If it weren't for its sunny weather, millennia of history and exotic landscapes, Malta might be the most overlooked part of Europe. This small island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean is a haven for history buffs, holiday makers from Europe's colder climes, and people who are simply in search of something decidedly different for their next vacation. While not known as an eco-tourism destination, Malta is filled with natural attractions both on sea and land. It can be explored on foot or by bicycle, and parts of the nation's three main islands haven’t changed in hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Malta's sky-blue waters, unique terrain and warm weather draw plenty of visitors from the jet set. The nation has more than its share of upscale, seaview resorts. Though eco-tourism occupies only a sliver of the tourism industry, it is easy for visitors to create a diverse nature-themed itinerary that includes hikes past some of the world's oldest known buildings, diving, and sightseeing treks in both natural and man-made environments.
Car travel is an easy way to get around the main island, but visitors can explore every inch of Malta without getting behind the wheel. Formerly known for its charmingly outdated buses, Malta now boasts a more modern fleet run by a company called Arriva. The buses connect many towns and villages on the island, but run infrequently, making it imperative to be flexible with your schedule and to plan ahead. A ferry service connects the main island of Malta with Gozo and Comino, two smaller Maltese islands that might interest nature-seeking vacationers. Sailboats can be chartered easily on Malta, so for those with more than a little disposable income, they are a good green option for cruising the islands.
At 120 square miles, the main island is easy traversed by bike, although the hilly terrain can prove challenging for novices and people who are on a tight schedule. Bicycles are available for rent all over the islands; Malta by Bike is a nationwide rental service that allows users to pick up and drop off their bikes in different locations.
Eco-tourism remains a niche market in Malta. However, at least one company is taking advantage of the nation's natural landscapes to provide eco-tourism excursions. Merill Eco-tours offers guided hikes, bird-watching expeditions and other nature-themed activities. The outfit's menu of offerings includes agritourism experiences that give visitors a close-up look at farm life in Malta.
Some of Malta's most interesting natural sites are below the sea. All three of Malta's islands offer great diving opportunities. Dives can range from shallow swims to view rock formations and reefs in less than 30 feet of water to deeper dives to shipwrecks and ancient ruins.
Sea kayaking is arguably the most eco-friendly option for people who prefer to keep their water-sports activities above the surface. The rugged and lengthy coastlines provide plenty of places for paddle-powered nature viewing. Companies like Rugged Coast Adventures offer multi-day kayaking trips that give experienced paddlers the logistical support to circle the islands. Day-trips are a more accessible tour option. These generally allow paddlers to explore some of the inlets and coves that characterize the Maltese coastline.
The calm waters of the Blue Lagoon on the tiny island of Comino offer almost ideal conditions for swimmers. The island is sparsely inhabited but does boast a resort. Measuring a little over a mile in length and less than a mile in width, Comino is ideal for hikers seeking a small-scale trek. Despite its small size, the views and the lack of crowds make this island an excellent place for nature-themed sightseeing strolls. Gozo, the other inhabited island that makes up the nation of Malta, is slightly larger than Comino but equally walkable. Malta's official tourism site has maps and downloadable brochures that highlight the best walks on these islands as well as on the larger island of Malta.
Malta is loaded with history, with some ruins dating back thousands of years. Mdina, a 4,000-year-old town about 30 minutes from the capital city of Valletta by bus, is a great place to take in this strong sense of the past. A wall surrounds the town and the streets are incredibly narrow, making it almost impossible for cars to pass (only locals are allowed to bring their vehicles into the city). A cathedral, history museum and Roman villa are among Mdina's attractions, but simply wandering the mazelike alleyways soaking in the atmosphere is probably the best way to spend a day. Plus, Mdina is small enough that you don't have to worry about getting lost.
Not only are the natural landscapes part of Malta's attractiveness, but the Maltese penchant for gardens also means that this is a great destination for horticulture enthusiasts. The San Anton Gardens are the headliner of Malta's botanical gardens, featuring aged trees, manicured flower beds and fountains. However, San Anton is only one of the many Maltese gardens featuring local plant life.
Agriculture traditionally has been an important part of life in Malta and remains so today. An independent organization called the Malta Organic Agriculture Movement is one of the groups trying to promote organic growing and sustainable farming practices throughout the country. Like other Mediterranean cuisines, seasonal ingredients are a part of Maltese cooking. This makes getting fresh, local ingredients easy. Salad greens and vegetables are the obvious locally sourced products, but other staples like goat cheese, honey, locally made wines and seafood (especially squid and octopus) are also on many Maltese menus. One of the best places to get a taste of this obsession with freshness is at the national produce market in Ta'Qali. Not only does the market feature fresh-grown, organic local vegetables, but also locally made honey and cheese, as well as meat and seafood.
The Malta Tourism Authority has its own eco-certification program for hotels that boast a high level of environmental awareness. One hotel that has earned certification for its green initiatives is the Victoria Hotel in Sliema, a short distance from Valletta. This high-end property uses biodegradable products, has a rainwater collection system, and carefully monitors the chlorine levels in the onsite swimming pool. The Victoria also uses locally sourced products and supports the local economy whenever possible. The Grand Excelsior in Valletta is another high-end property with a green program that has earned it the eco-certification label from the government. Aside from its low-impact practices, the Excelsior is a good choice for eco-minded travelers because it is located within walking distance of many of Valletta's best attractions.
Eco-tourism is not one of the main reasons that people visit Malta. However, it is easy to create a low-impact itinerary and to experience the unique landscapes and history of these ancient islands without producing any carbon. That makes this small, out-of-the-way nation an ideal destination for environmentally minded travelers on the lookout for an exotic place to spend a week or two.
Want more? Visit more destinations on MNN