A visit to Malta's newly opened and first aquarium last weekend was just what the doctor ordered for a bad case of island fever. A startlingly white modern building, it hits you like a breath of fresh air as you round the final approach to Qawra in Malta's north. "It would look at home in any big city!" I exclaimed to Mike as we parked next to its sleek wood on glass on stone edifice.
As we strolled around the complex it became clear that very few tourists had found this little gem yet - a rarity in Malta, at this time of year. It seemed we were the only non-Maltese around.
I was surprised to find a pretty lido (pool facility with bar) just beneath the aqarium, hugging Qawra's shore. And even more surprised to find a cool bistro and cafe sprawling across the aquarium's ground level, accented with lovely modern architectural features.
We had lunch at La Nave Bistro before touring the tanks. The food was much better than expected, but the service was frustratingly slow (even for Malta: we waited 30 minutes for coffee and water that never came). Give them a few more months of practice and it will be a delightful restaurant. The Bruschetta Italiana was particularly good.
After our fill of bruschetta and wraps we descended into the cool, dark underbelly of the building into that unmistakable aquarium smell. The aquarium is compact, but interesting, with displays organized by geographic area, and plenty of attention given to local species. Some of the tanks are open top, too, which gives the whole thing a more intimate feel.
The local fish were my favourite part. It's equally fascinating and terrifying to put a name to the creatures I see (or think I see) when I swim everyday. And to come nose to nose with a tuna!
It doesn't take long to see everything. About an hour, if you take your time. And after our visit I decided it wouldn't be fair to compare this aquarium to others in the world. It has to be viewed within the context of Malta, where the local museum and architectural scene is still developing. It's small, there are no trained whales or dolphins, no penguins or sea lions, no giant tanks and choreographed shows. But in a way it's wonderfully simple and educational, showcasing not only local species, but local diving sites, and the history of this island too. It could do with fewer cheesy painted murals and sound effects (the continuously played boat radar was particularly annoying) but overall it was quite charming.
Malta's National Aquarium is not quite finished yet. Some displays are still under construction, including a mini enclosed walkway through a tank just for children (cool!). But, if you're willing to look for them, there are hints that the aquarium is going to develop into something bigger and better in the years to come - wiggly shark eggs hanging in tanks, and teeny guppies that look like they have plenty of room to grow.
Worth going? Absolutely. Worth waiting to visit? Perhaps.
BY THE NUMBERS
Parking: First hour €4 + €1 for every other hour. First hour free when you dine.
Lunch for two at La Nave, including drinks and appetizer: €30
Admission for two adults: €26