Click to book the Xara Palace

The Phoenicians sailed into the pristine harbors long before sun-bathers took up residency on the golden beaches on the three island archipelago of Malta, Gozo, and Camino. When it is sweltering hot on Malta, the same strong and frequent winds bring a cool and welcome relief to the bastion town of Mdina, once an Imperial Roman village after it wrested the island away from Carthage (Kartago) during the Punic Wars. (Opening photo: Xara Palace along the Mdina bastion walls.)

There is only one hotel in the walled fortress of Mdina, the Xara Palace Hotel, the only Relais & Chateaux property on the island. Xara (shara) Palace is an oasis of history and heritage in the heart of Malta and in the heart of the Mdina, once the capital of Malta, and now known as the Silent City.

Tour the historical Mdina.

Only about 300 people still live in the Mdina, along winding cobbled streets, with a mix of medieval and baroque architecture. The Mdina is an UNESCO World Heritage Site; the historic buildings include the 18th Century Vilhena Palace, St Paul's Cathedral and Museum, Palazzo de Piri, the Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum, and the Mdina Dungeons.

The alcove near the Atrium.

The 3-story Atrium.

The Xara Palace is a grandiose 17th Century Baroque palazzo, now privately-owned and family-run, a 5-star bastion of subtle and specialized boutique luxury. I sat in the sunny and airy three story Atrium while I checked in; wine magically appeared from Alistair, the Atrium Cocktail Bar's mixologist. An encrusted wine amphora sat in a nook niche in the limestone hand-hewn block wall that dated to the 15th Century. A healthy bromeliad crept down the wall like a snake.  As the sun transected past its zenith the power-washed walls appeared painted by the golden brush of King Midas.  Ahhh . . . the spirit of travel.

The Mdina was the  stunning backdrop featured in films such as Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe, and Troy, starring Brad Pitt, who spent his honeymoon with Jennifer Anniston in the vary same palatial suite that I enjoyed  — it took up the entire length of the Atrium, on the second floor — Room #9, opened by a skeleton key.

My palatial Xara Palace bedroom.

The bath boasted hand-laid marble on the floor and walls; the natural limestone absorbed heat and steam, keeping things dry and cool. There was a bidet for the ladies.  The tub was massive, fit for a Baron; hot water gushed like a mountain spring. Plush and thick towels warmed on the heat rack. Bare feet sunk deeply into the stylish carpets in the bedroom and sitting area. A colorful hand-blown Mdina Glass fruit bowl sat next to historial coffee table books. The king-bed sported fluffy puffy pillows.

Sunlight in the Mediterranean tends to be strong and direct, so the two eastern facing bedroom windows were taller than wide; papyrus colored shades trimmed the light, pulled down near the table lamps twinning the bedsides.

Far horizons from the suite sitting room.

I threw open the weathered louver shudders on the  sitting room window to behold a breathtaking expanse of small plots of agricultural lands and rugged terrain in the distance.  Hay bales were rectangular alfalfa cow biscuits. I unhooked the ropes from the heavy drapes across the wide glassless Atrium archways that stretched across the entire suite walls; I unbolted the louver levers, pushed back the frameworks. I turned off the A/C and the outside climate spilled past the suite's thick walls and cooled by the winds to defuse the room with the scent of mowed clover.  

My suite as seen from the Atrium.

The Atrium is used for small events, meetings, or weddings, and was located directly off the alcove leading to Reception at one end and the elevator at the other that whisked guests to the third floor restaurant, De Mondion. Reception can organize on-site beauty treatments, massage therapy, and access to the mini-gym, as well as golf and spa nearby.

Because of its location in the Med, Malta is a crossroads blend of flavors and cuisine techniques with a splash of Sicilian, Italian, Lebanese, and North African influences. Xara's dynamic cuisines focus on fresh produce.  Most of the agricultural lands have disappeared under apartment complexes. Virtu Ferry, the largest catamaran ferry in the Med, sails to Sicily thrice daily bringing back fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats, which are then skillfully prepared by Executive Chefs like De Mondion's award-winning Kevin Bonello.

Andreas knows wine.

The first person I met at De Mondion was the young wine steward, Andreas, who looked exactly like the rock star Elvis Costello, with his horn-rim glasses. Andreas spills his serious Maltese wine knowledge upon me as if I was a contestant on a winery quiz show. De Mondion's wine cellar specializes in local vintages, such as the Marsa from Marsovin Cellars.  Originally built in the 17th Century by the Knights of St. John, these cellars are now home to 220 oak barrels used to age the Marsovin Estate Wines, produced with Maltese terroir. Book an online tour to learn about the methods used and sample the wines in this enchanting setting.

According to Andreas, there are five family-owned vineyard estates on the island: Delicata, Marosvine, Meridinia, La Rosa Estate, and Camivleru. In August taste local wines at the Delicata Wine Festival in the splendid Upper Barakka Gardens in Valletta, with views over the Grand Harbour.

Andreas hoisted a bottle of Keppell (Chapel) 2010 Keppella vintage made from the rare Mourevedre grape grown in the rich clay soil on the island. Andreas stated that the grape doesn't blend well with other varietals; I felt privileged to be served the demure and dry red elixir with a distinctive and exceptional flavor and depth of character.

De Mondion Restaurant interior.

