Malta Pre-trip to the Sicily & Malta Cruise Aboard the Sea Cloud Apr 29—May 03, 2017
Posted by Barry Lyon
Our 2017 cruise to Sicily & Malta aboard the Sea Cloud marked VENT’s first-ever visit to the island-nation of Malta. In actuality, the Malta portion of the cruise consisted of only a single night in the seaside community of St. Julians and much of the next day touring Valletta, the island capital. From a scouting trip that Victor and I conducted almost a year ago, we knew that Malta, despite its tiny size, offered an abundance of historical and natural attractions that warranted more time here than was available in the cruise program. It seemed a shame that our cruise participants could travel all the way to Malta and not be aware that with a few extra days here, their overall travel experience would be significantly richer. It was this feeling that guided our thinking in assembling the optional Malta Pre-trip.
The Birds & History theme that we employed for the cruise program extended to our activities in Malta. With most of three days at our disposal, we were able to cover an appreciable part of the island, witnessing landscapes, birds, and outstanding historic sites. On day one, the program delivered an immersive experience in Malta’s multi-layered history and architectural wonders, centering on the commercially and historically significant regions surrounding Valletta. The second day was dedicated entirely to birding, while the final day yielded a blend of history, birding, and sightseeing.
On the cultural front, our activities sampled different periods of Malta’s five-thousand-year human history. Our Two Harbors cruise and walking tour of Birgu in the Three Cities revealed Baroque architectural and artistic wonders that rivaled almost anything we would later see in Valletta. On the opposite side of the island, a tour of St. Paul’s Catacombs allowed an intimate look at the underground interment traditions that prevailed in the Punic, Roman, and early Christian eras, while time inside the walled city of Mdina showcased Arabic and Norman architectural styles of the city’s illustrious past. Our exquisite private tour of the nobility house, Palazzo Falson, was an experience not to be forgotten. Days later, our excursion to the Neolithic site of Hagar Qim proved one of the trip’s most fascinating activities, where we laid eyes on the world’s oldest free-standing stone structures: towering megalithic carvings erected over five thousand years ago. Finally, our trip to Marsasloxx Bay (with a stop en route to view the photogenic Blue Grotto) on the southeast coast revealed a modern and pleasing side of Malta, a place of quiet cathedrals, seaside promenades, open-air restaurants, and a gentle harbor with traditional painted fishing boats, or luzzu, at rest.
Despite Malta’s reputation as a place hazardous to birds, we enjoyed a wonderful day in the field. A number of important nature preserves have been set up (thanks to the efforts of Birdlife Malta) that provide sanctuary to migrating birds. A morning on a garrigue ridge above the community of Il-Manikata, and visits to two Birdlife Malta sites, Ghadira Nature Preserve and Foresta 2000, produced a delightful variety of birds including nine species of shorebirds, Greater Short-toed Lark, Whinchat, and Spotted Flycatcher among others. In the afternoon, a trip to Buskett Garden on the grounds of Verdala Palace revealed a lovely oasis of running water and tall shade trees. Highlights from our time here included sightings of Sardinian and Cetti’s warblers, European Pied Flycatcher, and European Robin.