Whisper it quietly, but there remains a little corner of the Mediterranean which is unspoiled, underdeveloped and almost unheard of.
When your answer to the question ‘where are you going on holiday this year?’ is ‘Gozo’, nine people out of 10 still screw up their faces and ask ‘where?’
And it is for that very response that I have been coming back to Malta’s greener, more tranquil sister island since my first visit, aged 14.
Despite first beginning to more regularly pop-up in travel sections of weekend newspapers about 15 years ago, the island retains its charm, calm and peaceful aura.
Gozo, which measures just nine miles by four-and-a-half, sits a short 30-minute ferry ride north-east of Malta, just south of Sicily. Gozo and Malta are separated by tiny, mostly uninhabited Comino.
The island of Gozo is long thought to be the inspiration for the non-fictional Ogygia, the island home of the nymph Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey.
Much of the 1997 mini series The Odyssey, based on the poem, was filmed here, as were scenes from Game of Thrones and the 2014 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie film By the Sea.
Gozo is also renowned for its diving, with many Second World War shipwrecks remaining in the waters around the islands.
But what brings me back here, to this beautiful island with a population of little more than 37,000 at the most recent count, is the warmth of its people, and its pace of life – a world away from the hustle and bustle of London.
I first visited Gozo in 1993 with my parents and sister when we would stay in Nicolina, an apartment owned by our good family friends, William and Suzanne Greaves, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Xlendi Bay, to Gozo’s south-west.
Xlendi is pronounced Shlendy, but more of that later.
In the 26 years since that first trip, I have been back on average almost once a year – to be honest I have lost count of exactly how many times, but what I haven’t lost is my love for the place.
This year I took my family, that’s me, my wife Hayley and our six-year-old daughter, Nellie.
We flew from Southend airport to Luqa in Malta with Air Malta, which provides flights from many London airports each week. From Luqa we took the 45-minute taxi ride to Cirkewwa, the port which connects the ferry to Gozo.
After the short crossing we were back in the taxi for the 20-minute ride to Xlendi, the beautiful fishing village which has been almost my second home for the past quarter of a century.
We stayed in the wonderful Dolman Complex, self-catering apartments overlooking the Mediterranean, and just a few minutes’ walk from Xlendi and all its restaurants and off-the-rocks bathing.
The beauty about Xlendi is that you can do everything or nothing. For the first few days of our holiday my dad also happened to be holidaying in Xlendi – he can’t stay away either.
He’s more than happy sitting on his balcony with a good book and a whisky and Coke all week, while if you have a little one with you the sea is the main attraction, of course.
As with much of the Mediterranean, food is central to daily family life. Fish is popular in Gozo, both the local Lampuki and swordfish are favourites, while the irresistible rabbit stew is the national dish.
The island is deeply religious, and you’re pretty much always in view of one of Gozo’s fantastic cathedrals or churches, of which the locals are immensely proud.
And so they should be, the island boasts many churches, including the Cathedral of the Assumption, in the Citadella, the original walled capital which over spilt to create the modern-day capital Victoria; and the Church of St John the Baptist, which boasts the world’s third highest unsupported dome at Xewkija, which is pronounced Shoo-Key-a, which brings me nicely to Maltese spelling.
My word count won’t allow me to go into the intricacies, but as a general rule the letter x becomes ‘sh’, g becomes ‘a’ and q, j and gh, well I still haven’t worked out what the point of them really is, as they disappear altogether.
It took me many years to perfect the pronunciation of the name of the town Ghajnsielem. Go on, give it a go.
My personal favourite church is the Ta Pinu shrine, to the west of the island.
Gozo hit the world headlines – you might have missed it but I promise it did – a couple of years back when tragically one of its main attractions, the Azure Window, a beautiful rock formation at Dwejra (‘D-where-a’) completely disappeared into the sea.
But Dwejra, with its inland sea and quaint chapel, is still well worth a visit, as are the capital Victoria, Gozo’s main sandy beach at Ramla, the popular coastal village of Marsalforn, the village of Fontana and the port of Mgarr (Imjar).
Other lesser known favourites are the small, secluded bay at Mgarr-ix-Xini (Imjar-e-Sheeny), the bay at Hondoq (amazingly as it sounds), which has fantastic views of the fabulously clear waters at the Blue Lagoon across at Comino, similar views from the Xerri l-Bukket restaurant at Qala (Arla), Qbajjar (Ob-ay-ar) and the salt pans at Xwejni Bay (Shweeney).
Finally a couple of mentions to our friends, and hopefully 26 years of experience counts for something.
Don’t leave Xlendi without a boat trip with Louis and George Attard at Xlendi Pleasure Cruises – you can’t miss them, their empire in Xlendi has gone from single converted fishing boat to lords of the manor, and meals at Boathouse, Da Manuel, Ta Karonlina, and the splendid Ic-Cima, complete with its fantastic views.
If the onset of autumn is getting you thinking about sunnier times next year, you could do much worse than give Gozo a try – but please, do whisper it quietly.
A wonderful view from Dolman complex thanks to booking.com
Website www.booking.com found us the prefect stay in Xlendi, the Dolman Complex Apartments run by the friendly and ever so helpful Stefano, an Italian who, like so many, has fallen in love with Gozo and decided to make it home.
New research by booking.com, the global leader in connecting travellers with the widest choice of incredible places to stay, provides some good insight into the Great British family holiday.
Seventy-one per cent of UK parents agree that holidays are easier once their children hit a certain age. A quarter – 25 per cent – cite the magic age as five, and a fifth cite the magic age as four.
More than half of all parents – 55 per cent – say the best thing about holidaying with a young family is having time to bond, and a third cite learning about new cultures, while the main concern for 70 per cent of UK parents with young families is finding accommodation that will ensure a safe environment for their children.
Six nights in our Dolman Complex Apartment, complete with fabulous sea view, two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and living area, cost €879 via www.booking.com.
Flights: Air Malta flies services from London airports including Heathrow and Gatwick. www.airmalta.com.
Car hire: We hired a small Peugeot from AEL in Victoria, who will also arrange your transfers from Malta International Airport at Luqa – www.ael.com.
Picture: Ben Kerckx/Pixabay