing about reduce the noise levels considerably. ‘Say…this isn’t what we were expecting…some English guy with a sword.’
All such thoughts of violence and derring-do are, however, swiftly put to an end (to the sword?) by the time we arrive at Mdina, and probably Malta’s, finest boutique hotel, the Xara Palace. Built in the 17th century as the residence of a noble family, it boasts all the vaulting ceilings and luxurious trappings that have made it as palatial a destination as might be imagined for the finest of families. Times change, however, and it now revels in its status as the island’s sole Relais & Chateaux property. Thankfully the high-class service and style that such a designation deserves are leavened with a friendliness and charm that seems a typical Maltese combination; the atmosphere is a million miles away from snootier establishments in other European countries.
The room that we are given verges on the ridiculous, in a good way. The ceiling is higher than some churches that we’ve been in, so in a moment of ingenuity the bedroom and bathroom have been constructed on a mezzanine level, reached by an opulent and impressive spiral staircase. Thus the downstairs sitting room has the luxuriant feel of a grand private house, whereas upstairs boasts comfort and cosiness; a tricky combination to pull off, but the Xara does it with some style. But then all the public rooms have a similar combination; the braying packs of tourists seem very far away.
Not only does the hotel have an impressive reputation for style and luxury, but it’s also got what is commonly acknowledged as Malta’s best restaurant, the de Mondion. Situated on the top floor, thereby allowing breathtaking panoramic views of the island by day or night, it boasts flawless and sophisticated cuisine thanks to the top-notch chef Kevin Bonello. A meal might begin with lobster tagliatelle (served, splendidly, out of the creature’s shell) or with saffron risotto with prawns, before deviating sharply into flawless rack of lamb and then ending with a flourish of chocolate coulant with brioche ice cream. The wine list is also a fairly formidable tome; there is a decent selection of Maltese bins, but given that wine in Malta tends to be something of an acquired taste, you might be better off sticking with the tried and tested European vintages, many of which represent significantly better value than you’d find in an English or French restaurant.
All good things must come to an end, however, and after a couple of days at the Xara Palace (and a brief detour to its corporate sister establishment, the Xara Lodge, for an icy dip in its outdoor pool), it was time to see the other side of Malta’s luxury hotel sector in the shapely form of the Intercontinental. For a global chain, they seem adept at getting virtually everything right, and so it proves here. Not that it isn’t something of a culture shock compared to the Xara; it’s big, in a way that almost feels out of kilter with the quiet tranquillity of the rest of the country, but the fifteenth floor suites have a grace and charm – not to mention stunning views over St George’s Bay and too-comfortable beds that make a 6.15am departure a chore – that makes it a marvellously restful destination. We’re informed, as we settle in for a hard-earned gin and tonic in the exclusive lounge, that more suites are being built to cater for the upsurge in luxury consumers. One hopes that they remain at the same fine calibre.
All good things must come to an end, but before they do we have to try one of the island’s other talked-about restaurants, Waterbiscuit. While it doesn’t come up to the dizzy heights of the de Mondion, it’s still a marvellously opulent treat. Under the careful auspices of a young English chef, it cleaves to an Italian-influenced menu (as elsewhere, fish pasta is extremely popular and delicious) but doesn’t forget to offer other treats as well, such as a succulent rib-eye steak. The well-chosen wine list has some decent selections by the half-bottle; ordering a delectable white elicited an approving nod from our waitress and a sigh from my dining companion, who, indisposed, muttered ‘I wish I could have some Sancerre.’
Malta is a mass of seemingly contradictory things. Expanses of enormous beauty sit cheek by jowl (or cliché by cliché) with gritty stretches of aridity. The overall feel is somewhere between a chic European country that has somehow been neglected by the hordes of package holidays, and a place with its own brilliantly unique identity. In any case, we can’t wait to go back before too long, and explore a new series of fresh vistas.
For more information about the Xara Palace, visit www.xarapalace.com.mt.
For more information about the Intercontinental, Malta, click the link to www.ihg.com.