5 October 2021

How To Spend Four Days on Gozo, Malta

This is the third of four posts about my recent trip to Malta. You can read the other instalments here: Valletta city guide; day trips from Valletta; and how to spend nine days in Malta.

Gozo, known locally as Għawdex, is the second-largest island of the Maltese archipelago, lying just north of the island of Malta and about 50 miles south of Sicily. Second-largest doesn't mean much when it comes to Maltese islands, and it has an area of 26 square miles and a population of about 33,000 (although there's a lot of variation). Its name comes from the medieval Aragonese word for 'joy', which is very appropriate given how much joy its beautiful cliffs, cobalt waters and geological features brought me. I spent four days on the island after my time in Valletta; read on to find out what I did.


THINGS TO DO
Victoria. Also known as Rabat, its local name, Victoria is Gozo's capital and it's also roughly in the middle of the island, which means most roads (and bus routes) pass through and interchange there. The biggest attraction in the town is the Cittadella, the fortified settlement, which has perched above the town in some form since neolithic times, and has seen rule by Barbary corsairs, the Knights of Malta, the French and the English, before Malta gained independence in 1964. You can wander around the Cittadella itself for free but it costs €5 to go into the newly renovated audiovisual visitors' centre (you also get access to several other small museums) and there's a separate admission charge for the Cathedral of the Assumption. If you visit during the day, it's worth going back at dusk or after dark when the citadel is all lit up and looks even more impressive.



Dwejra Bay, the Inland Sea and the Blue Hole
. On Gozo's western coast, close to the village of San Lawrenz (where I was staying), is a small cluster of beautiful places to visit. To access them, you can either walk down the steep hill from San Lawrenz (30 minutes) or take the 311 bus to Dwejra. Dwejra Bay, close to the Dwejra watchtower, is a peaceful place for swimming and snorkelling. There are craggy rocks rather than a proper beach, but the water is clear and you can swim out to Fungus Rock. Do note that it can get a little choppy, however.


The Blue Hole, pictured in the top photo in this article, was one of my favourite places to swim in Malta. From the Dwejra bus stop, you have to scramble down to the sea over coralline limestone rocks and salty rockpools — water shoes are really essential here unless your feet are tougher than mine. Again, there isn't much of a beach, but you can find some sheltered rocks on which to leave your belongings, and then wade into the beautiful, turquoise pools. It's great for snorkelling (or if you're diving you can go through the Blue Hole itself): I saw lots of fish and some crabs, and a woman I met told me she'd seen an octopus there the day before. It's also a great spot for rock jumping. The best time to go is late in the afternoon or for golden hour and sunset when it's particularly lovely. Unfortunately, the erstwhile Azure Window collapsed into the sea in 2017.



When I first heard the name Inland Sea, I wasn't sure what differentiated it from a lake, but the small enclosed bay is connected to the sea through a narrow 80-metre-long tunnel. For €4, you can take a small boat trip through the tunnel and around some of the nearby caves, admiring the insanely blue waters. Try to sit at the front of the boat for the best views.




Xwenji salt pans
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The extensive salt pans at Xwenji look particularly impressive from above but it's worth getting down to sea level to see them up close too. They have been worked by the same family for over 150 years, and you can buy bags of salt (coarse or fine) from the small shop.


Ramla Bay.
Much as I loved swimming at Dwejra Bay and the Blue Hole, I also wanted to have an afternoon at the beach and the red-sand beach at Ramla Bay is one of the finest in Malta, with soft sand that looked just like crumbled digestive biscuits. You can rent a parasol and sun lounger for €10. It's worth turning left and walking further along the shore on arrival to avoid some of the large rocks that punctuate the shallows on the right-hand side as you face the sea. On the hills high above the water is Calypso's Cave, where Greek myth has it that the nymph Calypso lured Ulysses and kept him prisoner for seven years. It's such a nice bay, you'd think he wouldn't have needed too much persuasion... It's a steep hike up to the cave and there aren't any signs or a proper path, and Google Maps isn't that helpful either. You do get some nice views, however.



Tours and other things to do.
 I took a half-day jeep tour around Gozo, which I wouldn't especially recommend unless you're extremely short on time and unable to travel by bus or take a car. I had wanted to do the full day as I suspected the half-day tour would involve lots of sitting around waiting for other people and groups and too little time spent at each place. Sadly, I was right, and annoyingly various miscommunications with the tour company and my hotel meant I wasn't able to do the full-day tour. Luckily, I had already been able to visit a lot of the places I wanted to see by bus, so if I were to do it again, I'd probably just pick one or two more sights to visit myself on my final day.

I would highly recommend the half-day boat trip I took with Xlendi Pleasure Cruises, which circumnavigated Gozo, with three swimming and snorkelling stops, including a final stop at the Blue Lagoon on Comino at golden hour. The seas were a little rough at times, but it was a lovely way to spend four hours on a hot afternoon, and great to see many of Gozo's sights from the water.