There are three dining sections at De Mondion, the interior section had a group function that evening, so I was ushered down the outside steps through the Upper Terrace to the romantic rendezvous Lower Terrace. The terraces sit above the Bastions al fresco.  A young couple near my table was in an intimate interlude.  Fireworks popped off in the distance in celebration. My bon vivant servers were Lydia, and from Hungary, the sweet smiling Nikoletta. Lydia had a more boisterous demeanor, and I liked them both.  The fresh artisan breads came with a ceramic medallion of sweet cream butter topped with the infused Fleur d 'Lys logo of the Relais & Chateaux network.  "It is made from red salt sprayed through a template," stated Lydia.

Fine wine & cuisine on the Lower Terrace.

Around the globe each Relais & Chateaux drives new trends as hubs for gastronomes. De Mondion compares with the top European restaurants with its fusion cuisine and talented staff. The lightly grilled grouper starter made a palate success, and the Scottish Rack of Lamb must have been airlifted in, it was so fresh, surrounded by a bed of braised veggies and smooth mashed potatoes. Another great entrée choice that caught my eye was the Venison, so they carved me off a little of that too. Lydia presented the palate cleanser — a velvety Mouse soufflé with a side scoop of chilled Jack Fruit, one of the largest fruits.  If you prefer private dining the Xara offers personal service in your suite.  Larger culinary events are staged outside Xara's  entrance under canopies. During the morning buffet on the sun-drenched upper terrace I met an Australian couple that had flown all the way to Malta to spent a week of pampering at Xara Palace.

The Mdina fortress ramparts and dry moat.

Outside the Mdina, a dry moat surrounded the angled crenellated walls, with a paved pathway that is also used for events; kids played soccer on the grass, ignoring the Keep Off signs.  Australian pines spread their branches like falcon feathers, catching the wind. Two gelato stations are located on an outer rampart, great for unique island treats; one is located near the Mdina's main lion head gate (Game of Thrones fans will recognize it.) where the tourists get off the motorcoaches to hop into a horse carriage (called a karozzin — €30 for one hour) for a clip-clop around the Mdina.

The splendid sitting room in my suite.

Brad Pitt also starred in World War Z,  filmed on the island, and wife Angelina Jolie recently wrapped up her directorial shoot of By the Sea, on Gozo.   I was in my own world of Zs in the comfy bed in the airy aerie. After the rooster crowed, the whine of high performance race car engines broke the rapture with test runs.

Click for The The Mdina Grand Prix

Click the photo for the next Mdina Grand Prix.

The Mdina Classic Car Grand Prix  track was nearby and the mid-October event sees Formula 1 drivers and fans from around the world. A special permit is needed to park a car in the Mdina, but I am sure that during the "Concourse d`Elegance”  show-and-shine of the million dollar machines in front of the cathedral that the fees are waived for the Valletta Grand Prix Foundation, that stages the annual event.  There are also classic motorcycles and cars on display, such as 1920s and '30s Bugattis, 1950s Ferraris, Maseratis, Jaguars, Alfa Romeos, and Aston Martins, plus timed sprints, demonstration runs, and social gatherings.

One afternoon Xara Palace's Administrative Manager (emeritus), Rueben, took me on a tour of their private museum, a collection of artifacts from Malta, including ancient carpentry tools, medical instruments, kitchen utensils, and daily  household items.  Rueben was an impeccably dressed and dapper fount of Maltese knowledge. 

The bastion pavilions.

Later along the rampart he pointed out a church that was bombed by the Axis during WWII and the bomb was still in the basement.  Malta was the most bombed place during WWII because the British had a strategic naval and airbase here. The populace lived in the underground limestone caves and caverns, and the island never fell.  Even future Queen Elizabeth II lived here as a new bride to Prince Philip who served in the Royal Navy.  Visit the Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta, which are located in St James' Ditch, underneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens. A must-see for those interested in WWII history, this is the secret bunker where the defense of Malta and later the invasion of Sicily were managed and has been faithfully restored using the original equipment. Guided tours include a 10-minute film. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission and tour €10.

Be Indiana Jones at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, Paola; the World Heritage Site is a vast underground structure which dates back to around 2500 B.C. and was used as a burial chamber in prehistoric times. Visitors can explore the complex labyrinth of elaborate interconnecting chambers with domed vaulting. Open daily, admission €20.

The second story hallway to Room #9.

Before the British made Malta a Crown Colony it was part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilys. Under the Italian Constitution, Malta is still considered their island and the decree states it can occupy the island of 400,000 Maltese at any time.

The Xara Palace Reception staff can help you plan your own Malta adventure, such as rock climbing, caving and paragliding; for some family fun, try go-carting. The climate, terrain, and scenery are ideal for walking, cycling, and touring by car, or join a jeep safari for a wilder, off-road view. The islands are a paradise for divers with warm water all year and excellent visibility. There is superb sailing — schools offer lessons, or harbor cruises are ideal for those who prefer to relax on board. Try jet skiing, water skiing, paragliding, wakeboarding, and more. Take a boat trip in a traditional Maltese fishing boat, known as a dghajsa (pronounced daysa); the tour costs €20 per adult and departs from Valletta Waterfront every 45 minutes.

Watersports and adventures abound in Malta.

In October the Rolex Middle Sea Race attracts around 80 yachts, departing from Valletta's Grand Harbour. For more ideas, go to using Xara's en-suite free wifi.

Malta is packed with culture, including a jazz festival in summer, the Valletta Baroque Festival, and one of Europe's oldest theatres, The Manoel Theatre in Valletta (commissioned by the Knights of Malta), that hosts the opera festival.

The Da Vinci Code was partially filmed on  Malta and I didn't need to decipher any code that the Xara Palace was a cocoon of exclusive luxury beyond bliss, and I will tipple the Keppella to that.

— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.