Gozo, Malta’s ‘second island’, is a land frozen in time. Just a ferry ride plus a million miles away from the ‘mainland’, it’s a place where sandstone cathedrals and their sunlit domes preside at the top of undulating hills, like ancient palaces serenely holding court through the sunset over tiny yellow-hued, dusty towns that look as though Poseidon himself carved them from the island’s surrounding beaches.
But despite the constant of curious locals whiling away the hot afternoons by sitting in cracked plastic chairs in the tiny streets, doing not much at all but gossiping, Gozo is multifaceted – perhaps moreso than its big brother Malta. At times, it feels like the whole island has the laidback air of one big seaside town, but take another turn, and the wild west-esque, cactus-lined prehistoric gorges transport you straight into a Morocco meets Southern Italy hybrid.
Where to stay
Look out for the green door because otherwise it’s a blink and you’ll miss it affair when it comes to the stylish gem that is the boutique B&B 37 Gozo. There isn’t much going on in the town of Munxar – a couple of quiet stores and an apocalyptic looking playground to name some of the key features – but when owners Giuseppe and Patti Piazzi throw open those big wooden doors to welcome you, it’s like you’re being taken into the special fold of friend status rather than that of guest. Made up of two converted farmhouses, Hotel 37 feels both sprawling and intimate at the same time, a luxurious yet rustic hacienda of cobbled walkways, terracotta arches, luminous swimming pools and secluded bedrooms and drawing rooms.
Breakfast is a joyous affair of fresh fruit, decadent cakes and crispy pastries with Giuseppe and Patti checking in with each guest to give you their tips for the day ahead. Patti can even make you a packed lunch or cook you an intimate dinner should you so desire. The Italian couple evidently love life in Gozo, a far cry from their old lives running a modeling agency in Milan, but it suits them down to a tee and their affinity for life on the island is simply infectious.
What to eat
Seafood, and of course rabbit, are the name of the dining game in Gozo. From 37 Gozo, wind your way down the narrow streets and porous rock lined hills that look like pumice to the seaside town of Xlendi and take your pick of the seafood restaurants lined around the horseshoe-shaped bay and dine in the sun at the waters edge. All of the restaurants on the Xlendi bay do a grilled seafood special, traditional local stewed rabbit and most importantly, cheap Prosecco!
After lunch, wander up from the boatyard and amble along the long raised path that lines the bay to find your own swimming and sunbathing platform nestled within the rocks, anchoring yourself as if you’re a human barnacle. Sunbathe while you take in the sheer stunning cliffs that look like huge slabs of honeycomb. Dining at the Boathouse restaurant in the evening sea breeze is bliss – feast on lobster ravioli, fresh snapper, prawns, grilled calamari plus local speciality amuse bouches, washed down with Gozitan red wine. A cliff top walk under the moonlight helps the food go down!
For that perfect combination of the freshest seafood and what is singlehandedly the best swimming location I have ever been to, Mgarr-ix-Xini has to be it – especially if it’s good enough for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who partially filmed their upcoming movie By the Sea here in November 2014. After following Patti’s driving directions and trusting that she’s not sending you on a wild goose chase – past the playground and graveyard, down the potholed road, past the cattle farm and through the gorge – the resplendent blue of the Mgarrix-Xini bay reveals itself like a freshly painted watercolour.
The long cove and its gentle crystal blue waters are protected on both sides by shrub-coated cliff-faces, the rocky ledges curving round like the heads of sleeping lizards, the length of their scaly bodies coiled hiding the rocky bay behind their haunches. This makes for perfected uninterrupted swimming – you can swim out for hundreds of metres along the smooth, glassy water and not have your flow interrupted by a single wave. It’s also an ideal background for an afternoon of snoozing, sunbathing and reading. It’s a firm favourite of Patti’s: “When you lie back and look out at the sea, with the breeze washing over you, it’s like being blessed by Mother Nature,” she had told us over breakfast, and we were instantly sold.
The second thing Mgarr-ix-Xini is famous for is the impossibly fresh seafood served in the plastic shack restaurant. It’s not much to look at, but it doesn’t need to be thanks to its already stunning location. The local specialty of deep fried ravioli is on the menu but while it’s tempting, it’s no match for the platters of prawns, freshly barbecued swordfish and tin foil packages of mussels on offer. Despite it’s shack-like appearance, don’t be deceived – if you don’t book a table in advance, you might not get a seat or any fish at all.
What to do
Gozo has become a hotspot for divers, cyclists and sun worshippers so with the sprinkling of historical sites you can access, you have your hands pretty full here. Regardless of whichever of those take your fancy, I’d highly recommend taking an afternoon boat cruise over to the tiny island of Comino, taking in the Blue Lagoon and Crystal Lagoon.
Now, you can take a tour boat rammed with 30 other rowdy randoms, or you can do it in proper Gozo style – on Giuseppe’s private boat. It doesn’t come cheap, but it rewards you with the priceless features of style, privacy and unrivalled local knowledge. With just you, Giuseppe and his friend Joe on the boat, you can stretch out on the back deck and really take in the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea that envelopes Gozo, stretching out behind you as you cut through the water. Did I mention that Giuseppe also provides Prosecco and snacks – perfect! I have to shamelessly say that this boat ride is probably the closest I will get to living like a Kardashian.
The Crystal Lagoon is just that – a quiet ring of blue sea cordoned off by dramatic rocky cliffs, as calm as a bowl of blue jelly. The neighbouring Blue Lagoon suffers the misfortune of its own beauty in that it’s rammed with tourists, turning it into an ‘ant farm’, as Giuseppe irritatedly describes, which is why he advises visiting after 4pm, when it’s still warm but it’s after the tourist boats depart for the day. It’s worth the wait, as it means you can blissfully swim in this sky-blue pool without having to elbow your way past the crowds.
What to see
With a car, Gozo is your oyster and Xlendi and Mgarr-ix-Xini are just the tip of the magical iceberg. Brave the crowds at the natural wonder of the Azure Window, a super-sized stone archway that perfectly frames the sea against an alien-like, crater-filled rock structure that you walk across to see it.
Tiptoe down the cobbled staircase down to Gozo’s very own fiord, Wied-al-Ghasri, a sliver of heavenly beauty (but watch out for the jellyfish).
Hail the pick up truck shuttle to take you down the steep decline to the red sands of San Blas, best viewed with an icy cold beer and freshly barbecued burger from the food shack – this time wooden rather than plastic. If you’re feeling culturally inclined, the ancient temples of Ggantija are meant to be older than the pyramids in Egypt, but I have a confession to make. We chose an extra afternoon of lazing at Mgarr-ix-Xini over a visit to the temples. Forgive me, travel world, I may have sinned but the sheer serenity of Mgarr-ix-Xini is way too addictive!
In fact the natural wonders of Gozo altogether make this place addictive. Long after we have looked back at Gozo from the ferry taking us back to Malta, with the island looking mythical and fading into an outline under the shroud of the afternoon mist, it’s a place that we keep talking about going back to and perhaps one day even taking up our own Gozitan lifestyle.
We flew Air Malta from London Heathrow to Valetta, and hired an Avis car. The ferry from Cirkewwa in Malta to Mgarr Harbour in Gozo runs nearly every 45 minutes.