The tiny islands of Malta and Gozo pack a lot in - great diving, ancient temples, historic buildings, gorgeous food and a string of vineyards. And with temperatures staying in the 20s during November, the Mediterranean island is the perfect getaway for some winter sun, without having to fly half way around the world.
Starter for 10: Malta
In Malta, all roads lead to Valletta, so it's the ideal base for a holiday. Check out the Phoenicia Hotel, built into the bastion walls of the capital and overlooking the Grand Harbour. Dating from the 1930s, and visited by the then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, the five-star hotel is still decorated in art deco style, but with a luxury overhaul. Prices start from £65 per person per night, based on two sharing.
If you'd like something a little more boutique, it's hard to beat the Valletta G House, a stunning restored 16th century home. Rates start at £75 per night, with a minimum stay of seven nights. And its new sister property in nearby Vittoriosa is the aptly named Indulgence Divine, another 16th century house restored to a funky stylish apartment. Rates start at £99 per night, with a minimum stay of seven nights.
While there's plenty to occupy you above ground, Malta has been voted Europe's top dive destination so don't miss the chance to check out its underwater delights. Ideal for beginners as well as experienced divers, there's sites all around the island and on neighbouring Gozo and Comino, so if bad weather puts one off limits there's almost guaranteed to be another sheltered cove. The season lasts from Spring to December as the water stays warm into the winter.
Home to some fascinating wrecks, including some in the harbour at Sliema and Manoel Island, opposite Valletta, there's also coral reefs, octopus and seahorses to spot at Cirkewwa in the north of the island, as well as the stunning turquoise lagoon on uninhabited Comino. For dive instructors and lessons, contact Maltaqua dive school in St Paul's Bay.
Despite its size, Malta has plenty to see – and the best way is on the iconic yellow buses which slowly ply the twisty island roads from the beaches of Mellieha in the north to the stunning fishing village of Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-shlock) in the south. With many dating from the 40s and 50s, the classic Bedford and Leyland buses will soon be phased out, as the Maltese would prefer air conditioning and decent suspension to these stylish dinosaurs.
Stop off at Mdina, the former capital in the centre of the island. Now closed to most traffic, the walled fortress is a haven of peace to wander through, so enjoy eyeing up 700-year-old palazzos belonging to the Maltese nobility and getting lost in the narrow alleys dating back to the Arab occupation in the ninth century. Or head to Mosta and the church of St Mary. Topped by one of the largest unsupported domes in the world, it's best known for surviving a Second World War raid where one bomb pierced the dome, bounced into the congregation at mass but failed to explode.
Every year millions visit the Pyramids. But despite being several millennia older, the chances are you'll have the temples on Malta and Gozo to yourself. The megalithic ruins at Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija are thought to have been built by immigrants from Sicily, although as with Stonehenge, there's plenty of debate about why these enormous stones with their intricate carvings were erected. There's limited information at the sites themselves, so stop off at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta to fill in some of the background, and marvel at the tiny carved fertility statues known as the fat ladies.
But the jewel in Malta's archaeological crown is the Hypogeum, a Unesco World Heritage site and the only prehistoric underground temple in the world. Consisting of rooms and passages cut out of the rock, the complex covers around 500 square metres, over three levels, with the oldest dating back to 3600BC. The site is open to a maximum of 80 people per day and tickets get booked up very quickly, so reserve yours online as early as possible at www.heritagemalta.org. Adult tickets cost around £17.50.
Explore the grid of cobbled streets that make up Valletta, with its steep steps leading up from the Grand Harbour to the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Try to time your arrival to the gardens for noon, when they fire the midday gun – and hope the wind isn't blowing in the wrong direction, as you'll be guaranteed a coating of fine powder as well as a breathtaking view to the harbour.
Built in the 16th century by the Knights of St John, it was designed as a fortress to protect against the Turks, and as you walk through the streets, you're taking in centuries of history including the auberges, or palaces of the knights themselves. Stop off at the Grand Master's Palace, now home to the Maltese government, and marvel at the two Caravaggios on display in the gold and marble St John's co-Cathedral.
St Julian's Bay, near Valletta, has always been one of the more sophisticated parts of Malta, so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to see the celebrity photos decorating Peppino's restaurant. Visited by Brad Pitt, Madonna and Daniel Craig, the seafront restaurant itself may seem more traditional than glam but the food would more than satisfy an A-lister – crispy baby octopus and local lampuki, a light white fish, are just a few of the treats.
Rabbit is the traditional Maltese dish while seafood is good across the island, so you shouldn't be stuck for choice. Further north, Tarragon in the small town of St Paul's is worth the drive, with tables overlooking the bay and a twist on the standard options, including octopus carpaccio and black tiger prawns in champagne tempura or yellow-fin tuna.
There's clubs aplenty in Paceville and Bugibba, Malta's package holiday centres, but for something funky and a bit more unusual, you have to search slightly harder, even in Valletta. So stop in at 222 – pronounced two twenty two – set in a former grain store in the bastion walls. The bar is upstairs, looking out to the city, while music videos are projected onto the back wall.
But don't leave the island without trying some of the local drinks – as well as love-it-or-hate-it herbal soft drink Kinnie, Malta also produces wine. After years of dubious vintages, the Maltese have upped their game, and you can now visit their vineyards, as well as trying the end product. If you don't fancy traipsing off to the wineries themselves, the bars at the Fortina Spa hotel have a good range.
The island is most famous for its glass, but watch out for stunning filigree jewellery in Malta's shops, as well as some unexpected treasures as you wander the side streets in Valletta. To find everything in one place, and experience possibly the most unusual shopping centre in Europe, head to Ta' Qali.
The crafts village is based in wartime Nissen huts, with everything from touristy pottery trinkets to silver, leather, lace and knitwear, as well as the chance to watch the glass blowers and other craftsmen at work as you wander from hut to hut. If you don't have a car, buses run from Rabat, Sliema and Valletta, although there's a walk from the bus stop to the village itself. Opening hours vary from shop to shop but most are open between 9am and 4pm.
The pace of life on Malta may seem utterly laid-back, but even the Maltese need to relax – so they head to Gozo, which is even more chilled out than its sister island. Like Malta in mini, there's the prehistoric temples of Ggantija as well as the fortified citadel of Victoria, also known as Rabat. Climb up to the walls for incredible views out over the island.
The fishing village of Marsalforn is a great spot for lunch, or the picturesque village of San Lawrenz, dominated by its huge baroque church, still a major force in Maltese and Gozitan culture. Where the Gozitans go to relax is a mystery – although it's possible that life on Gozo is as relaxed as it gets! Ferries between the islands take around 25 minutes, running from Cirkewwa in Malta to Mgarr on Gozo. Fares for foot passengers cost around £4 return.
EasyJet flies to Malta direct from Belfast, Liverpool, London Gatwick, Manchester and Newcastle from £27.99 one-way, including taxes.
Air Malta flies from 12 UK and Irish destinations, with flights costing from around £130 return, including taxes. And Ryanair flies from Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Luton. Flights cost from around £45 return.
Most major car rental firms have offices at Malta's airport. Traffic drives on the left, as in the UK, but do take care as Maltese drivers can be erratic.
Malta is home to the Isle of MTV festival during June, although no date is confirmed for 2011, while the villages all mark their saint's day with a traditional Maltese festa. With a church for each day of the year, there's almost certain to be a celebration somewhere during your visit.
The Traditional Food and Festa fair takes place on November 13, while the Festival of Maltese Games is on November 14 in Vittoriosa. Visit www.visitmalta.com/events for the most up to date information.