Mediterranean cruising dreams come alive while sailing along the Grand Harbour of Valletta, Malta. The skyline of churches, spires, palaces and tiers of homes with traditional timber balconies is a treasure trove of honey-coloured stone cascading down to deep blue waters.
The 250 cruise ships that visit each year almost topple over as passengers lean starboard to soak up the delights of the tiny World Heritage-listed city.
The Republic of Malta is one of the world's smallest nations - spread across three islands of 316 square kilometres with a population of 400,000 - but its capital, Valletta, is one of the most concentrated historical areas in the world. And perfect for exploring on foot.
When ships dock, daytrippers flow along the tree-lined waterfront, an attractive promenade of cafes and shops. It takes about 15 minutes to weave along the steep, narrow streets and cobbled passageways into the fortress city built on a ridge.
Although Malta's history spans 7000 years and it has been ruled by the great empires - Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and French - the British and the Order of the Knights of St John are the ones who have left the most visible and symbolic legacies.
Along the streets, you see fixtures that would not be out of place in London - red postboxes, red timber telephone booths and signage for Her Majesty's Voice (HMV).
Other legacies include greasy spoons, chippies, pale ale, snooker tables, football, early closing and war memorials. English shares the spot, along with Maltese, as the official language.
But there is another, more mysterious symbol that appears throughout the city: the Maltese Cross. Although it has become a national symbol of Malta, it was used by the Knights of St John, the powerful warrior monks who sailed the Mediterranean and fought in the Crusades.
Those men, whose twofold mission was to defend Christian values and care for the sick, were bound by the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
When they weren't fighting wars they built hospitals.
First established as a religious order in Jerusalem in the 11th century, the Knights of St John occupied Malta for 268 years before being expelled by the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.
The order still exists and is based in Rome, making it the world's oldest charitable institution. It is now known commonly as the Sovereign Order of Malta.
While based in Malta in 1565, the then-grand master of the Knights of St John, Jean Parisot de la Valette, led a great defeat of the invading Turks. The enormous victory celebrations included the commissioning of a new European city. The following year, the grand master laid that first stone. Thus, Valletta, in his honour, was born. Blessed with exceptional beauty and beginnings, Valletta is grand by name and by nature and cruising is the grandest way to arrive.
* Getting there Cruise lines visiting Valletta, Malta, as part of their 2009 Mediterranean itineraries include:
MSC Cruises, see msccruises.com.au or phone 1300 028 502; Royal Caribbean, see royalcaribbean.com; Costa Cruises, see costacruisesasia.com.
* More information See visitmalta.com or your travel agent.