The Phoenecia Hotel pool. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Just six months ago, not many people could pin point Malta on a map. But when the Libyan crisis erupted, Malta earned international respect when it came to the fore as a safe stopover for expatriate workers and their families fleeing the country. Mercy flights landed here and ships filled with refugees were allowed to dock in Malta's port.

According to Malta Tourism Authority CEO Josef Formosa Gauci, during the first week of the crisis, Malta received more than 380 million hits on Google, and suddenly everyone knew that Malta was a small island nation in the Mediterranean, just south of Italy's Sicily.

But this island's history stretches back thousands of years. Archeologists have unearthed artefacts dating back to 4,000 BC, and St Paul was reportedly shipwrecked here in 58AD on his way to Rome. He converted the islanders to Christianity - making them one of the oldest Christian communities outside the Middle East.

The real turning point for Malta though came in 1530, when the island was given to the Order of St John by the Spanish king. It was the knights who shaped and created much of what makes this island such an ideal cultural holiday destination - the Unesco World Heritage fortress towns, majestic churches and impressive palaces. Add to this the café culture, great food, boutique hotels, rugged coastline, tiny coves and the glistening Med - and Malta becomes a perfectly packaged holiday escape. 

1. The unique capital, Valetta

Valetta might weigh in as one of the smallest capitals in the world, but it is big on charm and historical attractions. The entire city is walled and many of the streets are closed off to traffic, which makes it the ideal place to stroll around and explore. Built virtually entirely out of limestone, the fortress city dates back to the 16th century, and is named after the Grand Master of the Knights of St John, La Valette.

Here you'll find pretty shaded cafés filling the squares, quirky boutiques, a whole array of interesting museums (including one dedicated to typewriters), ancient churches and stunning views of what is considered to be the most picturesque harbour in the Mediterranean.

While a map of the city might be useful, it isn't necessary. Valetta is easy to navigate and you'll find something of interest in virtually every cobbled alley or lane. The key sights to include on your Valetta to-do list include St John's Co-Cathedral which is brimming with treasures, including Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's masterpiece, The Beheading of St John. The tombs of fallen knights fill the cathedral, and are decorated with often macabre inlays depicting death and destruction.

Just down from the cathedral is Manoel Theatre - now the national Theatre of Malta. Also built by the knights, the theatre's austere façade belies its detailed interior, including a triple tier of ornate boxes, Venetian chandeliers and white marble staircase. The theatre hosts regular performances of foreign and local productions. 

2. Fun kids' activities

Malta's knight-connection means there are plenty of intriguing events and activities to feed children's imaginations. The Maltese seem to love reenactments and there are various shows you can attend. The most popular is the weekly Knights Spectacular 1565 dinner and show at The Arena. The two-hour show features knights on horseback, fire dancing, music and dance, sword fights and battle scenes. The show takes place every Thursday night, and is a good way to learn more about the island's past in an accessible way. You can also catch the In Guardia reenactment of a full scale military parade at Fort St Elmo, or Alarme!, which depicts military clashes between Maltese and French troops in the 1700s. For show dates visit www.visitmalta.com.

For a taste of the macabre, visit the Mdina Dungeons. Mdina was the original walled city of Malta and is brimming with history. You can get a glimpse of the dark side of this city's past in the medieval dungeon chambers, which are now open to the public. Brace yourselves, however, for a gory journey through the dank passages and cells that for centuries were the place of terror and torture.

On a more sedate note, children will enjoy watching the cannon being fired every day at noon at the Upper Barracca Gardens in Valetta (the views over the bay from here are spectacular); a walking tour of Mdina reliving the life of a Crusader knight; and a morning at The Limestone Heritage Park and Gardens, which also has a petting zoo and live sculpting demonstrations. Make sure you set aside at least a couple of hours for The Armory at the Grand Master's Palace in Valetta - it's packed with hundreds of suits of armour (for both knights and horses), ancient pistols, cannons and cannon balls, cross bows and other intriguing weapons of war. 

3. Pristine Gozo

Malta's more laidback, rustic sidekick is the island of Gozo, a 25-minute ferry ride from Malta. According to legend, the nymph Calypso lured Odysseus to Gozo and held him captive there for seven years.

