By Lisa Vivirito
If you thought of Hawaii when you saw the title of this article, you're in the wrong part of the world. These islands lie at the heart of the Mediterranean. They feature year-round sun, stunning scenery and rich history influenced by many civilizations. These are the Maltese Islands, namely Malta, Gozo and Comino.
Malta's history dates back to 5000 B.C. when the first known inhabitants came from Sicily. In 4000 to 3000 B.C. megalithic temples were built. In 218 B.C., Malta formed part of the Roman Republic. St. Paul found himself shipwrecked on the island in 60 A.D. and began preaching Christianity.
The following year brought rule by the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, the Knights of St. John and the French, until 1800 when Malta became a British colony. It played a key role in World War II and was constantly under attack. After gaining its independence in 1964, it became a republic in 1974, and became a full member state of the European Union in 2004.
Malta can be reached from Florida with an eight-hour flight from Orlando through London's Gatwick airport and then a three hour flight to Malta. If your schedule is flexible, a good option is to spend time in London, or even an overnight.
Once arriving, Malta offers many choices of accommodations from quiet hideaways to five-star hotels.
Getting around Malta is easy. The best thing to do if you like to take things at your own pace is to rent a car. If you don't feel comfortable driving, many guided tours are available at various prices.
Another option is the public bus service. Most of Malta's towns and villages are connected to Valletta, the capital city, by bus. They usually leave and return to City Gate, the main bus terminal.
Just walking through Valletta, you'll come across a historical site around every corner. You'll see votive statues, niches, fountains and coats of arms high up on parapets.
One of the most historical monuments on the island is St. John's Co-Cathedral. Built between 1573 and 1577, Caravaggio's masterpiece, "Beheading of St. John," hangs on the Oratory.
St. Paul Shipwreck Church contains vault paintings by Attilio Palombi portraying episodes of the life of St. Paul. There also is a magnificent wooden statue of the apostle and two very important religious relics; a wrist bone of St. Paul, and a piece of the column on which he was beheaded.
Malta features many museums and historic sites, but the most impressive is probably the Hypogeum. The Hypogeum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a labyrinth of man-made chambers 11 meters underground.
Neolithic man carved out the Hypogeum between 3800 and 2500 B.C., using only antlers and stone picks as tools in semi-darkness. It appears to have been used as a burial site and temple. Many statuettes, amulets, figurines and vases were recovered there. The most famous, called Sleeping Lady, is a reclining figurine, thought to represent eternal sleep. It is on display at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.
Tours of the Hypogeum are limited to only 10 people per hour, 80 per day, so it is advisable to book reservations weeks in advance.
Dining in Malta is a pleasure, as al fresco is almost a daily possibility. You can choose from courtyards of baroque palazzos to harbor restaurants and café-bars. The island's cuisine is influenced by the people who have lived there, from the Arabs and Italians to the French and British. Malta also has several casinos for gaming as well as fine dining.
The island of Gozo is a 25-minute ferry ride away. Ferry service from Cirkewwa in north Malta to Mgarr in Gozo operates 24 hours for passengers and cars. Bus service is also available on Gozo.
Gozo is more rural and greener than Malta, and life moves at a slower pace. In winter and spring, the island is covered with flowering herbs and in summer with geraniums, oleander and bougainvillea. It has a rugged landscape and beautiful coastline. Pick one of its red sand beaches to swim or snorkel or dive. Gozo has some of the Mediterranean's best dive sites.
Gozo also has many historic sites, including one of the best preserved prehistoric temples, Ggantija.
Comino, the smallest island, is also a ferry ride away. The Comino Hotel (the only hotel on the island) runs a ferry service from Mgarr to Cirkewwa. It is free to hotel guests but there is a small charge to others. No cars are permitted on Comino, making it the perfect retreat. Named after the herb cumin, which was once grown there, its main attraction is the Blue Lagoon. Its aquamarine water over white sand is excellent for swimming and snorkeling.
The best time to visit these islands is May through October, but they're worth a visit any time of year.
Lisa Vivirito is owner of Diamond Travel in Vero Beach. Call her at 772-567-8481 or 800-795-1986. www.diamondtravelofvero.com