A spectacular blaze of fireworks will mark the anniversary of Malta's independence this weekend. The 2014 celebration is particularly significant: it is 50 years since the Maltese flag was ceremoniously raised at the Independence Arena in the town of Floriana, and Britain relinquished control of the little cluster of Mediterranean islands it had occupied since 1800.
Remnants of the British era are still visible: blue lights outside police stations; red pillar boxes, many bearing Queen Victoria's cypher; air raid shelters and signs such as Victory Kitchen, which serve as reminders of islanders' hardship and heroism during the Second World War – after which Malta was awarded the George Cross by George VI.
The British were the last in a very long line of occupying forces that variously left their mark on this group of three strategically important islands between Continental Europe and North Africa. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, and French also battled over the islands and governed here, leaving a fabulously rich legacy. More glorious still is the heritage of the Knights of St John, an aristocratic military order that was ceded the islands in 1530 and ruled for the ensuing 250 years, giving its name to the magnificent St John's Co-Cathedral in the capital, Valletta.
Covering an area that would comfortably fit within the perimeter of the M25, the eponymous main island of Malta holds the lion's share of monuments and tangible emblems of history. The chief draw is astonishingly handsome Valletta. Its honey-coloured fortifications – built by the Knights and extended by the British – rise high over a wide natural harbour and are strikingly juxtaposed by Renzo Piano's new city gateway and parliament building, completed earlier this year.
Malta in pictures
Malta in pictures
Headwater has a seven night biking and walking trip on Gozo (Headwater)
St Julian's, on the west coast ofMalta island
Ferries take 25 minutes to Gozo from Malta island
Gozo Villa Rentals have this traditional old farmhouse sleeping eight
Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa
St John's Co-Cathedral
Sea view: Blue Lagoon
There's plenty more to see elsewhere. Visit the impressively well-preserved megalithic burial chambers of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, now somewhat implausibly in a suburb of Valletta that has grown around it; or the Roman catacombs near Rabat and the exquisite walled city of Mdina, once the stronghold of Arab rulers.
In contrast to the sense of densely packed history and the urban bustle of Malta, tiny Comino island, a pin-prick of 2.7sq km, is for the most part uninhabited. A rocky nature reserve, it sits above the turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon, which is a snorkeller's paradise.
Across the lagoon lies the isle of Gozo, about the size of Guernsey. Gozo remains something of a rural retreat: a sleepy island with splendid coastal landscapes, medieval towns and megalithic temples. Or at least it was until about a month ago; since August it's also been home to a flurry of Hollywood activity. Mgarr ix-Xini beach, a small, crescent bay surrounded by steep valley walls, is currently awash with cameramen and sound recordists as newlyweds Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have a working honeymoon, making By the Sea, a film written and directed by Jolie.
The Hollywood stars have chosen a great time to be in Malta. The holiday crowds have departed and the searing summer heat has passed. Temperatures tend to remain agreeably high until the end of October. Yet for all the optimum conditions, there are still plenty of well-priced packages on offer. Departing Gatwick on 30 September, Thomson (0871 230 2555; thomson.co.uk) has a week's half-board at the Mellieha Bay hotel, by the long stretch of Mellieha beach. The price of £302 per person, based on two sharing, includes flights from Gatwick, transfers and 15kg of baggage. On 7 October, Thomas Cook (0844 412 5970; thomascook.com) has a week on Malta for £329, including flights from Manchester and bed-and-breakfast accommodation at the Sunflower Hotel on St Paul's Bay. Transfers and baggage are extra. In mid November, amid more variable weather, the same package is available for £193.
To view the 'Independent Traveller' film, 48 Hours in Malta, visit bit.ly/48Malta
On the cultural trail, there's a tremendous legacy of the arts in Malta, most notably thanks to the Knights of St John. For a brief period they were patrons of Caravaggio: in 1607 they gave sanctuary to the hot-headed artist, who fled here after killing a man in a brawl in Rome. He completed two commissions for the Knights – "The Beheading of St John" and "St Jerome Writing", both of which hang in St John's Co-Cathedral – before being imprisoned for causing trouble. The Knights were no doubt relieved when he subsequently escaped from Malta.
