There is much to be said – in these times of inflating prices and the endgame of a pandemic – for the steady presence of an old reliable. We have endured two years where the hope of relaxation has come weighted with rules, restrictions and the nagging sense that even the best-laid plans can fall apart. For all its difficulties, 2022 needs to do better. To offer travel reassurance, holiday certainty – and the guarantee of an untroubled place in the sun.
You should be able to find all of these things on two of the Mediterranean’s most popular islands. Neither Malta nor Cyprus would bridle at being described as either “old” or “reliable”. Each has been a crucial crossroads of Europe’s great sea since the mists of time. Each has a well-developed tourist industry, which allows for everything from bargain beach breaks to luxury escapes via getaways steeped in history, scenery and cuisine.
Each is well-connected to the UK, via a number of flight routes. And each snoozes under a bright sky in those precious weeks when school is out, revelling in temperatures creeping into the low 30s; countries that are all but identical due to their shared latitude – both lie at a summer-friendly 35°N.
There are differences, of course. Malta is one of the world’s smallest nations, a dot on the map of just 122 sq miles. Cyprus is the third biggest outcrop in the Med (behind only Sicily and Sardinia) – a far larger creature of 3,572 sq miles. It is also, uniquely for Europe, a divided island, its north separated from its south by 48 years (and many prior decades) of enmity between its Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot populations. This rare situation is of no importance if all you want of a break is a lounger and a tan – but can be of real interest if you wish to wander along one of our continent’s key cultural fault lines.
There is another distinction. As of June 1, Cyprus has rescinded all Covid-related entry requirements for overseas visitors. By contrast, Malta still requires proof of vaccination from fully jabbed tourists, and a negative test result (PCR or antigen) from those who aren’t (children aged between 12 and 18 can enter via full vaccination or a negative test - younger visitors are now exempt). While this will matter more to some than others, it is unlikely to diminish the experience once you have arrived (for further details, see visitcyprus.com and visitmalta.com).
Any reference to Malta as “an island” demands the qualification that, while the main outcrop makes up the bulk of the country, this much-loved travel option is an archipelago. This is no great revelation – northerly satellite Gozo is as well-marked on the holiday atlas as its bigger brother, even if tiny Comino, which sits between the two, is more of a mystery. Together, this close-knit trio make for 155 miles of coastline. Some stretches of seafront are busier than others, notably the north-east coast of Malta itself, where the capital Valletta holds court, and major resort zones such as Sliema, St Julian’s and Bugibba watch the throne. But there are quieter locations too, and if you opt to visit either of the two smaller islets, you will discover that – for the most part – calm and tranquillity reign.
Malta International is the country’s only airport. British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) flies in from Gatwick, easyJet (0330 551 5151; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Manchester, and Air Malta (0035 6216 62211; airmalta.com) from Gatwick and Heathrow. Ryanair (01279 358438; ryanair.com) provides connections from Birmingham, Bournemouth, Edinburgh, Luton, Manchester and Stansted, while Jet2 (0333 300 0404; jet2.com) underpins summer on the island with links to Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Glasgow, Leeds-Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Stansted.
Not only is Valletta Europe’s most southerly capital, it is one of its most spectacular cities. It is unashamedly historic in its appearance – forever indebted to the Knights of St John, who piled it high in the 16th century. Its thick harbour walls and grand fortifications give it a visual impregnability, just as the baroque flourishes of Saint John’s Co-Cathedral supply an architectural softness of touch. Though not vast, the city offers much to fill a long weekend, including the underground tunnels of the Lascaris War Rooms (lascariswarrooms.com), which dip into a different era: the defence of the island during the Second World War. A three-night stay at the five-star Phoenicia hotel starts at £668 per person (with flights), via Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2288; kirkerholidays.com).
Valletta is not Malta’s original capital. That role fell to Mdina, eight miles to the west – initially in the 8th century BC as the Phoenician “Maleth”, later as the Roman “Melite”. Deposed by the Knights in 1530, it has remained, to an extent, frozen in time: home to fewer than 250 residents, (largely) free of cars and scarcely undersold by its nickname “The Silent City”. The 15th-century Palazzo Falson (palazzofalson.com), one of several such townhouses that adorn its centre, is among its prime attractions. Activity specialist Civitatis (civitatis.com) offers a day-trip to the citadel (plus the dramatic Dingli Cliffs) from €29 (£25) per person, picking up from hotels across the island.
For all its history, Malta shines most serenely in its collision of water and sand. The west coast is a case in point: a holiday oasis where the twin arcs of Golden Bay and Ghajn Tuffieha present a gentle face to the sea. Film fans may recall that the former provided the beach setting for the 2004 sword-and-sandals epic Troy (and may be the only commendable thing about said drab Brad Pitt vehicle). A one-week stay at adjacent four-star the Radisson Blu Resort & Spa Golden Sands, flying from Glasgow on July 28, costs from £1,317 per person through Jet2 Holidays (0800 408 0778; jet2holidays.com).
The Maltese story winds back even further than the Phoenicians. Pinned to the south-west flank of the main island, Hagar Qim is the most famous of the country’s megalithic temples: blocky limestone structures, possibly used for fertility rites and sun-worship, that may date to as long-vanished an hour as 3600BC. Seven of these sites appear on the Unesco World Heritage list, hailed as “unique architectural masterpieces”. Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com) visits four of them (Mnajdra, Tarxien and Ggantija, as well as Hagar Qim) with its seven-day “Malta: Prehistoric to Present” tour. Next departure September 26 – from £3,250 per person (including flights).
