Malta is preparing for the good times
On the roof of Gracy’s, a new brasserie and members’ club in a 16th century baroque palace, blazers, flowers and linen are the order of the day. Rakish co-owner Greg Nasmyth, an English media scion turned philanthropist and Liberal Democrat donor, takes the tour, while the Maltese Eurovision star Destiny softly sings the covers of Aretha Franklin as the sun sets behind the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Valletta.
The mood is somewhat disturbed, however, when peroxide-haired hotelier and former derivatives entrepreneur Mark Weingard appears in a shark-print Bathing Ape t-shirt, heavily branded Dsquared jeans, and studded Philipp Plein sneakers. “It’s kinda sweet, isn’t it?” He remarks through the zipper of his black face mask, followed by a loud Mancunian chuckle.
At first glance, Weingard appears to be an anomaly in the UNESCO-listed honey-colored Valletta, built with sandstone and faith by the Catholic Knights of the Order of St. John, who pushed back the Ottoman Muslim Empire during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Today, the narrow peninsula on the east coast of Malta is a place of ancient romantic buildings in olive green tones gallarija balconies – calmed down after a tumultuous history of being tossed between the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French and British.
As the owner of the Iniala Harbor House, a 23-room hotel overlooking the Grand Harbor that opened late last year, Weingard has become an unlikely leader for a booming new Valletta. – more about superyachts and tasting menus than about Tefl students and tired cruise passengers. “When I first arrived here, it was like the city was frozen in time,” Weingard said of his first visit in 2013. “I saw a city that looked like the best pieces of Venice, Dubrovnik and Havana, but didn’t have a single decent upscale boutique hotel.
Its 20 million euro renovation of four 16th-century townhouses exudes ambition – from the hotel’s gold Riva speedboat to its rooftop ION restaurant, which already has a Michelin star and will be headed for summer by Alex Dilling, former chef at the two-star restaurant in Mayfair. The greenhouse. The quirky masculine interiors were created by a team of designers that included Turkish studio Autoban (also responsible for the Manchester Stock Exchange hotel and Joali Maldives) and there’s a quivering tension between buttoned up old Valletta and sleazy new money. In the 155m² penthouse suite, the hot tub is dominated by an austere St Paul on the facade of the neighboring church.
In my suite, the freestanding bathtub directly overlooks the port towards the ancient town of Birgu, where I can see painted woods luzzu boats passing in front of Roman Abramovich’s 162-meter yacht, Eclipse.
Weingard, a long-time hotel enthusiast who opened the Iniala Beach House in Phuket in 2014, is not the only entrepreneur to have spotted opportunities and tax benefits in beautiful, unloved Maltese spaces. Spurred on by Valletta’s passage in 2018 as the European Capital of Culture and dazzling architectural projects such as the parliament and Renzo Piano’s city gate, more than 40 boutique hotels are said to have opened their doors. over the past five years, such as the eight-suite palace Casa Ellul and Cugo Gran Macina, a member of Design Hotels opened in 2018 by German property developers of the Von Der Heyden group. Having had no Michelin stars until 2020, Malta now has five, including Under Grain, a stylish basement restaurant by Rosselli, another stylish design hotel that opened near Iniala in 2019.
Few immigrants have invested in Malta like Weingard, who left Barcelona in 2013, in part to escape Spanish wealth tax. From the penthouse of his own home – two sprawling Baroque townhouses dotted with odd objects, including a Philipp Plein chair made entirely of teddy bears – he points out some details of his Maltese empire. There is the 14,000 square meter office building he owns in the modern St Julian’s district, home to many of Malta’s gambling and financial firms, and the training grounds of the sponsored Valletta FC. by Iniala. Weingard also owns a five percent stake in Manoel Island, a leaf-shaped island between Valletta and Sliema, where there are plans to turn the old fort into a cultural center, and he hopes to transform the old hospital of quarantine arched facade of the island in a hotel. “It will be the place in Malta, if not in Europe, ”he says.
Weingard’s restless ambition, which lately includes the introduction of the Spanish racquet sport of padel to the UK, seems to have stemmed in part from an unconventional life story. Since his taxi driver father died in a car accident at the age of 36, he has had a curious relationship with death. After leaving Manchester to become a successful derivatives trader, he was late for work at Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. By 2002, he had established his own derivatives trading platform in Singapore when his longtime partner Annika Linden died in the Bali bombings, leading her to set up a Bali-based foundation in her name. Two years later, he was at home in Phuket when the tsunami struck, hanging from the roof as his house was destroyed beneath him. “It’s strange that I’m here because I have always been convinced that I would die at the same age as my father,” he said. “It’s easier to take risks if you think you’re going to die. But I continue to survive.
The same could be said of Malta, which is famous not only for the Great Siege, but for enduring relentless bombardment in 1942. As the only Allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, the Maltese held their ground while 6,700 tons bombs were dropped, resulting in the whole country being awarded the George Cross by George VI.
Malta has always been something of an exception. Its three rocky islands of Malta, Comino and Gozo – just over a hundred miles south of Sicily – have no beaches to rival the Balearic Islands or the epic Canarian landscapes. Instead, he tended to trade on a hodge-podge story, which left wreck dives and evocative walled towns such as the “silent city” of Mdina or the Cittadella on Gozo, fearing God. A thriving film industry has sprung up around its ancient streets, which replaced Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Palestine and Spain in Steven Spielberg’s film. Munich.
Malta has also had to survive a pandemic. The number of tourists has fallen by more than 80% since March 2020, but optimism is finally returning. The country has the most comprehensive vaccination program in Europe, with 63% of them now fully vaccinated. Last week it was added to the UK government’s ‘green list’, meaning returning tourists don’t have to self-quarantine – a milestone considering the British made up over a third of its visitors in 2019.
One morning we take a jaunt along the coast aboard The Lady in Blue, a scintillating 135ft superyacht owned by Carblu Malta, a new yacht charter company. On leaving the port, pass in front of Fort Ricasoli where Gladiator was filmed, England Managing Director Jamie Houston explains Malta’s appeal. “We looked at Italy, Sicily and Greece, but from Malta you can access most of the Mediterranean in a matter of days. Above all, you are based in this breathtaking harbor, where you can almost see these layers of history like the strata of a rock.
It’s not the only new business betting on good times to come. The superyacht drops anchor at Buġibba, a drab concrete tourist resort near northern Malta. The McDonald’s on the seafront has been hollowed out and transformed into a Maltese branch of Beefbar, the beach club concept born in Monaco and now present from Paris to Mykonos and São Paulo.
With a familiar design that sits somewhere between boho Tulum and the striped French Riviera, the poolside cabanas are home to girls with cat-eye sunglasses and men in Orlebar Brown trunks, nodding head to languorous and low lounge music. The scene could be in Mykonos or Bodrum, but business has been going so well since opening last summer that Maltese franchise owner Jean-Paul Testa plans to attract more global brands, including French bakers. Ladurée and Nikki Beach, the American beach club concept. .
Beyond the cabins I can pretty much see the white uniforms of the staff at La Dame en Bleu and across the island of Saint-Paul, where a huge statue on the cliff marks the spot where Saint- Paul swam to shore after being wrecked. I see speedboats circling the coast to the Blue Lagoon, a magical expanse of turquoise water on Comino. In new old Malta, it feels like the good times are returning.
Malta is open to tourists but operates a ‘traffic light’ system with varying requirements for testing or vaccination depending on their country of residence; see visitmalta.com for more.
Toby Skinner was the guest of Iniala port house where the suites start from € 350 per night. Air Malta flies from London Heathrow to Malta six times a week.
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