Resting On The Rock – InterContinental Hotel Malta

by Continental Club on August 27, 2011

With a population of 400,000, the Mediterranean island of Malta is barely bigger than Bristol.

And yet, in less than thirty years, this dusty rock between Sicily and North Africa has gone from being something of a premium hotel no-go zone, to offering choices from a fairly extraordinary range of major global chains.

Today, Starwood present their Westin and Le Meridien properties, and now Radisson BLU, Corinthia, Hilton, Kempinski, Golden Tulip, Maritim, RIU and even Relais & Chateaux are also to be found clinging to the cliffs of this largely beach-bereft former British colony.

Of course, there are still plenty of less prestigious accommodation options, including the infamous Bugibba apartments that sprang up in the the 1970s and which age has done nothing to improve. They’re at least largely cockroach-free these days, as the self-respecting critters have long-since shipped out in search of less fetid surroundings.

Elsewhere, it’s not uncommon to find abandoned, half-finished resort complexes in the most unlikely of barren locations; their barrack-like design and remoteness from anything vaguely appealing to the average holiday-maker or business traveller apparently obvious explanations for their dereliction.

Indeed, despite the rush of modern luxury hotel development, it’s difficult to disagree with the contention that the only aesthetically-notable features of modern-day Malta are those built by the hand of man not less than 60 years ago (a couple of recent but curiously-Baroque churches excepted), and the seas surrounding it and its sister islands of Comino and Gozo.

But what features they are: from the vehicle-free ‘silent city’ of Mdina, the former capital, to the fortified bastions of current capital Valetta and its stunning Grand Harbour; from the Megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim to the awe-inspiring Azure Window on the Gozitan coast; and from the Blue Lagoon of Comino to Malta’s own Blue Grotto near Wied iz-Żurrieq harbour.

Add in a remarkable history going back to those relics of the Megalithic Period, through the 16th Century arrival of the Knights of St John, to the World War Two siege of 1940 to 1942, and Malta is a place that appeals to many – not just those in search of year-round sun.

So, despite the lack of soaring mountains or lush vegetation, the paucity of sandy beaches, the charitably ‘chaotic’ recent urban development and frankly dismal organisation of many public services, Malta has much to recommend it and, with an enviable Southern Mediterranean climate, it’s perhaps little wonder that passenger numbers passing through Malta International Airport (Luqa) increased by 12.8% from 2009 to 2010.

And, amongst the roll-call of international hotel chains, the World’s largest – InterContinental Hotels Group plc – is not left out. Its presence in Malta comes under the aegis of its flagship InterContinental brand, and is located in the Eden Complex in St Julian’s, nine kilometres from the airport and six from Valetta.

True to modern Maltese form, the property is hardly an architectural icon, but its location a few steps from tiny St George’s Bay, around the corner from the nightlife of Paceville, and ten minutes’ walk from picturesque Spinola Bay with its waterside cafes, bars and restaurants, is arguably difficult to better anywhere else on the island.

Reaching the InterContinental Malta from the airport is also straightforward; the hotel’s retained car service delivering us in remarkably unruffled (for Malta) style for just a few Euros more than the standard (and very ruffled) taxi fare. Concierge are happy to arrange in advance by email.

The hotel is effectively split into two parts; the Northern front block (pictured) atop which sits the pool and sun terraces, and the taller rear block which takes a form rather like that of a cruise liner’s superstructure rising above the fo’c’sle.

Inside, the Northern & Southern blocks are linked by a balconied walkway, through an atrium and above the main conference space, providing access to the hotel’s principal restaurant, Harruba,  hairdressing salon and the South lift lobby.

Guestrooms span the usual range, garnished with the equally-usual marketing frill that renders a standard room ‘Deluxe’. All are furnished to the levels expected of an international-standard property, though the continued-presence of CRT-screen televisions gives away a combination of imminent readiness for upgrade, (now reportedly ongoing) and also the general aptness of the Maltese to add ‘half a star’ or more on to the ratings of their hotels. Thus, and with exceptions of course, island five star properties such as the InterContinental Malta would probably appear to most as good four or four-and-a-half star hotels elsewhere. The InterContinentals of Hong Kong and Park Lane are, for example, in an altogether different hospitality (and price) league.

Deluxe rooms in Malta enjoy the least favoured outlooks, some of which are shaded during the day, though all feature furnished balconies and there are very many worse views in the world than a palm-filled courtyard.

Continental Club finds itself pampered with a Panoramic Club Intercontinental Room on the 14th floor of the South Tower however, complete with King bed, balcony and marble bath.

Club InterContinental rooms, as well as suites, also bring with them access to the Club InterContinental Lounge on the 15th level.

The lounge serves a complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea and evening canapés, with hot and cold soft drinks available day-long, and a happy-hour with wines, beers, Prosecco, spirits and mixers on offer from a spacious self-serve area.

The lounge features an expansive terrace, which overlooks the pool and St George’s Bay below.

Inside, there’s ample seating in the form of sofas and coffee tables, as well as cafe-style sets for breakfast.

There’s WiFi throughout the hotel, including in the lounge, guestrooms and even poolside. Better still, it’s also rock-steady and the signal-strength is good. High-level members of the InterContinental Ambassador frequent guest programme receive web access free of charge.

The Club Lounge occupies almost all of the uppermost floor of the Eastern wing of the hotel superstructure. Meanwhile most of the inside face of the Western wing forms the InterContinental‘s Presidential Suite, with its five sets of French windows and wraparound terrace.

