Warm, empty and free from Covid hysteria – Malta is worth the two-week quarantine

James Litston
·5 min read
In the Maltese archipelago it still feels very much like summer - getty
In the Maltese archipelago it still feels very much like summer - getty

October in Britain is marked by misty mornings and falling leaves, but here in the Maltese archipelago it still feels very much like summer. The sun’s beating down on a blue-sky day, the temperature is in the mid-twenties and there’s a refreshing breeze blowing in off the sea. But most captivating of all right now is the water: all dazzling cobalt with patches of sapphire that lend this place its name, Blue Lagoon. 

It’s no surprise that this lovely spot is a magnet for sun-seeking visitors. Boats come and go from Malta and Gozo, disgorging their passengers here on Comino until – ordinarily at least – the bay’s small beach becomes busier than a rush-hour station. But this is not an ordinary year. Sure, there are plenty of people but the boats are nowhere near capacity and the sea is not its usual soup of tourists. There’s even space to sit on the shore in a socially distanced manner. I imagine that there couldn’t be a better time to visit. 

Normally at this time of year the season should be tailing off, but already the flow of tourists has dramatically dried up. We all know the reason why. After almost eliminating its own Covid outbreak earlier in the year, the re-opening of Malta’s airport in July saw cases reappear. These were fanned by a string of parties and festivals into a spike in infections that subsequently saw Denmark, Italy and a host of other countries impose restrictions on travellers arriving from Malta. For the UK – which accounts for a quarter of Malta’s visitors – this second wave prompted the islands’ removal from the list of “safe” destinations, requiring returning holidaymakers to quarantine for 14 days. 

The impact of all this has been tangible. “The season has been a disaster,” says one of the crew on the way back from Blue Lagoon. “All over Malta we are suffering from the lack of business.” Then, knowing that I face quarantine when I get home, he adds, “Thank you for coming!”

Hotels too are struggling. Properties at this time of year should be at least 80 per cent full, but occupancy figures for most are languishing in the 20s. Some have already closed for the season. But those that keep going have readily adopted practices to keep guests and staff safe. I’m staying at The Phoenicia, where the mood remains defiantly buoyant, with socially distanced sun-loungers and pared-back in-room facilities among the strategies in place for corona compliance. 

“Since lockdown ended, we’ve gradually staggered the reopening of services,” says Pat Vella, one of the hotel’s management team. “We’re just about to recommence our popular weekend brunch, but the big news is the launch of our Deep Nature spa – a new health and fitness facility. Of course for the time being we’re only offering a limited range of treatments and a reservation system is in place for workout slots, but the opening is a sign of our confidence in being on top of the situation.”

The Phoenicia, where the mood remains defiantly buoyant - JAMES MCDONALD
The Phoenicia, where the mood remains defiantly buoyant - JAMES MCDONALD

The Phoenicia is perfectly placed beside the gates of Valletta, the Maltese capital, which puts it within steps of – but politely set back from – the city’s gentle buzz. Wandering its atmospheric, 16th-century streets is a joy in the absence of tourist crowds. Besides mandatory face masks and hand-sanitising stations at shops and restaurants, day-to-day life here feels as normal as I can remember, with none of the hysteria that’s come to dominate Britain’s coronavirus response. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasure to get back for relaxed afternoons beside the Phoenicia’s infinity pool, whose polished stone deck closely matches the colour of the centuries-old bastion walls towering above it.  

Later, I ask Charlo the concierge for local recommendations. “At the moment, there’s no problem securing reservations even at the most popular restaurants,” he says. “The same is true of attractions: the Hypogeum [a prehistoric burial site] generally has to be booked months in advance, but there have been so many cancellations that we can most likely get guests in at short notice.”

Afternoon tea at the hotel - JAMES MCDONALD
Afternoon tea at the hotel - JAMES MCDONALD

Widespread cancellations are also a feature at Qawra, my next stop. Located in the north of the island and part of Malta’s biggest built-up resort, the area is known for inexpensive hotels and holiday apartments, which makes it particularly popular with sun-baked British retirees. Here I check into Il-Palazzin, a perfectly pleasant three-star set a block back from the promenade that skirts the rocky shore. It should be running at almost full occupancy, but a slew of group cancellations means I’m rattling around practically alone. 

I spend a few days here oscillating between swims in the cool, clear sea and lazy lunches at beachfront kiosk overlooking Qawra Point. It’s here though that I get to witness one of Malta’s less appealing elements: rampant (and often illegal) bird-hunting. Being located squarely on the Central Mediterranean Flyway, the islands are a vital staging post for birds migrating between Europe and Africa, yet Maltese hunters and trappers kill or capture some 200,000 of them annually. 

Qawra Point - getty
Qawra Point - getty

On several mornings, I see hunters shooting shorebirds on Qawra Point that – in contravention of regulations – they had attracted within range using electronic bird-callers. They’re among the 12,000 licensed hunters and 4,000 registered trappers that give Malta the dubious distinction of having the Mediterranean’s highest density of bird-hunting.

It’s the only sour note of my trip. Qawra may not offer the most sophisticated of beach breaks, but having fallen into a chilled-out routine (and with the rain tipping down back in London) the laid-back pace of this summer extension is something I very much appreciate.

When it’s finally time to check out, I thank the receptionist for an enjoyable stay. “See you next year,” she says cheerfully, before a hint of a frown flashes over her face as she looks around the empty lobby. “Hopefully,” she adds, “we’ll still be here.”

Accommodation (including breakfast) at The Phoenicia costs from €130 per night, or from €60 at Il-Palazzin. Further information: visitmalta.com, birdlifemalta.org.