Set discreetly between the main island and Gozo, Comino accounts for just 1.4 per cent of the Maltese landmass and is less known by tourists – even though its Blue Lagoon, on its west side, is one of the country’s prettiest sights. Its lack of profile is partly an access issue: the main ways across are the ferries that sail from Mgarr on Gozo and Cirkewwa on Malta (see gozocominoferries.com and cominoferries.com). That said, various private operators offer day-cruises, including Viator (020 3318 0421; viator.com), which sells an eight-hour sailing up from Sliema (ref: 127394P3) from £17.36 per person.
If Cyprus is, in some senses, a last hurrah for European beach holidays – squished into the cul-de-sac end of the Mediterranean, with eastern Turkey above it and the different world of the Middle East beyond – it is also a banquet of travel possibilities. The various destinations along its south coast – Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca among them – deal in all the hot-weather down-time you might want of a summer, and if you crave something more cultured, Nicosia is a capital of historical substance and tasty sustenance. The north, by dint of the island’s half-century ligature, is more of a mystery, but if you wish to peer beyond the barricade, outposts such as Kyrenia (known locally as Girne), Famagusta (Gazimagusa) and the remote north-easterly Karpaz Peninsula, will reward your curiosity.
Paphos and Larnaca airports are magnets for British visitors in summer. British Airways flies to both, from Heathrow and Gatwick; easyJet delivers the same double act from Bristol, Gatwick and Luton, while also serving Larnaca from Liverpool, and Paphos from Edinburgh and Manchester. Jet2 offers Paphos and Larnaca from Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds-Bradford, Stansted, Manchester and Newcastle – and throws in a Belfast flight to Paphos. Tui Airways (020 3451 2716; tui.co.uk) heads into both airports from Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Midlands, Gatwick, Manchester and Newcastle – and offers additional flights to Paphos from Bournemouth, Doncaster-Sheffield, Exeter, Glasgow, Stansted and Norwich. Ryanair operates into Paphos alone from Stansted, Manchester and Newcastle. Wizz Air (0330 977 0444; wizzair.com) only drops into Larnaca, from Cardiff, Gatwick and Luton.
If Nicosia doesn’t quite have the barbed-wire vibe of Cold War Berlin, it is the most obvious representation of the island’s divided status: the “Green Line” which cuts off the Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognised only by Turkey) from the rest of the country slices across it. But there is plenty to please visitors on the south side of the schism. The Cyprus Museum (mcw.gov.cy) has archaeological wonders from the ninth millennium BC onward. For lunch near the “border”, visit To Anamma (toanamma.com), a classically Cypriot taverna with outdoor tables and meze platters.
It sits on Ledra Street, which also has the city’s main crossing into the North. You can walk through with a British passport (unvaccinated tourists need a negative PCR test result), to glimpse a Cyprus that exists a decade or two behind the rest of the country. The Selimiye Mosque is, though, glorious, retaining much of the soul of the Cathedral of St Sophia – the building’s original (13th century) identity. A four-night mini-getaway to the five-star Hilton Nicosia – departing from Gatwick on July 13 – costs from £682 per person, through Expedia (020 3024 8211; expedia.co.uk).
South-westerly Paphos occupies a special place in Mediterranean mythology. It is, in popular lore, the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, who rose from the water fully formed, possibly in a giant seashell, in some vague celestial yesteryear. You won’t spot her at Paphos Archaeological Park. You will, on the other hand, see genuine relics of the Greco-Roman city, including a large amphitheatre and a “House of Dionysos” whose mosaics have sustained all their beauty. Better still, the park makes for an easy half-day visit from one of the many hotels in the area. A week’s stay at the five-star Elysium resort, flying directly from Birmingham on July 30, costs from £1,926 per person, with Sovereign Luxury Travel (01293 324429; sovereign.com).
Despite the length of its coastline (402 miles), Cyprus is arguably at its most spectacular where it soars far above sea level. Indeed, its central spine, the Troodos Mountains, achieves such elevation (highest peak Mount Olympus hits 6,404ft/1,952m) that it is home to four ski resorts. Summer, inevitably, can also be a season for activity. Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) sells “Cycling in the Troodos Mountains” – a seven-night self-guided holiday which bases itself at Kalopanayiotis, a village at the heart of the range. Participants can mountain-bike on forest trails, or pedal quiet roads up to the likes of the Kykkos Monastery, before sleeping off their efforts at the rustic retreat Casale Panayiotis. From a basic £661 per person (not including flights).
Head to the far west of Cyprus, and you might wander into a “lost” portion of the island. Until as recently as 2000, the Akamas Peninsula was largely deployed as a military-exercise zone and shooting range. Even now, when it is protected as a national park, there are no paved roads into a spur of land that bears the name of one of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War. With this, the area is a remarkable location for off-beaten-track hiking. Inntravel (01653 617 001; inntravel.co.uk) makes it a key part of its “Three Faces of Cyprus” tour – holidaymakers spent the first third of this nine-night self-guided walking break on the peninsula. From £935 per person, including car hire (flights extra).
It is tricky to describe Northern Cyprus – the self-declared state that has only existed since 1974 thanks to Turkish muscle – as “hidden”, but it does offer a fair element of wonder, being an old-fashioned version of the island noticeably lacking in some of the tourism development visible in the south. Explore (01252 240698; explore.co.uk) offers Walking in Northern Cyprus, an eight-day escorted affair that spends time in Kyrenia and Famagusta, and flirts with the Karpaz Peninsula, where Kantara Castle, a crumbling Byzantine fortress, guards the water. Nine editions of the trip are due to run between the start of September and the end of December, from £909 per person, with flights.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.