For a gentle holiday with lots of sun, crystal clear seas and a few surprising twists, Amy Hopkins discovers that the charming archipelago of Malta deserves to be on your list
People tend to think of Malta as a place for package holidays or retirement breaks – that is, if they think of it at all. But beyond Malta's sunshine beaches is a country with a fascinating history, rich culture and surprisingly quirky ways for families to have fun. Temperatures in Malta can reach a blistering 42 °C in summer months, so spring and autumn are sensible times to take the kids. May half term is ideal, when it's typically in the mid-twenties, the beaches are uncrowded and the island’s fields are still a patchwork of green.
The small town of Mellieha in Malta’s northern region is safe and quiet, and therefore a smart choice for families. Its cobbled streets are lined with honey-coloured houses, bustling gift shops and restaurants serving enormous pizzas. Maritim Antoine Hotel & Spa in the centre of Mellieha is a 15-minute walk or short bus ride from Malta’s longest, sandy beach. Rooms are spacious and bright, and the refreshing rooftop pool provides the perfect place to cool off after a busy day exploring.
Malta’s food is an eclectic mix of Mediterranean cuisines, thanks to the country’s complicated history. It only takes one taste to became addicted to pastizzis, the Cornish pasty-like treats filled with ricotta or mushy peas, that glean in bakery windows all over the island. A must for families of foodies is a meal at Tarragon restaurant in St Paul’s Bay in the north, where dishes make entrances so theatrical they would make Heston proud. The salted sea bass is flambéed and expertly filleted at the table, while salmon arrives with great fanfare before being smoked with an elaborate pipe. Visit Tarragon as the sun is setting over the water to tuck into perfectly seasoned fish while the sky turns a soft pink (although the kids are bound to find the flaming sea bass much more enchanting than the view).
Two miles from Mellieha is the picturesque Anchor Bay cove where Popeye, the 1980 film starring Robin Williams, was filmed. Remarkably, the film set is still intact today, and whether you’re a fan of the famous sailor-man or not, it is well worth making your way down the steep hill to visit Popeye’s Village. The set is now an open air museum-come-theme park, although to avoid sulks it is a good idea to warn the kids in advance that there are no rides.
The fun of this attraction is in strolling through the brightly coloured pop-up village, exploring the rustic buildings and stopping to watch the enthusiastic live shows put on by Popeye, Olive and Bluto. Kids will have a ball dressing up and re-enacting scenes from Popeye amid howls of laughter, before attending a special screening of their very own movie and buying the DVD for £5. There is also a comic book museum and a boat ride, and new in the park for 2015 are a wine bar and an ice-cream shop (where the signature ice-cream is the dubiously named Popeye’s Floater).
The unexpected joy of Popeye’s Village is that your ticket gives you access to Anchor Bay beach. When the kids tire of the attractions, head down to the sand with ice-creams and complimentary glasses of Popeye’s Punch (for grown ups). Spend a happy hour gazing out over the glassy ocean, watching red diving floats bobbing on the surface and looking out for the occasional splash of a black flipper.
Malta’s other kid-magnet is the Playmobil Fun Park. As the island’s only indoor play area, it is Godsend for those days when temperatures soar. A factory tour is available for anyone over four years. Walk up and down the assembly lines, watching the mesmerising robot arms picking up plastic heads, bodies and arms and assembling little people at a rate of one every 1.5 seconds. Playmobil figures have not changed since the 1970s apart from the addition of moveable hands, so the little plastic faces are guaranteed to kindle a nostalgic fondness in parents. For anyone who played with Playmobil as a child, a tour inside the factory will reignite your love for the smiley plastic world, and when you leave via the gift shop, you'll wish you’d brought a bigger suitcase.
On a hill in the centre of Malta is the medieval walled city of Mdina, the most coveted postcode on the island. Only 300 people live within her stone walls, but hundreds of tourists pour out of coaches every day. Visit in the evening after the tour groups have left to discover how Mdina came to be nicknamed the ‘silent city’. No cars are allowed in the town and apart from the occasional bell on a horse-drawn carriage, the streets are blissfully quiet.
Kids love chasing each other through Mdina’s snaking streets, some of which are so narrow you can touch the walls on either side with outstretched arms. There are plenty of tour guides on hand, only too eager to show you around. If you can find him, look out for Darren Azzopardi, whose detailed knowledge and mischievous grin bring the old town alive. Weave with your guide through Mdina’s maze of Norman and Baroque buildings, past the city's cloistered monastery that is home to 11 nuns who never leave the building. There are endless routes through Mdina, but be sure to stop for excellent cake and lemonade at Fontanella Tea Room to enjoy the cool breeze and spectacular views over the island.
Ask any local and they will proudly tell you that Malta is home to some of the best scuba diving spots in the world. The Orange Shark H2O Diving Centre at Golden Bay is a great choice for beginners, whether kids or adults. A painted shark looms large on the side of the building, an unsettling site for any first-timers, but Orange Shark's friendly drive instructors, with their sun bleached hair and easy attitude, soon put the class at ease.
All kids from eight years old can do the Bubble Maker at Orange Shark, a fun course where little ones swim in very shallow water and breathe underwater using special kids scuba gear. Children as young as ten can try proper scuba diving, but the instructors make their decisions on a case-by-case basis. It has as much to do with the child’s emotional maturity as it does with their confidence as a swimmer. Orange Shark is set up to get people through their PADI Open Water Dive certificate. Training kicks off with a series of videos. Sitting in a hot, stuffy classroom with sounds of the sea and people’s laughter drifting in from the beach outside is excruciating, but only makes pupils more eager to pass the written tests and get out there.
A couple of hours after arriving at Orange Shark you'll be zipped in wetsuits with heavy oxygen tanks strapped to your backs and waddling ungracefully into the sea. A first breath underwater is something no one forgets. Even at the paltry depth of five metres, Malta's underwater world is magical. Not everyone completes their PADI on the first attempt, but there's no need to be disappointed - it's the perfect excuse to come back to the island.