Malta festival a highlight

We took a 2-week trip to Malta plus an add-on week in Sicily, April 16-May 6, ’05, with Grand Circle Travel (Boston, MA; 800/221-2610 or For my wife and me, the cost was approximately $6,254 from Los Angeles. The experience became a once-in-a-lifetime highlight.

All the credit goes to our Malta program director, Stephen Micallef-Grogan, who led our Grand Circle group of 27 experienced travelers. Stephen, a native of Malta, is fluent in English, Maltese, French and Italian and has been a registered tour director for 12 years.

The flights from California to Malta were smooth and uneventful. Because of my recent knee replacement operation, I rang every airport security bell as I made my way between flights. Even though I pulled up my pant leg to show my operation scar, I was checked by the officer with the metal wand and patted down every time.

Malta’s Crown Plaza Hotel far exceeded our expectations with its convenient central location, its spacious rooms and the view from our balcony overlooking the breathtaking Mediterranean Sea and the hotel’s azure outdoor pool. The hotel’s buffet breakfast and dinner were culinary delights, and we were impressed with the caring staff — hospitality at its best.

The weather could not have been better, and the Maltese people were some of the friendliest and most helpful people we have ever met in our travels. Tourists and students come from all over the world to see the sights of Malta or to study English at any of the many English-language schools.

During one of our group’s bus trips, we had an exceptional presentation from an actual member of “The Knights of Malta” — most informative and humorous.

We took a trip to the beautiful Island of Gozo, and then Stephen made special arrangements for my wife and me to visit the world-famous Hypogeum. The history of Malta goes back over 6,000 years, with the Hypogeum being touted as one of the oldest ruins ever found. Only 10 people per hour can visit this 3-story underground chamber, which was carved out of stone using antler picks and stone mallets by unknown Neolithic people.

When our guide asked us to “hum” down in the bottom chamber, the return sound was absolutely eerie and brought to mind that the chamber was used to bury over 7,000 people from the days before the pyramids were built in Egypt.

But the highlight of the whole adventure was the local festival of the city of Floriana, featuring firecrackers, church bells, confetti tossed from the roof of the church and an excellent local band made up of about 40 musicians.

We blended with the crowd of several thousand townspeople and cheered as 10 stalwart village men had the high honor of carrying the statue of St. Publius from the church. There must have been over 100 priests and leading townspeople in the procession, which lasted for over three hours.

The men carrying the statue could lift and move it about 20 steps, and then they rested for a time before moving it another 20 steps. They circled around the streets of the town and finally returned the statue to the church.

Night and day we walked the streets of Malta’s many towns, feeling safer than walking in even the small towns of America.

It was a great two weeks in Malta followed by a week in Sicily. This trip far exceeded our expectations.

Shell Beach, CA