2021 – Malta

Early 2021 was a strange time, the Covid lockdowns had lasted longer than anybody had expected and we had had several vacations postponed or cancelled.

I’d read that Malta had achieved ‘herd immunity’ by vaccinating more than 90% of its population and so was expected to to go on the UK Government’s ‘green’ list, meaning that we wouldn’t need to quarantine on our return – having both received two vaccinations. I suggested a return (on my part) to Malta and Ali spotted the San Antonio hotel in St Paul’s Bay, a few hundred yards from the Hotel Santana where I’d stayed in 2019. The San Antonio was All Inclusive, 4 star and had an adults only pool and bar on its 10th floor roof.

We had some trepidation before our trip, July 19th was the much heralded ‘freedom day’ but there was still much confusion between restrictions and pre & post travel requirements. We’d ordered the requisite tests for our return and completed all the Maltese pre-arrival forms, both on paper and online.

I had a couple of County Council conference calls on the morning before departure and spent some time on the ‘phone rearranging our November trip (to Abu Dhabi and Sri Lanka) effectively kicking it down the road for a year.

We figured we’d maybe think of something nice to do in November.

Late morning we drove to the Prince of Wales to deliver their meals for the vulnerable, we’d been doing it every week for over a year and while, in the early days, we delivered to ten or eleven people who were ‘shielding’, the numbers were now down to three, but they were seriously in need of support.

Back home for a bit of lunch, we then bade farewell to the cats and hit the road to Stansted. Check in took over an hour and was pretty stressful, did we have all the necessary paperwork? It was not helped by the check in guy deciding to wander off when we’d reached the front of a long and slow moving queue. After a few minutes a replacement arrived and we were finally checked in.

Then through to departures where we enjoyed our pre flight Bloody Marys.

The flight itself was uneventful and about two thirds full, one of the flight attendants told us that a couple of weeks earlier they were only carrying ten passengers per flight.

Arrival in Malta was seriously scary; having been through passport control and collected our baggage, our final hurdle was the Maltese government’s Covid check. The guy pretty much ignored the passenger location forms I’d dutifully completed online and on paper and focused on the NHS vaccination documents. It transpired that the letter we’d received from the NHS only documented one vaccination and didn’t evidence the second. Thankfully the airport WiFi allowed us to access our NHS records on our phones, but it was a pretty scary five minutes.

Our driver was waiting for us outside and we were quickly at the hotel, check in was swift and efficient, we dropped our bags in our room and headed straight up to the rooftop bar for some much needed depressurisation. A few rum & diet cokes (for me) and gin & tonics (for Ali) and we slept soundly.

Next morning (Tuesday) we got our first sight of what is a pretty stunning view from our room, over the bay to the statue of St Paul who gives his name to the bay.

We wandered down to the main dining room ‘Gueliz’ for breakfast, our first experience of the ‘assisted buffet’ system, you point to what you want and the staff put in on your plate. It all seemed to work quite well. After breakfast, we explored the hotel, decided to avoid the large family pool and settled by the rooftop – no children allowed – infinity pool.

After another ‘assisted buffet’ lunch we ventured out for a walk to the local bus station and the beach, both within a hundred yards of the hotel, but it was so hot we swiftly returned to our room for a doze. I think the stress of the previous day’s journey had got to us. We had a couple of pre-dinner drinks in the rooftop bar, then dinner in the main dining room and a (relatively) early night.

We’d decided to take the bus to Valletta on Wednesday morning so, after a leisurely breakfast, we strolled down to the bus station at Burgibba for the ten o’clock bus.

Valletta was beautiful, and less busy then when I last visited.

We strolled through the city streets and snuck down to the Hard Rock Bar at the waterfront for a light lunch.

We were back at the hotel by four and found the rooftop pool crowded.

In the evening we enjoyed a pleasant enough Asian meal at ‘Yushan’ one of the hotel’s speciality restaurants, again on the rooftop and again ‘assisted buffet’; mostly Chinese food, but with some sushi.

On Thursday morning we strolled over to the hotel ‘Santana’ where I had stayed two years earlier, then to a couple of hotels we considered for this trip. We were happy with our choice, the San Antonio hotel had excellent facilities and was well run. We adjourned to the rooftop sun deck for the rest of the day and dined again in the Asian restaurant. The main restaurant is okay, but we could only get into the Asian place on consecutive nights.

