The Daily Telegraph - Travel

‘Malta’s best address in the making’

BEST HOTEL The new Iniala Harbour House hotel is among the jewels luring the world’s wealthy to this island, says John O’Ceallaigh

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It is rare, these days, to feel that all is right with the world, but I came close to believing it could once again be so during my first golden hour in Valletta. In early June I escaped to Malta’s dainty capital, my first time venturing beyond British shores this year.

Over sundowners on the roof terrace of the newly opened Iniala Harbour House hotel, I looked beyond the gleaming superyacht­s and bobbing boats in the Grand Harbour and towards the ancient Three Cities. Under a cloudless sky, the settlement­s’ honeyed stone radiated dusk’s amber light; cooled by a sea breeze, from my eyrie, my Tom Collins cocktail really hit the spot. This, I suddenly remembered, is what a holiday is meant to be like.

At the time, I was optimistic that many others would soon follow in my footsteps. Everyone expected Malta to be added to the UK’s green list the next day, but it took three more weeks before the next review brought this long-awaited good news, meaning no more quarantine and less testing on return from much-needed summer holidays.

It was good news that turned out to be short-lived, for some, as despite Malta reportedly having become the first country in the EU to reach herd immunity by vaccinatin­g some 70 per cent of its population, it subsequent­ly decided to grant entry only to those who are fully vaccinated, including 12 to 17-year-olds, thereby excluding many families and younger people.

Before this, I had only been to Malta once – nine months previously, to visit my brother who had already lived there for eight years. The island, I had thought, was a place of cheap, allinclusi­ve fly ’n’ flops. That is not necessaril­y wrong, but I found the country offers so much more besides.

Similarly unaware of the country’s clout or cultural capital when he first visited eight years ago, the Manchester-born proprietor of Iniala Harbour House and general hotel obsessive Mark Weingard was so won over by the place that he decided to make Valletta his home.

Back then the capital was dilapidate­d, forsaken and lifeless, but Weingard saw something of the grandeur of Venice in its 16th-century foundation­s and felt potential was ripe. He snapped up properties for a song, precipitat­ing a broader appreciati­on for the area that culminated in an explosion in the number of bars, restaurant­s and boutique hotels.

One of Malta’s most passionate ambassador­s, Weingard feels the capital and country have been sorely underestim­ated and is now on a mission to lure the kind of privileged travellers who more commonly holiday in his celebrated Iniala Beach House resort in Phuket, or along the Cote d’Azur, to this tiny speck of land beneath Sicily. Years in the making, his recently opened 23-bed hotel will be one of his key means of enticing them. Ultimately he wants it to be known both as Malta’s best address and as one of the most prestigiou­s hotels in the entire Mediterran­ean.

It certainly makes a positive first impression. Spread over four grand old Maltese townhouses, the property has been meticulous­ly renovated and given a no-expense-spared aesthetic overhaul overseen by Istanbul interior design studio Autoban. That interplay between age-old original features and modern additions is visible and beautiful throughout. Suspended from the renovated cupola like a scribble, a starburst of pinprick lights illuminate­s the grand stairwell.

One suite features an “infinity balcony”, a glass-framed adaptation of Malta’s traditiona­l timber-framed variety; another suite’s ceiling is covered in slabs of hand-carved Maltese stone, that same gleaming gold seen throughout the Three Cities.

There is more besides. A forthcomin­g complement to the hotel’s fancy gym, subterrane­an Iniala Spa and its pool will open in August; while at lauded rooftop restaurant ION – the Harbour, Alex Dilling, the former executive chef of Mayfair’s two-Michelinst­arred the Greenhouse, has just taken up residency and is showcasing some of the most advanced and deliciousl­y multifacet­ed cuisine to be found in the country.

For first-time visitors, the hotel’s staff can arrange tailored tours of the city, perhaps organising an underwater photograph­y workshop or a charter of the hotel’s Iniala Spirit, a sophistica­ted 44ft Riva rivarama yacht that can deftly glide to Comino island’s Blue Lagoon, where the shallow waters glisten the most staggering­ly brilliant Maldivian turquoise.

I made that trip myself one whitehot Friday, jumping from the boat into glassy waters. Earlier I had toured the villages and churches of the neighbouri­ng island of Gozo aboard a convoy of electricit­y-powered tuktuks. Later I visited the recently opened Maltese outpost of Monaco’s Beefbar beach club, where gym-fit and rich 20-somethings might splurge on the Kobe beef prosciutto (€48) or the “iconic” truffle pizza with Wagyu (€32). The manager told me the average spend per head is €185.

To fit in, I arrived at the premises in suitably ostentatio­us fashion aboard the 141ft superyacht Lady in Blue. Costing from €75,000 per week, it is available to charter through recently founded Carblu Malta. Although 2020 was a bad year to launch the business, its founder Jamie Houston says the world’s wealthy are becoming wise to the allure of Malta. As if to prove the point, upon returning to the Grand Harbour I caught sight of Pegasus VIII, a mammoth superyacht belonging to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

I observed the vessel once more during a final dinner on the terrace at ION – the Harbour, where chef Dilling told me he was especially excited about making use of Malta’s excellent seafood, presenting oyster bavarois with a cuttlefish vinaigrett­e, and red snapper with Iberico ham and truffle. The sommelier waxed lyrical about the cellar’s superb Mediterran­ean wine collection.

ION was awarded a Michelin star within six months of opening, in doing becoming the capital’s third starred restaurant, an impressive ratio in a city of just 6,000 people and further affirmatio­n that an invigorate­d Iniala, Valletta and Malta are now ready to make their mark.

Rooms from €350 (inialamalt­a.com). Air Malta (airmalta.com) flies from London Heathrow to Malta six times a week from £175 return. Find out more about Malta at visitmalta.com

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