How Malta is promoting sustainable travel

The Mediterranean country has recognised the importance of responsible tourism

How Malta is promoting sustainable travel

The tiny archipelago of Malta is punching well above its weight when it comes to sustainability initiatives, finds Margaret Hussey

Standing in a field cooing over cabbages is not quite how I imagined my trip to Malta would go. We are in Xara Gardens near Mdina, where a farm-to-fork system is being pioneered by the Xara Collection, bringing sustainability to the table in every sense.

Farmer Cane Vella rummages around in the soil, proudly showing off his courgettes, kale, aubergines and tomatoes as the butterflies flutter and birds sing in the background. It’s a beautifully bucolic scene but with a purpose.

Modestly accepting he is being seen as a trailblazer, Cane says: “Since this project started in January I’ve been contacted by different hoteliers across the island asking me to train them and show them what we do.”

Six months in, the Collection is already providing 50% of the vegetables for its hotel and restaurants. Crops are grown without herbicide or insecticide to preserve the land’s biodiversity.

“We also use 10% of the water of a conventional system,” says Cane. “It looks dry but it’s not. We use recycled cardboard, which means no weeds come through, and our mushroom compost simulates a wooded area to protect the soil.

“It’s important to get the rhythm right, to have a planting pattern to harmonise with the kitchens. In fact, before I plant anything, the first thing I do is check in with the chef to see what he needs.”

Malta farmer

Waste not want not

The scheme is already reaping other benefits. At the Mediterranean Tourism Forum Gala Dinner in Malta in June, The Xara Collection won the Innovation Sustainability Award, given not only for its farm-to-fork approach, but its aquaponics system, where food waste is fed to insects, which are then fed to fish.

The nutrient-rich fish waste is used as fertiliser for micro plants and herbs for The Xara Palace’s Michelin-starred restaurant, de Mondion.

Praising the award, Tolene van der Merwe, director of Malta Tourism Authority UK & Ireland, said: “The Xara Collection is a fantastic example of how to have a sustainable stay in Malta, and we intend to develop our sustainable credentials with many more experiences in the coming months and years.

“We have been working closely with many tourism partners creating farm-to-fork gastronomic experiences and a variety of cleaner and greener ways to explore the archipelago, such as electric buses, electric tuk-tuk trips and e-bike tours, as well as ensuring more of our accommodation partners secure eco-certifications.”

Malta restaurant

Many of those changes are happening already. At the Marsovin Cassar Estate in Paola, they keep their carbon footprint down by handpicking grapes and using solar panels on the winery and electric vehicles for deliveries. They also give refunds on returned bottles, with some being used up to five times.

At the Girgenti Olive Grove in Siggiewi, Ivan Galea wanted to bring olive trees back to the area. He says hundreds were destroyed in the 18th century to make way for cotton plants. He now has 400 trees and six different types of olive.

An obstetrician by day, this grove is clearly his other baby. We are the first guests outside his family to sample his first yield. He managed to produce 40 litres of olive oil, which will be for his own consumption and for visitors to enjoy.

Malta olives

Green planet

We are joined by chef Karl Mallia, who is championing local produce and enthuses over our lunch of simple Maltese food. “This is the taste of our childhood,” says Karl as he pulls apart huge chunks of ftira bread and smothers it with tomatoes. Dipped in the oil, it’s simply heaven.

“We have all these amazing things on the island,” says Karl. “Let’s look after it.” One company doing just that is EcoMarine Malta. Established in 2017, it collects data on bottlenose dolphins and monitors their behaviour.

Going out on a boat from Kalkara Marina with marine biologist Patrizia Patti, we all squeal in delight as we spot a pod of eight dolphins, including a calf and a juvenile, jumping in unison for food.

Patrizia says they can identify which dolphin is which by the nicks and notches on their dorsal fin. It gets a conversation going about how we humans are affecting their environment, and is certainly food for thought.

Farmer Cane meanwhile believes now is the time for action. “That’s why I’m here at Xara, because they put their foot down and said ‘we need to do this’. I already see the effects of this small garden. Imagine if we scale this up, how much benefit it could have. We are importing lettuce and cabbages from abroad when we can grow it on our doorstep. We need to change perceptions.”

Tried and tested

The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux 

Xara Palace

Hidden away in the medieval city of Mdina, The Xara Palace is old-school hospitality at its finest. Stepping inside its 17th-century walls, you’re made to feel like royalty in this former home of Maltese nobility. And with Mdina being known as the silent city – no honking of car horns is allowed – it really is a haven of peace and tranquillity.

The five-star hotel has 17 luxury rooms and suites, some with their own Jacuzzi and all immaculately designed with antique furniture, paintings and luxurious fabrics. Indeed, the decor throughout is impeccable – look out too for the confessional box, a nod to its past.

In the hotel’s Michelin-starred de Mondion restaurant, chef Kevin Bonello conjures up an ever-changing menu of exquisite meals based on seasonality and availability. There’s also the trattoria in the piazza, serving pizza, pasta and salads. It’s open to non-residents too.

Sister property Xara Lodge, a five-minute shuttle away, has a pool for escaping the heat of the day and recharging batteries after sightseeing. And with Malta’s 300 days of sunshine, this would be a perfect retreat at any time of year.

Book it

Rooms at The Xara Palace start from €236 per night. Flights to Malta from Heathrow with Air Malta cost from £134 per person. 

Kirker Holidays offers three nights at The Xara Palace on a B&B basis from £746 per person in low season, including return flights and transfers.

PICTURES: Shutterstock/Karina Movsesyan/bohemama; Dan Cam

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