A decade ago when we set our goal to live abroad, we imagined ourselves traveling from country to country, seeing the sights and immersing ourselves in the wonderful, myriad cultures. Traveling was a huge reason we wanted to live abroad, and we couldn’t wait to get started. This was before we had children, mind you. I always figured we’d have a child or two in tow when we finally achieved our goal. What I didn’t figure was just how challenging and exhausting, mentally and physically, it is to vacation with small children. You know how some people say they need vacation from their vacation? I’m truly understanding that sentiment now. Sometimes I wish we could have timed things differently – either had our children earlier so they could have been older, or lived abroad before we had kids. But, as I like to say, it is what it is. We’re doing the best with what we’ve got, and the rest we’ll look back on and laugh at…someday, right?
Our mission, if we chose to except it, was to take the children to Malta, an island just south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. I had spent the past week poring over a guidebook, lingering over passages about sunset walks along the beach and hikes up to the Azure Window. Sigh. But I knew I had to except my current lot in life, and our best bet was to stick to the kid-friendly sights. Our book had a page dedicated to just that very thing. I figured we could alternate between the sights James and I would like to see (ie: every location used for the filming of Game of Thrones) and the kiddie stuff. And we’d have to pace ourselves, stick to just one main activity per day, if we were ever going to enjoy our trip. Happy kids = happy vacation!
All of this logic seemed sound. We’d never taken both kids on a proper summer vacation before, so I was prepared for vacation by trial and error. But it was more like trial by fire. When we got things right, bliss. But when we got things wrong, we paid for it dearly.
James had been in Malta for a couple of weeks working, and the kids and I flew two hours from Athens to meet him. My trepidation about flying with the kids on my own was for naught: both of the kids behaved wonderfully on the flight. Liam’s fever broke, and he seemed completely over his virus. We flew RyanAir, the dirt-cheapest airline in Europe. The seats on the plane don’t recline. They don’t even have seat back pockets. Instead they pass the savings on to you! Except…they nickel and dime you for checked baggage, seat assignments, food and drinks. They charge 3 Euros for a small bottle of water. No free water. Plus they were constantly making announcements throughout the flight about items for sale – duty-free perfumes and scratchers tickets among them. However, it was the only affordable direct flight, even with the extra charges, so we had little choice. I brought plenty of snacks and books for the kids – Liam had his own carry-on bag absolutely stuffed to the gills. And while I truly did miss those seat pockets as I was precariously balancing a water bottle, board books, and baggies full of cereal on my lap with a squirmy 13-month-old, we managed without any major tears or whining. It helped that we ended up sharing our row with a friendly young American stationed for the year in Crete, and he thought my kids were adorable. One upside to traveling with my youngsters: with an almost seven-year difference between their ages, I could rely on Liam to keep an eye on his sister while I collected our bags from the luggage carousel. And Liam did a fantastic job rolling his own suitcase and even helping me push mine along in line.
Catching a cab in Malta is a breeze. You can prepay at a kiosk in the airport (15 Euros, very affordable), and the cabbie takes you right to your hotel. The first thing we noticed, to my delight, was the steering wheel in the cab was on the right. Malta, a former British colony, is a left-driving country. Liam thought this was very cool. It was still a little harrowing for me…I sat in the front seat on one cab ride and flinched at every intersection.
Our first overnight excursion to Delphi back in March taught us a valuable lesson – no more skimping on space and amenities. We may have over-compensated slightly with our hotel choice, the five-star Grand Hotel Excelsior, in which we reserved two adjoining rooms. But with plans to stay for a week, we knew our comfort was paramount, so we decided to splurge. And my, this place was grand! Outdoor and indoor pools, a huge breakfast buffet, and a deluxe spa. And while it was quite expensive, two rooms really was the way to go. Violet got the sleep she needed, and we had plenty of space to enjoy our little siestas between our daily activities. The temperature had been hovering in the mid-70s while James was in Malta, but remained in the high 80s once we arrived, so retreating to the hotel for the afternoon was pretty much mandatory. Especially for the baby.