On Friday we checked out the clinic we would have to visit on Saturday for our pre-return COVID test, and decided to take the open-top bus tour round the north of island. Unfortunately they’re apparently running a reduced schedule and it was the southern tour, so we skipped it. We were keen to visit Mdina and, after checking the bus schedules, caught a bus from the local bus station (only five minutes from the hotel) and were in Mdina within the hour.

Mdina was beautiful – both Valletta and Mdina served as locations (as Kings Landing) for the first series of ‘Game of Thrones’ – and, surprisingly for mid-July, almost deserted; we spent a very pleasant hour wandering its streets before catching a bus back to Bugibba.

Bizarrely the bus driver stopped in Mostr, close to its famous dome and left the bus to buy her lunch from a nearby fast-food place.

We arrived back at the hotel in good time for lunch, spent much of the afternoon chilling by the rooftop pool and then, before dinner, strolled into nearby St Paul’s Bay for a couple of beers at ‘Fat Harry’s Pub’.

The days were passing and Saturday fell within the necessary 72 hours before our return flight so, before breakfast, we headed down to the clinic we’d found on Friday for our pre-flight tests. We arrived just before eight and there were only three people ahead of us, the queue had stretched to about a dozen when left half an hour and eighty Euros lighter.

Then back to the hotel for breakfast and then onto the ‘northern’ bus tour which visited Sliema, Valletta and Mdina.

We chose not to ‘hop on or off’ the bus, but the tour still lasted about three hours. In the afternoon – back at the hotel – we spent some time at the rooftop pool and in the evening we dined at ‘Salia’ the hotel’s speciality ‘shared dining’ restaurant. It was okay, but not worth writing home about; the final course included sirloin steak which had been over cooked… come on guys, if you ask us how we want it cooked then do it!

On Sunday morning we attempted to complete the HM Government’s ‘Passenger Locator Form’ (PLF) which necessitated contacting our neighbour, Linda, to go into our house to get some codes for our tests.

We then went on the ‘Southern’ bus tour, which was less stimulating than the northern tour but was an interesting diversion for nearly four hours.

Then spent more time attempting to complete the Passenger Locator Form, asking Jan to get a still different code number from home, then calling and emailing the test company. The whole exercise is really cumbersome, counter-intuitive, and frustrating, and we consider ourselves to be reasonably computer ‘savvy’.

We decided on a change of scenery for our last evening in Malta (the airport departure lounge doesn’t count), so wandered down to St Paul’s Bay for a few beers and something to eat at “Fat Harry’s”. I had a very tasty seafood pizza while Ali enjoyed a traditional Maltese rabbit dish.

After a fitful night’s sleep we woke early and rechecked the requirements for the U.K. PLF, it transpired that I should have received the code from the company who supplied the test kits. I pinged Linda next door, giving instructions as to how to access and login to my Mac and an hour or so later she found the necessary code. Ali completed her form ten minutes before we were required to vacate our room.

I completed mine in reception after we’d checked out; we then sat in the hotel lobby de-pressurising and watching the world go by.

It had been a stressful couple of days as Ryanair could have stopped us boarding without the Locator Form and, despite several email messages and phone calls neither the test provider nor the supplier responded to my queries.

The car came for us just after six and drove us through the outskirts of Valletta to the airport. The check in girl asked to see the PLF (on our ‘phones) and the doctor’s letters.

Then we were through and into the departure lounge – such a relief!

The airside ‘Hard Rock’ Bar was closing, so we went up to the ‘executive’ lounge – I’d bought Ali membership to a Lounge group and let mine lapse. We enjoyed a couple of drinks and some nibbles (I was due to drive home from Stansted, so no Bloody Mary for me) before going through passport control and onto the aircraft. The flight was less than half full and took exactly three hours back to Stansted, landing at 11:45pm.

The queues for passport control at Stansted  looked daunting but the immigration officers were amiable, checking we’d completed our PLFs – although not actually scanning the QR codes.

Despite the lengthy queue we were back at the car within an hour of landing, and while we had a scary moment at the car park – it dodn’t recognise the registration number and wanted to charge us £480! – we were safely home within two hours of the wheels touching down.