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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Why Malta Is On My Travel List

Okay, so sometimes I get travel inspiration from weird places and Malta may just be the strangest. A few years ago, I was watching the World’s Strongest Man Competition, which I do when I catch it, because I love to see the crazy things they make them do. Previous ones have been held in places like Victoria Falls, where they complained of extreme heat. Like many sporting events, you get some wonderful shots of the destination between competitions, as well as before and after commercial breaks. This last one I watched took place in Malta, and it was stunning. Of course, I’d heard of it, but I didn’t know much about it or even where it was located. Until recently, I actually thought it was a Greek island, but apparently, it’s part of European Union.

Malta travel
photo credit
Since that series of competitions, I’ve been planning a trip to Malta as an addition to a European vacation. I mean, if I’m already there, why not make a quick plane trip to Malta from Turkey or Greece? I’ve done a bit of research to see what I want to see and do there on my visit…on a budget, obviously.

photo credit

The island of Malta is packed with museums of all kinds. I’m partial to ones that are unique, though I’m not adverse to art. These museums have caught my attention:
  • St. Paul’s Catacombs – I’m always fascinated my underground attractions, especially ones that are especially historical. The St. Paul’s Catacombs are interconnected Roman cemeteries that were used up to the 4th century to get around the law that prohibited burying human remains within the city.
  • The Old Prison – Not only can you see what a prison cell looked like, but there is also a permanent exhibit of fortifications and it’s the home of the largest collection of historical graffiti on the island.
  • The Palace Armoury – Amazingly, considering the size of Malta, it is home to the largest collection of arms and armor still housed in its original building. The Palace Armoury is where the Knights of St. John (a group of warrior monks) stored everything they needed to defend Catholicism from the Ottoman Turks.
  • The Palace State Rooms – The pride of the Presidential Palace where you can see the only complete set of the 18th century tapestries called “Les Teintures des Indes”, a portrait gallery of Maltese islands rulers, Baroque ceiling paintings, as well as period furnishings and décor that is over 400 years old.
The Water
Of course there is the beach to enjoy on a Malta vacation, but that’s not the only way to view the water. The Valletta Waterfront is lined with historical architecture, the Quay Wall – where merchants unloaded their wares on Grand Harbour – and fantastic shopping, dining and leisure experiences. This is also where you will find the Port of Valletta, where cruises dock, and an awesome open air museum. It’s a great place to take envy-worthy photos.

If you like diving and swimming in stunning waters, the Blue Grotto is the place to go. On the southern coast, it is a popular tourist attraction, mostly due to the way the phosphorescent colors of the underwater plants reflect on the surface. The colors can be seen from sunrise until lunchtime, and create a riot of oranges, purples, greens and blues. If getting in the water isn’t for you, as I tend to shy away from, then you can hop on a boat to see the caves up close.
When I travel, I may not buy much, but I love to browse. I will take a few things home to commemorate my trip, generally ornaments, unless I find something I just can’t live without. It pays to know what local products to look for, though, in case it’s something you can’t get anywhere else. Malta isn’t as hard-core about shopping as many other vacation destinations, but that doesn’t mean those who love to get a little retail therapy will be disappointed. There are plenty of upscale boutiques to choose from and you can find the finest hand-made silverware on Republic Street. Look for lace, knitwear, baskets and hand-blown glass.

Malta also has a lot of gourmet foods, like sundried tomatoes, wine and olives. They may be a little more expensive to bring back with you, but make excellent gifts. Because of the international influence on the island, you can purchase some of the latest fashions and other European goods and décor. As a lover of outdoor markets, I’d definitely go for some local produce at the Valletta Sunday Market or Marsaxlokk Market.
Besides the foods I plan on buying at the markets, I really get excited about local foods and going out to eat on vacation. I’d expect nothing less than fantastic seafood from an island nation, and with all the Mediterranean influence going on, Malta is going to have some interesting eats. Here are just a few that sound delicious to me:
  • Bigilla – Broad beans with garlic.
  • Helwa tat-Tork – A sugary dessert made of whole and crushed almonds and tahini.
  • Kapunata – A Maltese version of ratatouille made with tomatoes, eggplant, green peppers and capers.
  • Lampuki Pie – A fish pie made with dorado or mahi-mahi.
  • Rabbit Stew
  • Sargu – A white bream fish.
Malta also has its own wines, even though it imports wines from larger regions, which I’d think anyone who can appreciate a glass would want to try. They have the traditional grape varieties, but make sure to try a glass or two of wines made with Gellewza and Ghirghentina grapes.

Where to Stay
Malta may have tons of wonderful hotels, but when I travel, I like to feel like a local and get my own place. Vacation rentals give you more space, so when traveling with more than two people, you don’t feel like you aren’t on top of each other. Most have included parking, a kitchen in which to cook your own meals (that you can make from foods you bought at the market) as well as more creature comforts you enjoy at home, like TV, laundry and WiFi.

Chestertons rents both apartments and homes for short and long-term visitors, many that are perfect for the budget traveler who would rather spend their money experiencing their destination than where to sleep, but still have a comfortable and lovely place to call home at the end of the day. Just doing a quick search, I found a lovely two bedroom, two bath apartment in Marsaskala for less than $80/night. It has a washing machine (pack light!) and a sweet little balcony. Chestertons makes it easy to plan the perfect vacation to Malta, giving you the opportunity to feel like a local.