I feel like with every trip we’re learning how best to travel with kids. One thing we got absolutely right this time: renting a stroller. I found a place online that delivered an umbrella stroller straight to our hotel, and we could leave it with the concierge at the end of the week. Well worth 50 Euros not to have had a stroller to drag through the airport.
Now came the exhausting part. Where to eat that will have food for our picky boy? How to ensure Violet has enough naps? How to entice Liam to walk in the heat? Actually, that last one we learned on day one: gelato. Lots and lots of gelato. We spent our first day exploring Valetta with a long, hot, hilly walk to Fort St. Elmo. Liam pooped out halfway there, so James carried Violet while Liam took a turn in the stroller. Thankfully Liam is small for his age, so he wasn’t so hard to push, even up hill. After exploring the fort and museum, we took a stroll to the Lower Barrakka Gardens to take in the views of the Three Cities and the bay. Violet needed to nap in the stroller, so it was an excruciatingly slow and whiny stroll. I piggy backed Liam as far as I could, but my pregnancy with Violet pretty much ruined my stamina for that sort of thing. James and I had to take turns. And still…too hot! Too thirsty and I ran out of water! I want to go back to the hotel and swim! Actually, that sounded like a swell idea. So after a gelato break (this was becoming a daily occurrence) and some rest in our room(s), we took both kids to the indoor pool and had a fantastic time. No sunscreen, no heat, no crowd. That night the kids fell right to sleep. Amazingly they slept through a huge fireworks display and a wedding reception that ran until midnight. However, Violet didn’t stay asleep – being in a strange crib in a strange room, she woke up at 3 AM and needed to be nursed back to sleep. Not much rest for mom…alas, this is par for the course when vacationing with a baby. Glad I at least splurged on a pedicure that morning!
Day two we spent at the Malta National Aquarium, a welcome, air-conditioned break from all the heat and exercise. We took a cab, a relatively affordable service called e-cab that James found. I say “relatively” because a 20-minute ride for 20 Euros each way didn’t sound so affordable to me, but it was the cheapest cab we could find. We arrived right at lunch time, so we ate at the restaurant before entering the museum. The views from our table were astounding. The ocean here is so blue and inviting. The aquarium itself was small, but delightful. Really the perfect size for our children, who were ready for the gift shop and some gelato right as we were finishing up. Funny enough, in the gift shop we bumped into that friendly young American we’d sat next to on the plane. I had even been talking about him because he had told us he’d planned to do some scuba diving, and I was telling Liam our new friend was probably underwater right now looking at all these cool fish! It’s a small island after all, right? As we waited for our return cab to arrive, Liam and Violet played on the awesome aquarium playground…and at the snack stand I bought a strawberry slushy with a shot of vacation sanity juice (ahem, Malibu Rum).
After a long siesta, we were ready for dinner. James knew of an amazing burger place in St. Julien, and I’m always willing to go the extra mile for an amazing burger. My husband knows me so well. The children seemed refreshed after their long, late nap, so we took the city bus to save a little money.
The evening went downhill from there.
The bus took longer than we expected, and Violet wasn’t in the mood to sit still. Liam got swarmed by mosquitos at the restaurant, Violet wouldn’t sit in her high chair for more than five minutes, Liam refused to eat his hamburger because it was “too squishy”, and both kids ended up leaving in tears. Waiting for the return bus took longer than expected, and everyone was absolutely beat by the time we made it home.
That’s it. No more dinners out at proper restaurants. That left us with…four more dinners for the week. Sigh.
