| 7.9°C Dublin

The mistique of Malta

It's the ideal spot for a bit of winter sun.

The flights (if booked well in advance) are good value. The people are friendly and speak English, and the beer is cheap. Just my luck to go to Malta during one of the worst storms in living memory. Still, I did get more bang for my buck with Ryanair. With Malta's airport shut down, we were diverted to Sicily, and I enjoyed four hours in Trapani airport and a free slice of pizza (thank you, Mr O'Leary and EU officialdom). But hats off to the pilots for a perfect landing in gales that were bringing down trees in the island's capital, Valletta.

But the storm soon broke to reveal the golden rays that lit up the Unesco World Heritage site that is the bustling, and ancient, city.

I stayed with my family in the historic Phoenicia Hotel, ideally situated beside the city walls and beside the terminus with buses that will bring you to all corners of the tiny Mediterranean island.

Elegance

The Phoenicia's an elegant grand dame from a bygone age. Step inside its 1940s Art-Deco interior and you feel as if Hercule Poirot should be scurrying about, solving the poisoning of a wealthy dowager. The colonial-era bar (Malta was a British possession until 1964) is just the kind of place to sip a G'n'T.

The irony is that the five-star hotel is owned by Irish people -- which you'll notice in the warm welcome from all the staff.

It's a good sign when locals flock to the hotel's restaurants and bars at night, and they even hold a tango session at weekends in the airy Palm Court Lounge.

Our suite room, with separate sitting room, boasted stunning views over the walled city's bastions, which average at an astounding 25 metres in height. And you can understand why, in a land at the heart of the Med, conquered and visited by the likes of the Phoenicians, Ottomans, crusaders, Greeks, Romans and Sicilians (and package tourists).

Fresco

The capital's not known for its green, open spaces, but there's a haven of tranquillity in the hotel's garden, and the pool has to have one of the finest views in the entire Med.

The city is a three-minute walk away. As a first-timer to the island, I was blown away by the Baroque architecture, which is reminiscent of Rome. It's a city -- and nation -- of churches, each more beautiful than the next. Even a tiny church, such as the Church of St Francis of Assisi, is a treasure trove, filled with paintings and frescos. Be prepared to gaze up in awe at the city's pride, St John's Co-cathedral, with its fort-like structure, and medieval paintings, including one by Caravaggio.

More recent history can be found in the Lascanis War Rooms (www.wirtartna.org), perfectly preserved Napoleonic tunnels from which the defence of Malta, and the subsequent Allied invasion of Italy, was co-ordinated.

Kids will love the guided tours of the massive facility, where General Patton argued with Montgomery, where the controllers organised a few dozen RAF pilots to take on hundreds of Nazi bombers, and where the invasion of Sicily (complete with gigantic map still there) was run.

History's still alive today in the form of the island's colourful buses, many from the 1950s. Malta's answer to Havana's old cars, they're noisy, bumpy and great fun. Fares start at 47c, but hurry -- they're being phased out this summer.

We took one of them to the island's massive Sunday market, in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. With local families lining the pavement cafes and restaurants and visitors lapping up the local clothes and cheap shoes, it's a hive of activity in a pretty, and untouristy, setting.

But shopping's not the point here. Even if you're a sun-lover, seek out the sites in Valletta, the perfect combination of seaside and history.