Is Malta on your travel wish list, or have you already been on a previous vacation?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Visiting Las Vegas' Springs Preserve

On our last trip to Vegas, we had several spare days where we spent time with family and also did our own sightseeing things. Though we've been there a dozen or more times, there's always more to see in and around the Strip. One of the things we've ever done was to check out the Springs Preserve off 95, which brings together local plants of the southwest, native animals, history, science and art to create a fun and immersive experience for visitors of all ages.

Springs Preserve Las Vegas

Vegas has its own natural history museum (which was news to me), but you can get a little taste of evolution and wildlife of the Las Vegas Valley and surrounding areas. Check out this Cumbrian mammoth they had on display! His name was Christopher Columbrian, which I thought was fun.

In this same building are artifacts and exhibits from the beginning of settlers coming to the area. We learned about how the Hoover Dam was built by tons of workers, communications among early settlers, transportation and more. 

The museum part explored he beginnings of what we know as modern Vegas, including the role of the mob, the evolution of slot machines, showgirl costumes and even the life of Howard Hughes and the things he left behind in the room he lived in. 

Springs Preserve is made up of several buildings and outdoor spaces. It's great for kids, because even the art exhibits are fun and some are hands-on like this one that uses light and shadow to show hidden pictures in different works. Some of these were white until you looked through a viewer (as you can see above) and then the piece came to life with color and beautiful scenes. Some were easy to see, but changed as the light changed. The kids in attendance also loved this exhibit, because it was colorful and exciting. I'd love to have such a thing in my house to wow my visitors.

Visitors can learn about early settlement and life in the Valley through interactive exhibits like this one that shows the land auctions.

And this one that allows you to learn about train travel. 

And then this one that teaches you about the Native Americans already living in the Valley and how they farmed and lived along the water to make life easier.

We got to the Preserve just in time for an animal show, mostly for kids, but just as fun and educating for adults.

During the show, you learn about some of the desert's more interesting inhabitants, vote on who you think is the ultimate survivor and kids get to play challenges with one another to show what they've learned or already know about the desert and how to live in the scorching heat and, sometimes, freezing nights.

Aside from the shows, there are also exhibits with native animals and insects.  

In another part of the Preserve is a science museum of sorts. When we weretherewe learned about how light works in certain situations. Here's what it looks like in a prism...or a kaleidoscope of me!

There was also this fun set-up by Polaroid that used different colored lights to produce colorful shadows. Who doesn't want a green shadow? I'll tell you who: nobody, because it's awesome!

Outside, there was a desert botanical garden, which we missed, because it was getting late and also it was super hot outside. Instead, we opted to ride the train and get some cool drinks and a popscicle. The train takes you through the grounds, which also have running, hiking and biking trails for visitors to explore. 

Along the way, if you choose to hike,are shady spots with info about points of interest. Next time we visit, I'll attempt to hit up the outside portion as soon as we get there in the morning, because it looked pretty interesting.

Their gift shop is fairly large and has a bunch of cool stuff pertaining to just about everything at the Preserve, plus there's this sweet bonnet-wearing dinosaur.

We decided to duck into Divine Cafe before leaving and were pleasantly surprised. First off, the food is affordable. Most main plates cost $10-12. Second, the cafe is gorgeous, huge and very clean. Third, they have a wonderful outdoor seating area that has shelter from the sun. 

You order at the counter and then get your number and find a table. When our food came, it was absolutely the most beautiful plating I'd ever seen. 

Eric ordered the chicken milanese flatbread with sweet potato tots and I got the special, which was a monte cristo with fries. Did I know it came with an egg? No, I did not. Have my monte cristos been missing that the whole time? Yes they have. It was actually as delicious as it was lovely, and while it doesn't look like much, it was very filling. If you're in the area, even if you're not interested in going to the Preserve, I'd recommend visiting for the cafe alone. 

We actually purchased a membership while we were here. It was $45 for an individual + guest, which is $15 cheaper than any other garden seems to sell memberships for. It gives us one year of access to Springs Preserve, with discounts at the gift shop, cafe and train, and we can use it at hundreds of reciprocal gardens across North America to get in for free (or discounted). In fact, we used it already last weekend to visit the Oregon Garden in Silverton when we had family visiting and got a discount on admission for the person we brought along. If your family visits botanical gardens and the like while traveling, a family membership at a garden that is in the reciprocal program is a heck of a deal and can really save you year-round, whether you're on vacation or not. We plan to use ours again when we visit New Orleans in the fall.

So, if you're in Las Vegas and looking for something different and away from the craze of The Strip, hop in the car and drive the 20 minutes to get there. It's an affordable way to spend the better part of a day and you'll learn more about the Valley than you thought you could. Tickets run $18.95 per adult, so if there is more than one of you, and you plan to even visit one more garden during the year, it just makes sense to buy a membership if you don't already have one. And if you're a Pokemon-hunter, you'll find a bunch around the grounds and may even get a free button, too!

What's your favorite non-Vegasy thing to do when you visit?

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