I just spent the last five days in Malta with my lao tong (i.e., soulmate), Luzell. We've been sisters from another mister since we were 12 years old. Its no wonder that even now, both of us ended up in neighboring European countries. We just can't be torn apart!

Me and the LT on our last night in Malta!

The adventure started when we decided to do our Zell birthday trip. We skipped one last year since Luzell got married, but the year before we went on an epic trip to Montreal.

The question was, where did we want to go? There are so many places to explore when you're two American gals in Europe. We agreed that we wanted a slightly tropical, slightly off the beaten track kind of place with a few big cities (Luzell being a city girl and me being a huge beach bum). Luzell is the one who suggested Malta; I had barely heard of it. But man oh man, now that I've been, I can't wait to go back, and spread the word on Europe's best kept secret. (Leave it to me to spread the word!)
View from our hotel room. Amazing, right?!
Malta is a very small country located between Tunisia and Italy. It is a very interesting mix of Arab and European culture, at least architecturally and when it comes to its culinary scene. The language is sounds like a strange mix of Italian and Arabic. The country has recently been a safer, cheaper filming alternative to other Mediterranean filming destinations, so there's a huge influx of very famous people and their posses around. However, it has remained relatively untouched by the lionshare of European tourists (not to mention international tourists). I'm not really sure why. It's beautiful, safe and seems stable, politically. From the empty homes, shops and towns, I'm assuming the economy suffered as badly as the rest of Europe in 2008, and hasn't managed to bounce back just yet.

We stayed in Melleiha at the Pergola Hotel and Spa. It was a great place for two vacationing gals. We had a big suite with an amazing view (see above), kitchen, living area and separate room. However, we weren't in the room much- too much to do paired with absolutely beautiful weather. Although Melleiha was slightly far from some of the big cities in Malta, it is easy to get around the island by bus- and very cheap, too (about six euro a day for access to the whole island). 

The first day we visited Mdina, aka King's Landing for Game of Thrones fans and the capital of Malta. This tiny, ancient city is literally walled with a moat around it. With only 300 inhabitants, its probably the oldest-looking city I've ever been in, and probably the prettiest.

The second day was my personal favorite of the trip, when we got to go to Comino and Cominotto, two small Maltese islands visible from our hotel room. We had to travel to the northwestern trip, Cirkewwa, and take a ferry to the Blue Lagoon. Once there, we realized that Comino has a very, very small beach (as in, about 20' by 100'), which is not at all suitable for the hundreds of people thronging it. Therefore, I made the executive decision (that LT was slightly uncomfortable with) that we'd place our bags over our heads and wade through the neck-deep water to Cominoto, a small island across the lagoon from Comino. 

Cominotto from Comino. A bit of a hike!
The hike was worth it. There's much more beach and few fearless travelers ready to make the trek- so if you're ever in Comino and wondering if you should pack your bags, place them above your head and make the trek, I'd say do it! Just beware of the rocks right before you reach the beach on Cominotto. They're pretty sharp on soft feet!

On our way back, we had an amazing tour of the Comino caves. The water was so clear. So, so clear. I almost wanted to jump in and swim if I hadn't been told it was 20 m deep!

That night we had dinner at the amazing Il Mithna. In Malta, it seems customary to get a little appetizer before dinner along with an apertif. I could definitely get used to eating like that! I also loved the seafood-heavy fare, although I had pasta.

The next day, we went to Valleta, the capital of Malta. It was built in the 1500s by knights coming through fighting in the Crusades, which makes sense when you see the absolute opulence of the city and its main cathedral. 

For both beach bums and city dwellers, I would say Malta is a great place for a nice break away, especially with a sister from another mister.


Stockholm, Sandhamn and Nykping, Sweden

I've always wanted to go to Sweden. 

As a girl from the good ol' US of A, perhaps this is shocking- its not one of those traditional European cities that you find crawling with loud Americans such as myself. Blame it on my obsession with Ikea, taste in stark home decor and love for trendy black clothes (not to mention my love for Kirsten the American Girl doll). But for whatever the reason, I love love loved the idea of going to Stockholm, and just never got around to going.

Then, the weekend after my birthday, I noticed that I miraculously had a few days sans travel, meetings or work. I jumped at the chance to go to a place I've long dreamt about. I wrangled in my friend B, who is also from the Baltic and has been to Stockholm loads. Armed with my trusty tour guide, I jumped on a plane and was in Stockholm.

We stayed at the trendy HTL Kungsgatan, which is right in the center of town so we had access to everything within walking distance. 

Having landed at Skavsta, which is about an hour and a half from Stockholm by bus, we were starving when we got there. Thank goodness we were staying in city center so we could hit up Ostermalms Saluhall, a food market full of amazing, delicious Swedish food, with just an easy walk.

Choices abound in terms of what we could eat- either to take away and prepare ourselves, which would have been difficult in a hotel, or to stay and eat. We settled on eating at Linda Elmqvist, a seafood restaurant tucked at the back of the market. I have to say, my prawns Alexandra were a very interesting, delicious introduction to traditional Swedish fare. If anyone knows where I can find an English version of the recipe, let me know!

After lunch, a walk around town was much needed to work off our food and get an idea of what was what in town. Stockholm, architecturally, is interesting. Some of it seems to be a Nordic take on the Parisian style, while some of it is very traditionally Scandinavian. The streets in the center are very narrow and cobbled, which is again is not what I was expecting. It was much more grand than I anticipated. I suppose I was expecting the modesty of a city like Reyjavik and the space of a city like Copenhagen, considering the similar cultural roots. But Stockholm is definitely a city on to itself.

The waterfront in Stockholm.

Jacobs Kyrka in the city center

Tourist fodder in Gamla Stan (Old Town). Pretty funny, right?