Tuesday we decided to brave the bus once more for a trip to Mdina, a walled city in the interior of Malta that has remained essentially unchanged since the 1500s. James and I were excited to see the bridge used in the filming of Game of Thrones. I took a bunch of photos…while humming the theme song, of course. As we walked around the city, Liam got slower, and slower…and slower. And more vocal about the heat. And the boringness. Time for gelato! Properly sugared up, we took refuge in the beautiful (and beautifully air-conditioned!) Mdina Cathedral and museum. Liam did his typical speed walking through every room so no one could actually read anything. Why is it he moves so slowly outside and so quickly inside? Doesn’t he realize it would behoove him to do the opposite? Violet woke up from her trance/nap inside the cathedral, so she switched to the Bjorn and Liam happily sat in the stroller. This arrangement cut down on the unpleasant noises from both children considerably.
We took one last stroll outside the city walls down in the moat, an impressive sight unless you are a hot, tired child between the ages of one and seven. Still, I managed to get Liam to pose for a photo with me. And I didn’t even have to bribe him with more gelato.
Back at the hotel, we decided another swim at the indoor pool was in order. We even took a quick dip in the outdoor pool, and Liam was delighted to discover it was shallow enough for him to touch the bottom. Soon enough it was time for dinner.
We figured the easiest thing would be for James to run up the street to Subway and bring us some sandwiches to eat in the room. But Liam wanted an omelet from room service. And my child seriously threw a fit because we wouldn’t order him room service. Check the dictionary for spoiled rotten…yep, there’s Liam. Sheesh. Much arguing ensued…but the grownups got the upper hand, and Liam reluctantly (very reluctantly) ate his Subway ham sandwich for dinner.
Day three, and James and I were already vowing never to take the children on a vacation again.
Violet went down like a ton of bricks at 7 PM, so I decided to take Liam back down to the outdoor pool for a swim. We had a great time playing catch with another little boy about Liam’s age, Norwegian perhaps, who seemed to have a firm grasp of English curse words. After our new potty-mouthed friend left, I noticed the Tiki Bar & Restaurant next to the pool was still open, so I suggested we get a little snack. And maybe a little drink with an umbrella in it for mommy. It would be like a little date! Liam was so cute, remarking, “This is my very first date, mom. Is this your first date, too?” You’ll never guess what he ordered off the menu…
An omelet. And he ate the whole damn thing with a big grin.
We wised up on Wednesday, ditched the guidebook and spent the whole day at the hotel. James got a Swedish massage while I took the kiddos to the pool. Liam befriended a little Scottish boy (I could have listened to his mother talk all day – love those accents!), and Violet walked around saying “Hi” to all of the loungers. The kids had a great time, though managing two kids at the pool by myself was JUST about as much as I could handle. Thankfully Liam is pretty self-reliant, so I could focus my attention on the baby. I had a little altercation with a deck chair – annoyingly about half of them have proper legs at the end and half of them don’t, and I managed to sit down with squirming Violet in my arms on one without legs. The whole thing tipped and the back rest knocked me right in the temple, leaving me with a serious welt. Ouch! And, ugh, embarrassing! We ordered lunch poolside, a messy proposition for a toddler in a wet swimsuit. I greedily eyed all of the adults sipping mojitos and reading magazines, wishing I could swap places with them.
For about an hour that night, I kinda did.
After I put Violet to bed, James agreed to stay with the kids while I took a much needed break. I grabbed my camera and took a stroll through Valetta as the sun went down. The city pretty much shuts down at night, but there were a few things still open. I found a sign at the entrance to the city that detailed the history of all the buildings and statues within, and I actually GOT TO READ IT. The whole thing. Without interruption. I walked up a hill to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, unencumbered by a stroller, a diaper bag, and a slow-footed seven-year-old. I gazed over the battlements at the water and twinkling lights of The Three Cities across the bay. I stopped to smell roses. Literally. A sliver of a crescent moon rose in the west as I walked back from the gardens. I passed a live concert in a language I didn’t understand. An interesting mix of Arabic, Italian, and English influences abound in Maltese culture. A lot of the interior city names sound Arabic (il-Mdina, for instance), but then you’ll pass these iconic red phone booths straight out of Britain. I stopped for gelato at Amorino, and was delighted to discover much more eclectic flavors than we’d seen in other places. Their ice cream cones look like flowers, almost a work of art. No heat, no crowds, and no sharing. A perfect way to end my evening.