Gozo is smaller and greener than Malta itself, and is made up of small villages with Victoria as the capital. Victoria, with its impressive bastions, central citadel, lively markets, museums and opera houses, is fun to explore, but if you're travelling with a family you might want to rent a farmhouse near one of the smaller villages like San Lawrence, Ghasri, Kercem or Gharb. These traditional villages are all built around the central church and square with local restaurants and shops, which means that you can make like a local during your stay, shopping for local products and enjoying meals in the village's trattoria. The villages really come to life on fiesta day - expect fireworks, great food, parades, bands and delicious local produce.

The small lanes and country paths that criss-cross Gozo make it easy to head off for walks and picnics, but Gozo's big drawcard is it coastline. Clear, warm water, hidden coves and rugged cliffs make for perfect long, lazy days in the sun. Make sure you schedule a boat trip to the dramatic and impressive Blue Grotto. 

4. Deliciously satisfying food

With influences from nearby Sicily, the Mediterranean and North Africa, Maltese food is memorably different and delicious. Seafood is, of course, a big part of traditional Maltese food - and you're guaranteed fresh catches on your plate. Another big bonus is that you're never too far from an outdoor café in Malta, all of which serve freshly baked sweet treats, good Italian coffees and freshly made ice cream.

To experience a true Maltese restaurant, head to the small, bustling Trattoria Da Pippo in Valetto. Just off a steep cobbled alleyway, the restaurant is full of locals - many of them from the nearby government ministries - and foreigners tucking into fresh bread, mezze-style starters and over-sized-frying pans filled with homemade pastas and sauces. Order a couple of dishes for the centre of the table, and soak up the buzzy atmosphere.

For a more tranquil experience, venture out to the nearby town of Naxxo and the Palazzo Parisio and Gardens, where you can combine a historic outing with seriously good food served in the palace gardens. Often referred to as a mini Versailles, this grand stately home has a glittering, completely over-the-top ballroom, impressive frescoes, stately furniture and intimate family chapel. Outside are the two walled gardens, maintained in baroque style.

During the warmer months, tables are set up in the garden - it's the perfect place for a sun-drenched lunch, or dinner under the stars. (The palace is also used as a venue for weddings - the perfect meeting point for guests from Europe and the Middle East. Visit www.palazzoparissio.com).

Most restaurants and cafés serve a variation of a Maltese platter, which includes spicy sausage, local olives, sundried tomatoes, pickled vegetables, bean dip, foccacio and wafer-thin galletti biscuits. This is a tasty, light meal if you're wanting to leave space for a traditional dinner of ravioli, fenek (rabbit casserole) or lampuki pie (fish pie). 

5. Outdoor action

With its limestone cliffs and warm, azure waters, it is no surprise that Malta and Gozo can provide adventure seekers with plenty of activities to fill their holiday diary. Malta is a divers' paradise. Besides impressive reefs and underwater caves, scuba divers can explore a variety of wrecks, including war boats, submarines and planes from the First and Second World Wars. Many of the dive schools offer courses for beginners and juniors, and there is a lot of marine life that snorkellers can enjoy. Other water sports include, kitesurfing, water-skiing, kayaking and sailing.

Gozo is particularly well-suited for land-based action, including hikes, mountain biking and horse riding.

The islands' limestone sea and mountain cliffs draw mountain climbers from all over the world. There are more than 1,300 graded rock-climbing routes, many of which include access to caves and glorious island views. Climbing guides can provide training or supervision for all levels of climbers.

If you prefer to keep your feet well-planted on the ground, the islands have a whole range of well-marked trails - or you can explore the natural fauna and heritage sites with a guide. Visit www.maltanaturetours.com.

Need to know

Getting there: Emirates flies daily to Malta. Visit www.emirates.com.

Visas and info: Some nationalities need Shenghen visas to visit Malta. To find out more, call the Malta Consulate in Dubai on 04-3311015. For tourism info visit www.visitmalta.com

Where to stay: The Phoenicia Hotel Malta sits just outside the city gate to Valetta. This historic art deco hotel has a pretty secret garden and pool set against the wall of the city, which makes it a great place to relax after a day of exploring. Visit www.phoeniciamalta.com. For farmhouse accommodation on Gozo island, visit www.gozofarmhouses.com

Guide: Vince DeBono is an experienced guide who offers tailor-made tours for individuals, families or groups. His insider info and knowledge helps bring Malta islands to life. Email info@deinmalta.com.