Storkyrkan, or Stockholm Cathedral

A pretty corner in Gamla Stan

More Gamla Stan

We came to Stockholm during cherry blossom season.
After several hours of wandering, we got a bit chilly. Stockholm in late April is still slightly nippy- or at least, sometimes (but I'll get to that). So we decided to try more traditional Swedish food by going to what our new friend the hotel receptionist called one of the coolest oldest pubs in Stockholm, Der Gyldene Freden. Located in Gamla Stan, or "Old Town," its tucked down one of the narrow little alleyways, making it feel cosy against the cool night air.

The meal was spectacular, but the ambience probably the best part. Candle lit with grey and blue walls and minimal decorations, the attention here is on simple, traditional Scandinavian fare like my asparagus soup above. (One thing I've learned from traveling in the Nordic countries is that they love their asparagus in the spring. Can't hate that!)

After dinner we wandered the tiny alleys of Gamla Stan and stumbled upon Stampen,  a jazz bar. I cannot tell you how elated I felt in that place. We walked in and a band I thought was American was breaking it down with great folk tunes. At the end of every song the singer would scream "Praise the good LAWD!" and then speak a few words of accentless, perfect American English before lapsing in to Swedish. We were probably the youngest people in the crowd by about 10 years, but the music was great, the beer was cold and the crowd just wanted to dance and have fun. 50-year old Swedes know how to get down, apparently.

The next day we went to Skansen, or the zoo. It had been years since I'd been to a zoo, but I couldn't miss the chance to see bears and reindeer.

The zoo is really cool because not only are there tons of Scandinavian animals there (we didn't get to see a wolf or lynx, sadly) there's also a little part of it that has a traditional Swedish village (recreation, of course) complete with some crafters and, my personal favorite thing, a bakery that sells traditional Swedish cinnamon rolls. Obviously had to walk through and treat myself.

Pottery made by the zoo staff.

Part of the zoo village.

After my surprisingly good time at the zoo (I'm not huge on caging animals, even if done "humanely") came what was probably the highlight of my trip, the Abba Museum.

This was another surprisingly good time. I'm all for museums, but generally I like museums that cover more historical topics. I'm not even a big one for the natural history museums in DC or London, and while I like art museums I prefer to dip in and out. So when I heard the tickets were the equivalent of $25, I gritted my teeth and prepared to grin and bear it through the museum.

Little did I know. It is one of the best museums I've ever been to!

Not only do you learn the story of Abba, which I didn't know very much about, but you get to BE Abba. For someone who grew up listening to A*Teens (the 90s cover version of Abba), this was very exciting. You get to mix an Abba song, sing an Abba song, dance with holographic images of the band on a real stage, and dance to an Abba song. Very interactive and involving a lot of silliness, which is perfect for me, obviously.

Next up was the Vasa Museum, which houses an ancient Viking ship that sank in the mid-1600s. It was just dredged up about 50 years ago and is undergoing restoration. The pictures really don't do the scope and detail of this ship justice. In a way, its no wonder this behemoth sank within a few meters of where it set sail in the Stockholm habor. It is huge. HUGE.

After all that touristing we obviously had worked up an appetite, so on to the next upscale Swedish restaurant-- this time, B wanted reindeer (which just made me sad, especially after seeing them earlier), which we found at Fem Sma Hus. Also tucked away in Gamla Stan, this place was jam packed with locals and tourists alike and seems really, really popular. Considering the spectacular food, its no wonder. While I didn't try the reindeer, I did have a fabulous soup and delicious fish. Would really recommend it.

The next day we set sail to Sandhamn, an island in the Stockholm archipelago about 90 minutes from the city. To get there, you need to take a small ferry and go through most of the tiny islands where Swedes have their summer homes. Its a beautiful trip.

Sandhamn itself is just idyllic, although it wasn't yet really open for summer. There are only 90 full time residents and no cars on the island, so you can imagine how small it is, and how undeveloped. Its amazing that so many people have actually set up house here considering the ban on cars, in fact. 

We walked literally the entire island, including a good hike through forest to the "other side," which faces the Baltic sea rather than the archipelago and other island. Its much less inhabited (imagine that, considering its so tiny to begin with) and therefore you really feel like you have the place to yourself.

We sat out on a rock that jutted over the sea and ate a picnic lunch in the sun. Then we fell asleep with full stomachs on the rock for an hour or so...and woke up roasting in our jackets!

So we decided to get in the Baltic sea for a little dip- we'd optimistically brought our bathing suits in case the opportunity presented itself. It would probably have been better if we'd just dipped in our toes, it was still waaaaay too early for a swim considering the water was 4 degrees C (about 38 F). But still pretty, and a very effective way to cool off.

After a stunning ride back to Stockholm watching the sunset...

We hit the Ice Bar, a bar clearly made only of ice. Including the cups you drink from.

The drinks there are pricey, but the ambience is pretty cool, and you get hardcore gear to wrap up in to go in.

The next morning, surprisingly not much the worse for wear (thanks, I imagine, to the cold in the bar), we explored Sodermalm, the Brooklyn of Stockholm. Apparently its up and coming, and a bit further from the city center. Its position on a hilly island offered great views of Stockholm.

After that, it was time to leave. We had one more night in Sweden, so we decided to visit a small village near the airport for the evening, Nykoping. It was very, very relaxed and provincial, which I don't think B liked too much. But despite its size and lack of good dinner options (we ended up eating at the Scandic, which was fine) it was pretty nonetheless.

All in all, a very busy trip to Stockholm hitting what I would imagine to be the tourist highlights. I'll definitely need to go back to get a better idea of some of the things locals do, but for a first trip, it was just what I wanted: an entree into Scandinavian city life.