Malta: A place where dreams come true
Dreams that often translate on celluloid. From Gladiator to Julius Caesar to Helen of Troy to The Count of Monte Cristo, the island, with 7,000 years of history, has hosted the entire crews for a number of period flicks - far too many count on your fingers.
Sharon Stone and Rupert Everett, stars of the A Different Loyalty, and Brad Pitt, playing the lead role in Troy, were the latest in the long of list of celebrities to fly into Malta for shooting their upcoming magnum opus.
With the warm orange beaches and the sapphire sea providing the ideal backdrop for the Hollywood dream factory, it's not difficult to imagine why a lot of people who have never set foot on this beautiful island are already under its magical spell. I was one of the luckier ones: I got to experience its magic - first hand!
Besides the island's spectacular scenery that follows you wherever you go, it's Malta's rich history, culture and heritage that grows on you. Just 93 km south of Sicily, Malta's location at the heart of the Mediterranean is the key to its rich history which takes you back by thousands of years.
Still, it's the fact that Malta has managed to combine the past with the present and blend the ancient with the modern so wonderfully is what struck me most.
Quite surprisingly then that Malta, despite its rich history and natural charms, remained one of the best-kept secrets in the world tourism till quite recently while other Mediterranean islands like Sardinia, Capri and Santorini promoted themselves internationally with gusto. But thanks largely to Hollywood and some aggressive promotion, Malta has suddenly emerged as one of the top tourist destinations. Especially for those who seek culture and antiquity. Whether it's 15th-century cannons or 16th-century cathedrals and palace or, for that matter, prehistoric temples that you are looking for there is a good chance that you will stumble on one in Malta. What's more, you can even retrace the footsteps of St Paul or see where the Knights of St John defended Christendom. In short, from temple builders, seafaring Phoenicians and the traveller Apostle Paul, to the Knights of St John, Napoleon and British royalty, all have set foot here leaving their imprint for generations to discover.
They also have some ruins. Take, for example, the temples of Ggantija. Built almost 7,000 years ago on the Island of Goza, they are older than the Pyramids! The old capital of Mdina (the silent city) is lovely with families still living in their historic homes that are handing down homes from generation to generation. I had the pleasure of enjoying our first evening meal on the veranda of a lovely hotel called the Xara Palace overlooking the city. You could say, that's where I got the first taste of Malta's rich history!
InterContinental Malta is another place where one can experience more of the famous Maltese hospitality. Another lingering taste of Maltese hospitality can be had at the Intercontinental. Only a few months in operation, it has done well to become one of the preferred hotels in town. After all, in some ways, it has the warmth of home. Among the things that strike you about the hotel is the spectacular view from the pool on the tenth floor looked overlooking the sea. Besides that, the rooms were particularly large and comfortable and the restaurants served some of the finest cuisines.
Add to all this the fact Maltese are among the most beautiful people in the world, it is hardly surprising that the Maltese Islands were placed among the top 20 honeymoon island destinations in Islands Weddings & Honeymoons, a leading US magazine. In fact, I was so amazed that there was no 'typical' Maltese look - some look of Arab descent, some of European and some native in their own way - but that, I guess, is because of the number of different countries that had invaded this small island.
Moving on, great weather, delicious local cuisine and an abundance of tourist attractions like its signature fortress walls, ancient cathedrals and more - according to some, the Maltese islands have been described as one big open-air museum - all add to its allure. Some of the visitors go to locations where Oscar-winning blockbusters were filmed, some chose to get lost in the ravages of times. Still others prefer to go off the beaten track into ancient villages, but whatever it is that they decide to do, Malta makes for a very memorable visit.
However, given the scores of battles that have been fought on Maltese shores - especially during the Second World War - the island's name, a derivative of the Phoenician word for 'safe haven', had always something of a misnomer.
But things have changed. And today, with soothing Mediterranean tunes having long replaced the drums of war, Malta more than lives up to its name. To me, it's now the friendliest islands I know.
Still the highlight of my trip was a meeting with the President Professor Guido de Marco at The Palace in the capital Valletta. A warm and charming gentleman, he explained how the island was being aggressively introduced to the world and that, by entering the EU next year, how it will effectively bridge the gap between Europe and the Mediterranean world.
However, according to me, the most memorable comment he made was when he was asked what message he would give to the small Maltese population who live here in the UAE. 'When in a foreign country, you should be there to learn, not to teach,' he said with a straight face.
Humility is a lesson that Maltese have learnt over the years. And that, coupled with its wealth of heritage and culture, is something that will go a long way in putting this small Mediterranean country firmly on the world tourism map!
NATA Travel specialises in Maltese holidays
If you are planning a holiday to Malta, the UAE's NATA Travel & Tourism is on hand to offer specialist advice.
Described as a one-stop for all travel needs, the agency is located on the mezzanine level at Dusit Dubai hotel, it offers individual attention and tailor made programmes to suit every budget.
NATA Travel & Tourism is a specialist in travel to the Mediterranean island of Malta, an ideal stopover destination if en route from the Middle East to Europe or North Africa.
You can take advantage of the fact that it has Maltese consultants who can advise on your stay in Malta, whether it be for business or leisure. What's more, it has even negotiated special rates in the top hotels in Malta as well as car hire and tours.