With fantastic views over Valletta and superb food, The Phoenicia is a luxury discovery in the heart of one of the Mediterranean’s less-travelled gems
Words Libby Norman
Tucked like a jewel in the Mediterranean, Malta is an archipelago of treasures – and we are here on a mission to experience one of its most iconic hotels. The Phoenicia has always been the hotel in the capital Valletta. It is famously where then Princess Elizabeth stayed when she first visited Malta. After painstaking renovation of this Art Deco gem and national monument, it has been reborn – phoenix like – under the keen eye of Campbell Gray Hotels.
After an easy flight (Malta is just three hours’ flying time from London), we are whisked from arrivals to hotel front door by The Phoenicia in under half an hour. And a very imposing entrance it is too with mellow limestone pillars lit by brilliant sunshine. Inside it’s all cool marble floors and elegant arches – a setting thoughtfully designed by its Scottish architect as a respite from the heat of the balmiest Mediterranean days.
Our room is luxurious without feeling overblown, decorated in crisp Mediterranean style, with elegant marble bathroom and a wrought iron balcony providing a bird’s eye view of the city below. An even bigger treat lies outside – the gardens here are spectacular. Stretching down from the hotel, they hug the bastion wall of Valletta and offer both shade and lush colour.
Right at the end we spot the amazing infinity swimming pool, definitely the coolest spot in the whole hotel. We return later so we can tread water and watch the boats below us in Marsamxett Harbour. During our stay here we spot two wedding parties happening around the grounds. These gardens are just made for an alfresco Mediterranean party.
One night we have reservations for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant The Phoenix and sit on the lovely terrace watching the sun go down. The food here is exceptional, locally sourced and with strong influences from Italy (Sicily is a short ferry ride away), but some local culinary traditions are sacrosanct and we enjoy an amuse bouche of rabbit and possibly one slice too many of the addictive sourdough-style Maltese bread.
Risotto starters consumed eagerly, I stick marine side for the main event, with local snapper. This is served with smoked almond and samphire, making it a divine ocean-infused experience. My companion has the pepper steak – something he never can resist – and it is served rare and perfectly matched to the side of chard and spinach.
Despite the two courses plus amuse bouche, we both manage a dessert – cardamom crème brûlée for me and Valrhona chocolate and orange tart for my companion. But after that, we really do need a promenade and set sail rather slowly from the hotel to explore the city after dark.
“The amazing infinity swimming pool overlooking the harbour is definitely the coolest spot in the whole hotel”
Valletta is buzzing, with a whole range of after-dark events taking place around the streets and squares. Thanks to the preparations for its year as European City of Culture in 2018, it’s also had a makeover since we were last here, with beautiful stonework and monuments refreshed and relit to reveal the beauty of the original mellow stone.
It still has the delightful jumble of picturesque stone houses with brightly painted balconies on streets leading down to the waterfront. These are not quite so delightful on the way back up those steep hills after one two many slices of delicious Maltese bread.
We take time to explore the city in daylight. Must-see sites include Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Order of St. John and with extraordinary Baroque interiors that almost require sunglasses thanks to the lavish gilding and artworks. For a more sombre tour The Malta at War Museum is a reminder of how this brave nation survived wartime privations and earned itself a George Cross for valour.
“Valletta is buzzing, with a whole range of events taking place around the streets and squares ”
One perfect thing about basing yourself in Valletta is that all roads lead into and out of the capital and the island is very easy to navigate. Buses are plentiful (although those much-photographed old Bedfords have been retired) and hiring a car is a breeze – especially for anyone used to driving on the left. From the delights of Mdina and Rabat, to picturesque local swimming spots, there are endless distractions. And if you have a little more time, the neighbouring island of Gozo is a wonderful daytrip. Lazy explorers can simply pick a streetside Valletta café to watch the life of the island going by.
From our infinity pool vantage point in the city’s finest hotel, we decide that Valletta really is a gem. And with a fantastically renovated Deco hotel right in the heart of the capital, it feels like a city just awaiting rediscovery by many more travellers in search of history, culture and perfect Mediterranean sunshine.