My criteria for choosing travel destinations can be equally strange and simple at times. It’s December and cold in Austria so South is a good direction. With just a couple of days time, there should be a cheap flight. Israel comes to mind, Portugal too. There’s a tangible urge to go to new places before waving Europe goodbye for Singapore. Suddenly, my eyes get stuck on a little island which almost feels like it’s trying to hide within the Mediterranean between Italy and Africa. Yet it’s there in plain sight, the perfect mix of history, culture and a gentle ocean breeze to blow away the Central European winter blues.

The next thing I remember is alighting from a plane and getting into a cheap rental car, head-diving into the perceived madness of left-side driving on bumpy island roads. Images flash before my eyes from previous road-trip adventures, on my own or with a partner. The freedom of my own vehicle instantly thrills me. I hastily get online car insurance, just in case, and I’m off for Il-─Žofra l-Kbira to watch the sunset.

The next day I check a map of Malta. There’s a place called Popeye Village and I decide I need to go there. A voice in the back of my head keeps screaming tourist trap but my decision had been made. I never knew Popeye has been made into a movie let alone one starring Robin Williams so maybe it’s even quite decent. More often than not attempts to turn cartoons into real-life movies are bound to fail right from the start. Most people love cartoons for what they are. They’re supposed to be drawn and animated not portrayed by real actors.

Popeye Village is a somewhat kitschy movie-set turned theme park. Its location is still superb. The set has been built away from the buzz on a rocky cliff with a small pier and a view out to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s eerily quiet on this December morning, only the ocean winds blast mercilessly. Just a few people showed up, the elves do their Christmas dancing and singing regardless. Maltese Popeye and Maltese Sindbad sing, dance and patiently pose for photos with the few families who did show up. Once in a while, the loudspeakers blast announcements of the day’s schedule. I sit in the sun with a coffee gazing out in the blue.

I continue to drive to Cirkewwa and catch a ferry to Mgarr. It’s almost 25 degrees and feels like a perfectly comfortable Spring day (in December). I take a bus to Dwejra and find a sheltered spot between some rocks to watch the waves crash onto the cliffs and let thoughts wander with the gentle rhythm of the sea.

One fact which struck me about Malta is how seamlessly the architecture blends into the landscape. The rocky cliffs along the coast which must have been used as building blocks for many of the churches, houses and forts of the island both endlessly seasoned by the elements in a white-ish to light brown colour. I couldn’t help but be reminded of New Mexico where the pueblos offer a similar blend of landscape meets architecture.

On my last day, I went to the War Museum in Fort St. Elmo to learn about the long and rich history of the island whose inhabitants have seen many rulers come and go all leaving their marks on its culture, its people and its language.