A Second Home - Mr and Mrs Hirst
We are all creatures of habit. We all have our routines, our mantras, our pretty little quirks that make life slightly more predictable, in a good way. And we all have our menu with items that hold fond memories: our personal restaurant table; our preferred destination; our favourite hotel.
Yet surely, no one is more faithful to their list than Michael and Mary Hirst, especially when it comes to their hotel of choice. Since their first visit in 1959, the Hirsts have made Malta their second home and have stayed at the Hotel Phoenicia more than 150 times.
Five decades have passed, yet Architect Michael Hirst can still clearly recall his first visit. “In 1959, I was working in West Africa and had just finished a project in Ghana. We decided to take the long way home and planned to stop-over at Kano, Tripoli, Malta, Naples, Rome, Florence and Switzerland en route back to London. I had never been to Malta, yet a colleague in Ghana had recommended the island because of its unique massive fortification architecture. I got a guide book to check what hotels were available. There weren’t that many hotels to choose from and we decided to stay at the Phoenicia. I cannot recall the reason why we chose the Phoenicia, but I am glad we did.”
“At the time,” Hirst remembers, “both Malta and the hotel itself were very different. On the day we arrived, it was a cold November day. We weren’t prepared for the weather - especially after the hot season in West Africa - so we had to stock up on winter clothes from a shop next to Café Cordina, in what was then known as Kingsway.”
“One thing that I remember very clearly from our first visit is that all women wore black. That was a great contrast with the buses, which were all coloured differently according to the route.”
“Even the Phoenicia was very different. Apart from us, there were only a few guests, mostly business people connected to the Dockyard, the military services and the British European Airways. At the time, Malta was the hub for BEA in the Mediterranean, serving Cairo, Benghazi, Tripoli and Rome. The Phoenicia was the Airport Town Terminal, from where the red airport bus departed to coincide with the daily flights. We even used to check in our luggage at the Knights Room.”
“On my return to London for a final interview for a job I had been offered before leaving Ghana,” Hirst adds, “I discovered that the job entailed a major project in Malta, where I had just been and which had left such a favourable impression on me.”
“I got the job and from 1960 to 1963 I returned to Malta regularly every few weeks in connection with my work as the Project Architect and consultant to the War Office. Although the War Office was keen to put up my colleagues and I in Tigne Court, this being nearer the site of the project, it was not long before I managed to relocate myself to the Phoenicia.”
“We had a good time in Malta. We used to go out to the Griffin or for a dinner dance at the Corinthia Palace in Attard, before it was developed into a hotel. We used to have tea in the Phoenicia’s open courtyard and in the evening, there would be dancing in the main dining room and entertainment courtesy of pianist Jimmy Dowling. Eventually, in the 1970s Oscar Lucas started playing at the Phoenicia - I remember him well from his days at the Las Vegas Jazz Club in Valletta. I remember the Pegasus was a thriving bar and an important meeting place for business people. I particularly remember the 1966 World Cup - we watched the final in complete silence in the courtyard and when the final whistle blew, the island resounded with car horns.”
“On completion of my War Office project in Malta, I embarked on a pair of very large projects in Tripoli and Benghazi on behalf of a long established Irish practice. The added bonus was that for the next six years, this job enabled me to stop-over in Malta regularly, always staying at the Phoenicia.”
“Since I retired, we have been visiting our Maltese friends regularly. Of course, Malta has changed a lot since our first visit. Tourism is an industry, whereas in the 1960s there was nothing. There was no development beyond St Julians while Birzebbugia, Marsaxlokk and Marsascala were remote and unspoilt fishing villages. Bugibba didn’t even exist. Just consider that arrivals were such an occasion that they used to be announced in the Times of Malta - there used to be an average of six or seven arrivals a day.”
“Even the landscape has changed. In my early visits, villages were still isolated. You could get lost in Malta. Nowadays, that is practically impossible.”
“The Phoenicia has also changed. There used to be a small cinema and the pool was rather diminutive compared to the larger one that was built later. I also remember Ms Forte putting up the fourth floor of the hotel and opening up the doors to the Phoenix; the Palm Court Lounge being roofed over; as well as The Phoenix terrace being built by Architect Arthur Mortimer.”
“What has remained,” concludes Hirst, “is the character of the Phoenicia. I have had some memorable moments here, and we have even celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary here, with the whole family. And the service is second to none - all members of staff take care of us so well. This is what makes the Phoenicia a unique hotel.”