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Backpack & Budget : Malta, a Mediterranean Mecca

January 09, 1994|LUCY IZON

Malta, a small archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, has a student/youth travel service that provides travelers with inexpensive accommodations and also offers year-round diving programs in its crystal-clear waters.

Located 58 miles south of the Italian island of Sicily and 179 miles from North Africa, Malta consists of three inhabited islands--Malta, Gozo and Comino--and two other uninhabited isles. Malta can be reached by ferry from Sicily in eight hours for about $31, or by high-speed catamaran in less than two hours for $47.

Most inhabitants speak English, and the winters are mild with an average temperature of 57 degrees. The summer average rises to 86.

The main island of Malta, which measures 17 miles by 9 miles, has neither mountains nor rivers. You'll see a landscape of low hills with terraced fields on the slopes. Gozo is greener, quieter and more rustic. Tiny Comino is home to only a handful of farmers. Comino and Gozo are linked to Malta by ferry.

The prehistoric inhabitants of Malta built impressive temples using gigantic stones that have been dated to 3,600 BC--about 1,000 years before the Egyptian pyramids. Ruins are still visible. Exactly how the objects were lifted and moved remains a mystery.

Because of its strategic position and excellent harbor, Malta was once one of the Mediterranean's most important ports.

The seas around Malta are virtually tideless and extremely clear (visibility averages 100 feet). With those conditions, as well as a sea temperature that never drops below 55 degrees in winter, diving has become a popular pastime.

The Maltese student travel service, NSTS, offers international travelers a beginner's diving course that leads to an open-water diving certificate, costing about $310. The fee includes equipment and lectures.

NSTS operates four hostels on Malta. Visitors who want to participate in the dive program are urged to stay in dormitory rooms at the hostels in Sliema or St. Julian's because of their proximity to the diving center.

The hostel in Sliema, Hibernia House, is on Depiro Street (from the United States, telephone 011-356-33-3859). The 1994 rate for bed and breakfast is about $4.50-$6.60 per night.

In St. Julian's, the Pinto Youth Hostel is on Sacred Heart Avenue (tel. 011-356-31-3897). The nightly rate (breakfast included) runs about $6-$10.

Hostels are also in the Maltese towns of Fgura and Rabat. A fifth hostel is expected to open soon on Gozo. Contact NSTS Student and Youth Travel, 220 St. Paul St., Valletta VLT 07, Malta, tel. 011- 356-24-4983, fax 011-356-23-0330.

For more information, contact the Malta National Tourist Organization, 249 East 35th St., New York 10016; tel. (212) 213-6686. Or see the Cadogan guide to Malta ($12.95, Globe Pequot) or the 20-page Malta chapter of "Mediterranean Europe on a Shoestring" ($24.95, Lonely Planet).

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