Inside its double-doored lobby, the suite comprises an expansive lounge and dining room, with adjacent butler’s pantry and bar.

The centrepiece is undoubtedly the baby grand piano which greets guests as they enter.

There’s also a guest washroom off the lobby.

More double doors lead into the main bedroom, and the suite can be enlarged through interconnection of the bedroom adjacent to the dining area to form a two-bedroomed combination – taking the French window count up to six.

The bedroom has its own spacious seating area, as well as walk-in wardrobe and a large ensuite with separate shower and spa bath.

But probably the suite’s greatest attribute is that furnished wraparound terrace, which can be accessed through any of the patio doors from the lounge, dining or bedrooms, and onto which even the WiFi extends.

When the lounging becomes too much, hotel guests have complimentary access to the indoor pool and gym facilities, the latter being separately-managed but still within the hotel block. Both are reached either from the North lifts or by walking through the hotel’s central gardens, which despite their sunken appearance, are in fact just below the tenth-floor pool level.

The gym is vast by hotel-standards, and features a wide selection of machines – and multiple examples thereof. There are free weights and other instruments of torture, beneath ceiling fans of diameters of to shame the blades of a Boeing 747’s jet engines.

The adjacent indoor pool is less unusual (save only for its slightly verdant hue) and is surrounded by towel-wrapped loungers, a steam room and a sauna.

The pool leads on (or from, depending on your angle of approach) the hotel’s Carisma Spa, which offers a wide-range of treatments in its private rooms.

The hotel’s main, outdoor, pool overlooks St George’s Bay and is surrounded by sunbathing terraces and the Narcis Pool Bar & Grill. Although on the tenth floor, the pool – like most of the hotel’s facilities – is actually relatively easy to reach for those who are less sprightly than they might like, or might once have been, thanks to fast and spacious lifts.

There are abundant loungers and parasols, although the immediate pool surrounds can become busy. Better to retreat to one of two larger terraces set to the side and behind the main platform. The pool’s rooftop perch can also get a touch breezy of an afternoon, as warm winds are sucked onshore.

Indeed, those zippy zephyrs can be something of a challenge on the Club InterContinental terrace from time-to-time too; something which appears to have escaped the attention of the canapé chefs given their fondness for little plastic pots in which to serve mini prawn cocktails and gazpachos. Half a second after swallowing, the dainty dishes are airborne and gaining altitude.

There’s probably a puzzled Sicilian waking every morning to a shower of marie-rose-sauce-coated pots raining down on his rooftop.

The InterContinental boasts its own Beach Club, a hundred or so metres from the hotel’s front door, where the Paranga seafood restaurant can be found on the water’s edge.

There’s also an Asian ‘fusion’ restaurant on the hotel’s ground floor, though many guests will undoubtedly wish to venture out and sample the plethora of local dining options within a few minutes’ walk.

And, depending on how adventurous they are, those guests may choose to avoid or pioneer a path through the adjacent heart of Malta’s Paceville (Patch-ay-vil) party district. As with most things Maltese, its scale is rather Liliputian, so it’s an easy dodge around St Rita’s Steps and along Dragonara Street – Triq Dragunara – past the Westin Hotel, to re-emerge next to the less-than-subtle (but local pride-inducing) Portomaso Tower, the Hilton Hotel and Spinola Gardens, never having seen the swarms of sunburnt stag parties and the bars and clubs of varying levels of exotica which cater to them.

Those that do take the (short) long way around will come tantalisingly close to fine fish restaurant Tana del Lupo on Triq Il-Wilga, whilst those preferring a sea view could do worse than to continue on to Pepino’s or Terrazza in Spinola Bay. Between Terrazza and Pepino’s, Paparazzi serves a more cafe-like menu where portion-sizes are traditionally hearty. A few steps further, and the Hotel Juliani’s Zest Restaurant is a stylish Asian joint also on the first line of the coast, although extending inside and therefore relying more on stylish interior design than watery vistas.

The following morning back in the hotel, buffet breakfast is taken in Harruba. Club InterContinental guests take theirs in the Club Lounge, where there’s a smaller but still ample selection of cheeses and cold cuts, bakery and patisserie, fruits and yoghurts, juices, tea, coffee, eggs, bacon, sausage, tomatoes and breakfast potatoes. Served until 11am, it’s a generous spread and one that’s easy to linger over in the sun.

Service throughout the hotel is warm and friendly, although the Club Lounge could occasionally benefit from increased staff numbers – especially when hotel management host receptions on the terrace and then depart for dinner – leaving the debris from their aperitifs for remaining guests to navigate around, whilst the standard staff compliment struggle to restore order and calm.

It’s a minor niggle, and one that has to be viewed, along with the aforementioned comparison to other InterContinental outposts, in the light of the IC Malta‘s room prices.

Even amongst Malta hotels, the InterContinental offers reliably competitive rates, and benefits for loyalty programme members elevate the overall value proposition to an extremely high level. That its location is in a popular business and leisure destination, close to the airport and to diverse natural, cultural and historical attractions, in walking distance of myriad bars and restaurants, steps from the sea and with a full range of in-house facilities, makes the value-for-money even more notable. As a relaxing retreat on a remarkable rock then, it’s difficult to beat.

So much so that Continental Club has already been back.

Twice.

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