Malta is like Sylvester Stallone in the early stages of his career: hot and rocky. Rock, in fact, is Malta's greatest natural resource, a close second being small men who tell terrible jokes. From the air, the island looks in places like a giant chequerboard riddled with deep, square quarries - and sometimes, as a brakeless rattletrap peels past your wobbly hire car on a blind bend, you glance to your side and realise that the road itself is balanced on a strip with drops of hundreds of feet an either side.

Malta is not the place for nervous car passengers. But if you are kinky for crumbling civilisations, it is one of the world's best spots, having been settled by most of the important peoples who made it to the Mediterranean. While ancient Britons dollied around with mistletoe, the Maltese were building the awesome temples of Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, Ggantja and Tarxien, plus dozens of lesser sites which make Stonehenge look like a semi-detached. The Phoenicians left boats, cart ruts and noble noses. The Romans left olives, irrigation, the odd villa and the odd road (none of which seems to have been mended since). The Arabs, apart from regularly depopulating neighbouring Gozo for the slave trade, left a lot of their language and many traces of interior decor.

Much of Malta is not picturesque. It has considerable charm if eccentricity is your bag, but cute it ain't. There simply is not room on an island one-sixth the size of Greater London to tuck everything away neatly. Old fridges jostle inside farm walls with brightly painted shrines to Our Lady. A bacon factory sits next to an old mosque. People splosh around on pedalos in the shadow of container ships.

And yet Malta is heaven. Every village has a church that would be considered in the same breath as a cathedral here. And Valletta has everything: great churches, tiny staircases, dark places where the sun never reaches and grand squares where it never goes away. Girolamo Cassar's cathedral of St John, built by Turkish slaves between 1574 and 1577, is one of the most spectacular in the world, its floor covered with 200 mosaic grave slabs depicting death in all his skeletal glory, and Caravaggios lurking in a tiny chancel museum. From the Upper Barracca Gardens you can see the Grand Harbour, one of the largest in Europe, the three cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua piled up on spurs behind Grand Master de la Valette's spectacular bastions, built in anticipation of a second attack by Suleiman's troops and which eventually held fast against Hitler's. Dghajsas (pronounced dhowsa) - tiny boats steered like gondolas - bob on the water, their hulls painted with Phoenician eyes to ward off ill-luck.

Mdina, too, the ancient walled capital in the centre of the island, is a gem. In this silent city of magnificent iron doorways, nothing seems to move. Legislation says that only native Maltese can buy property there: this is where the little old ladies in black live. From a restaurant on the battlements you can see north to the dome of Mosta (where a bomb hit during mass in 1942 and skidded up the central aisle to land unexploded under the altar) and St Paul's Bay, where Paul landed and converted the population (and where most of the tourists land up now). To the west is Cirkewwa, where the ferry departs for Gozo (26 square miles of yet more ancient history). To the south, the forest of Buskett, a pleasure garden planted by the Knights of St John for Verdala Palace, where the Maltese falcon was bred as peppercorn rent to Charles V. And further south, the land tips suddenly over the Dingli cliffs, a spectacular drop dotted with (still inhabited) troglodyte dwellings from which you can see the uninhabited sacred island of Filfla. Kraken myths abound, and in the deep waters around it a decade ago a lone fisherman accidentally hooked a great white shark. He promptly had a heart attack, but survived, which is more than the shark did. The story survived as well. Everywhere you go, people tell it as though it happened yesterday. Well, history matters to the Maltese.

How to get there

Air Malta (0181-785 3177) flies from five UK airports to Malta. Off- peak fares from Gatwick and Heathrow start at pounds 182 including tax from 16 September onwards. Provincial departures cost an extra pounds 10 from Birmingham, pounds 20 from Manchester and pounds 30 from Glasgow.

An Air Malta subsidiary, Belleair Holidays (0181-785 3266), undercuts these fares significantly and has special deals such as pounds 99 flying Air Malta from Gatwick on 30 August for one week. A more usual price is pounds 149 return from London.

Maltatours Direct (0171-821 7000) has seven-night packages for pounds 209 in September.

Who to ask

Malta Tourist Office, 36-38 Piccadilly, London W1V 0PP (0171-292 4900).

Ride a fishing boat from Wied iz-Zurieq round the cliffs to the Blue Grotto (roughly pounds 5). Afterwards, lie on the rocks gazing at the mist on Filfla.

Visit Popeye Village, the set of the Robin Williams film - rather more interesting than the film.

Eat pea-cakes (pastizzi) and drink Lachryma Vitis wine at La Fontanella restaurant on Mdina's battlements while the sun sets over the island.

Visit Hagar Qim: twice the size and complexity of Stonehenge. You still occasionally find small offerings in libation holes.

Get into water sports at Golden Bay. Thrills include water-skiing, wet-biking, being tossed at high speed off the sea sausage.

Find a village festa and mingle. Fun includes the emergence of the saint in question from the church, played out by a brass band.