If it's true what they say about a perfect world - that the British would run the banks, the postal system and direct the traffic; the Germans would make the cars; the French would do the decor; and the Italians would take care of the kitchen -and the bedroom bits - then Malta comes pretty close to perfection. The last gasp of southern Europe, Malta is a tiny, sunny chunk of Mediterranean limestone garnished with a thin veneer of carob trees, grape vines, olives and prickly pears, just 300 kilometres off the coast of Africa.


Grafted on to this cockleshell of an island is a cocktail of cultures - Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Norman, Spanish, French and English - that has left the island endowed with Latin gastronomy, Mediterranean brio, sensible traffic and a Byzantine language that sounds like a convention of garglers.


The history of Malta reads like a heroic epic. In the 16th century the island became the headquarters for the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, an elite corps of celibate Christians whose specialty was storming around the eastern Mediterranean in their galleys, knocking off heads with their broadswords. Yet the knights were also rich, cultivated and educated, and they liked to do things in style. In 1566, when they laid the foundation stone for their capital, the world had been turned upside down by the discoveries of Columbus and Copernicus, and by the art of Michelangelo and Raphael.


Rome and Florence were feeling the first stirrings of the baroque and into this world, the knights conceived their capital, Valletta, a city of culture that would become the mother of all fortresses. Their building material was the local limestone and, on the ragged peninsula that juts out into the Grand Harbour, they built a city with serpentine streets and a fanciful arrangement of balconies and towers that looks like a backdrop for Romeo And Juliet.      -


In spite of Napoleon, who melted down the silverware in the cathedral, and AdoIf Hitler, who did his best to rearrange the architecture, the whole of Valletta remains a glorious monument to the power and prestige of the Knights of St John and they left the city garnished with their churches, palaces and armouries. Most eloquent of all their memorials is St John's Co-Cathedral; its floor paved with the tessellated marble tombs of some 400 knights. In its side chapels are the caskets of the Grand Masters of the Order, as well as a brace of Caravaggio's paintings, including The Beheading of St John the Baptist, one of the 17th century's definitive paintings.


Away from Valletta, Malta is chock-full of wonders. Scattered about the island are remnants of grand megalithic, temples that the Maltese seem to regard with only a cursory archaeological interest - an exotic history is something they take pretty much for granted. From the evolutionary mists comes the limestone cave at Ghar Dalam, where fossil remains of pygmy elephWts and hippos date from the time when Africa and Europe were joined, with Malta somewhere in the middle. There's the Blue Grotto, where the limestone caves are shot with an ethereal light that comes from under the sea; spectacular cave dives; the ancient city of Mdina, crammed with palaces, churches and dungeons; and the legendary site of Calypso's Cave on the smaller neighbouring island of Gozo.


Malta - the island these days stands for the hothouse pleasures. Much of Malta's coastline consists-of limestone cliffs that the sea has gnawed into grottoes, tiny beaches and underwater caves. Except when the sirocco blows from Africa, the climate is generally benign. In early November, when northern Europe was shivering under a blanket of snow, I was swimming in the sea pool at Sliema and looking for a shady table in the cafe at lunchtime.


Wisely, the Maltese have chosen Italy as their most pervasive cultural influence and the open-air cafes, pasta, the long lunch, the siesta, and even the passeggiata - the evening stroll that is the ritual of every town from the Dolomites to the toes of the Italian boot - have all found a place in everyday Maltese life.


For a sunny flamboyant European hot spot, Malta is also surprisingly affordable. This is one of the few parts of Europe where you can sit down for a cappuccino confident that the bill won't leave you short of breath - and there's nowhere that serves a cappuccino quite like Malta. After all, where else can a woman sit at an outdoor table at Tony's Bar, next door to Marks & Spencer, looking across a splendid harbour to the greatest fortified city in Europe, and flirt with olive-skinned boys who live in palaces and speak perfect English.