Thursday morning we regrouped. What had we learned about sight-seeing with our children? A) The walk up the hill from our hotel is just too much for Liam to handle. Let’s start him out in the stroller and see if that cuts down on the exhaustion (his, not ours, of course). B) No more excursions on the bus. Violet has no patience for a 30-to-45-minute ride. Let’s stick close to Valetta. C) Let’s find some nice, cool indoor activities that all of us could enjoy. D) And let’s definitely hit up Amorino for gelato!
And our fifth day was marginally more tolerable than the rest. We strolled Liam up the hill, and we didn’t hear a peep from him all the way to the Upper Barraka Gardens. We waited in the hot sun for the noon day cannon salute, 45 minutes to see about 5 seconds of action. Still, Liam enjoyed it. Then we took refuge from the heat in St. John’s Co-Cathedral. The kids were unimpressed by the ornate gold inlays on every available surface, nor by the huge Caravaggio of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Liam did perk up when I pointed out some of the architecture – he’d just learned about Greek column types in school – but that’s about as enthusiastic as he got. Violet just wanted to stick her face in front of the oscillating fans, and Liam just wanted some gelato. Off to Amorino, then! Liam and I sat on the sidewalk eating our overfilled cups (Mine was Cinnamon, Salted Butterscotch, and Coconut. Liam’s was, as always, vanilla.) while Violet stuck her little index finger in James’ Lemongrass/Passionfruit mix in order to feed daddy while he bounced her up and down the stairs. Sticky and hot, we decided to skip the Lascarus War Room, the ferry to the Three Cities, and a tour of the Maritime Museum, admittedly ambitious for this beleaguered family. Instead it was naptime for Violet and poolside for Liam and mommy. Liam found a baby girl from Manchester to entertain in the baby pool. He had two generations of Brits showering him with adoration. We saw a Muslim family swimming with their two little ones – the mother was in a head-to-toe swimsuit, complete with matching black head covering. I’d never seen anything like it before. But I guess devout Muslim women have to wear something appropriate for their religion in the pool, and this would be it.
Day six, our last day, dawned early for me. Violet was up at 11…and 2…and 4. I discovered in the morning that she was cutting a molar. She barely napped all day. James and I decided our best bet was to divide and conquer. I put Violet down in the morning, then took Liam up to Valetta to ride the tourist train while James stayed back at the hotel. Liam made it up the hill without complaint…funny how he can manage that when he knows there’s a train ride in it for him! And for once, throughout our 30-minute ride, he seemed interested in his surroundings and some of the sights we were seeing. Maybe because we were relaxing on a ride in the shade instead of hiking under the hot sun. I wish I’d known he was going to love this so much – there’s also a train in Mdina and another one near the aquarium we could have ridden, too. I considered taking him later in the day, but the bus to St. Paul’s Bay would take an hour, a cab there and back would cost 40 Euros, so we just couldn’t win. We spent the rest of our day at the pool with both kids, and after I put a very exhausted baby to bed, Liam and I had another little dinner date at the Tiki Bar. We got to see the sunset, Liam had yet another omelet and vanilla ice cream, and I got to try a little Maltese cocktail. A lovely evening…until James and cranky Violet appeared on the balcony and we had scurry back upstairs.
So, Malta in July with small children…not sure I’d recommend it, unless you plan to sit on the beach or pool all week. Getting around was hard – either an expensive cab or a 45-minute bus ride – and the summer heat was a lot to bear. The hotel was nice, though very pricy, and we feel like we got very little tourist bang for our buck. We may do better in a larger city with sights closer together and a faster mass-transit system. And we may try renting an apartment with a kitchen next time if we can find an affordable one. Maybe by our next big trip this fall we’ll get this whole travelling with our children in Europe thing figured out.