Ace Cultural Tours (01223 841055; aceculturaltours.co.uk) runs popular Caravaggio trips. This autumn's tour is full, but bookings for next autumn start soon: £2,670pp including flights, accommodation and excursions. Or hone your painting skills with Authentic Adventures (01453 823 328; authenticadventures.co.uk) which has seven-night Gozo group trips from £1,129pp including B&B accommodation, most meals and five days' painting tuition. Flights are extra.
Join the party
The islands' most happening venues are the resorts of Sliema and St Julian's on the west coast of Malta island.
There's no beach to speak of at either (for sandy shores head north, particularly to Golden Bay and Mellieha Bay) but there's plenty in the way of entertainment and watersports. Accommodation options in Sliema include the airy, nautically themed Waterfront Hotel (00 356 20 906899; waterfronthotelmalta.com) overlooking the promenade and bay and with double rooms costing from €94 in October.
Over at St Julian's the impressively upscale Westin Dragonara (00 356 21 381000; westinmalta.com) offers extensive facilities and grounds as well as easy access to a host of restaurants and clubs on the doorstep.
Prestige Holidays (01425 480400; prestigeholidays.co.uk/malta) is currently offering a week here from £899pp B&B, including flights from Gatwick, and transfers.
Get away from it all
Do as the locals from Malta Island do and rent a farmhouse on Gozo. The choice varies widely, from grand old houses with swimming pools to simple, rustic retreats.
Among the options presented by Gozo Villa Rentals (084 510 8242; gozovillarentals.com) is a traditional old farmhouse sleeping eight near the village of Kercem, about 10 minutes from the coast and a short drive from the main town of Victoria. It costs from £431 for a week during September and October.
Or head to the village of San Lawrenz, where Alley Way, a traditional Gozitan farmhouse with two bedrooms and a swimming pool, costs from €120 per night during September and October.
Take an autumn activity break that makes the most of Gozo's dramatic scenery, from spectacular cliffs to tidal salt pans.
Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) offers an independent walking holiday here, based at the charming, family-run San Andrea hotel near Victoria, with walking routes provided for self-guided day trips.
The break costs from £495pp, including B&B accommodation, several meals, and transport from Malta's airport. Flights are extra.
You can also strike out on two wheels. Headwater (01606 827145; headwater.com) has a seven-night biking and walking trip on Gozo, following mule tracks and country lanes to take in ancient temples, baroque churches, and plenty of wild seascapes.
The cost from £1,208pp includes B&B accommodation at Gozo's two finest hotels – the Ta Cenc and the Kempinski San Lawrenz; luggage transfers; map kit and notes; bike hire and transport from Malta airport. Flights cost extra.
Grace and glamour
There's a fine choice of accommodation for those aiming high. For old-world style head to the heart of Malta island to the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa (00 356 21 440301; corinthia.com) where doubles cost from €175 a night including breakfast. It sits in leafy splendour next to the President's palace and is one of the oldest and most established places to stay on the islands.
Elsewhere, chic, boutique, if eye-wateringly expensive accommodation includes the Prince d'Orange (00 356 21 231099; palazzoprincemalta.com) a sumptuous range of serviced apartments in a beautifully converted 17th-century palazzo in central Valetta with double rooms at €350 per night, (minimum stay, three nights).
Alternatively, for superb baroque style check in to the Xara Palace (00 356 21 450560; xarapalace.com.mt) in Mdina. It has just 17 rooms from €260 a night. Or take a package – among the range of Malta breaks offered by Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com) is a three-night trip including flights from Gatwick, private transfers and B&B accommodation at the Xara Palace from £899 per person.
Book by 11pm on Sunday, 21 September, and Air Malta (0906 103 0012; airmalta.com) is offering low fares from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester between November and July. British Airways, easyJet, Monarch and Ryanair also offer services to Malta from a wide range of UK airports.
Ferries take 25 minutes to Gozo from Malta island; Gozo Channel Co (00 356 21 556114; gozochannel.com). Foot passengers €4.65, southbound only.
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