On my jeep tour, we made a quick stop at Xlendi Bay, where you can do a nice cliff walk or just swim or snorkel in the turquoise waters of the bay. The one thing I didn't have time for was the Ġgantija Temples, exceptionally well preserved, UNESCO-listed neolithic temples at a site a few miles east of Victoria. Locals told me they are well worth a visit, especially if you're interested in history.


FOOD & DRINK
After having some wonderful meals in Valletta, on Gozo, I was short on time and dining out dropped down my priority list as I tried to visit all of the sights. I ate dinner at my hotel a couple of evenings for ease, and then after my boat trip, found myself back in Victoria on a Thursday evening with no reservation. Sadly, I couldn't talk my way in even to a bar seat or a 'quick one course' meal at Maldonado Bistro, which seems undisputed in its title of 'best restaurant on Gozo'. Casa Vostra, the Neapolitan pizzeria that was next on my list, was also fully booked, but I did get an outstanding buffalo mozzarella pizza to take away, which I ate in the park across the street before taking the bus back to San Lawrenz. Book ahead if you're keen on dining at either of these spots — there was a great ambience inside both.

For a more casual meal, I enjoyed my visit to Black Cat Cafe, an Aussie–Maltese brunch spot, which is super-cosy and has tasty all-day eats and coffee.

In Gharb (pronounced 'arb'), a village close to my hotel, I had a nice, low-key lunch at Ta' Dbiegi Cafetteria inside Ta’ Dbiegi Crafts Village — they're open all day and the prices are very reasonable. There's also a great chocolate/pastry/ice cream shop inside the craft village. I didn't eat there, but a couple of like-minded Londoners I met on a tour spoke very highly of Grazie Mille in Gharb, as did the tour guide.


SHOPPING
As well as picking up a fedora at one of the Victoria market stalls, which you can see pictured in some of the photos of me above, I found a few interesting shops in Gozo's capital. I particularly liked Preti Artigjanali in St George's Square, which sells high-quality, locally produced gifts and homewares. I bought an art print by Stephanie Borg featuring some of the colourful doors of Malta. A few doors down, House of Gozo has cool prints, postcards and other gifts featuring some of Gozo's most loved locations. Finally, Bindi Boutique, at 108 Triq il-Karita', has clothes and accessories in colourful patterns. The aforementioned Ta’ Dbiegi Crafts Village in Gharb is also, unsurprisingly, a good place to shop for artisan goods.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Accommodation
I stayed at the Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz, a resort hotel located just outside San Lawrenz and Gharb, just under 3 miles northwest of Victoria. I had one of the cheaper ('country-facing') rooms, but it was big, quiet and comfortable. It also had a kettle, so the Aeropress Go I brought with me finally got some use, along with the Brio Coffeeworks coffee my friend sent me from Vermont. The hotel has two indoor pools and three outdoor pools, one of which is for adults and children over 13 only. The pools were nice but I didn't spend much time there when there were so many stunning wild swimming options nearby. There's a spa and a gym too, although some facilities were closed because of COVID restrictions. 


As I wasn't sure about eating options nearby, I went for a package including breakfast — the buffet was good, but I'd probably just go to the cafe at the crafts village nearby if I went again. I also ate at the hotel's L'Ortolan restaurant a couple of times. The food was nice — a little on the pricey side, but it was nice to sit outside looking out on the pools, all lit up at night. I'd rate the service too — the staff were all very helpful, especially when trying to resolve the aforementioned tour booking issue I experienced.

Getting there and around
From Valletta, I took the Gozo Fast Ferry to Mġarr, the harbour in the southeast of Gozo. On the way, I then took a taxi straight to the hotel (€20 and about 25 minutes), but on the return journey, I took the 311 bus from San Lawrenz (whose church is pictured below) to Victoria and then the 301 from Victoria to Mġarr (total cost €2 and total journey time of about 55 minutes). There are two buses an hour from Victoria to the Kempinski (the other is the 312) during the daytime. To get from my hotel to most locations on Gozo, I had to change at Victoria's central bus station, but the connections usually worked well and buses were a convenient way to get around. I did also walk from my hotel into Victoria one afternoon, which took about 40 minutes, but as it's a steep hill and a busy road, I didn't fancy the return journey, either during the hot days or dark nights. Renting a car or jeep would give you more flexibility to explore on your own schedule, but the island is small enough that I could see most of what I wanted by public transport.


Money and language
Malta uses the Euro, but I found that credit cards were less widely accepted on Gozo than in Valletta. Most of the shops and smaller cafes I went to in Victoria accepted only cash or — interestingly — in some cases, by Revolut transfer. Outside of Victoria, the pop-up ATMs also tended to charge €4 or so for each withdrawal, so it's worth going to a bank in Victoria if you need cash for tours and incidentals and are staying outside the capital. Buses accept payment by credit card and contactless; I bought a 12-ride card for  €15 in Valletta at the start of my trip. As on the island of Malta, Maltese and English are both official languages on Gozo. Everyone speaks excellent English, but you'll win a few smiles if you learn a few Maltese phrases like grazzi ('GRAT-si'; thanks) and bonġu ('bon-JU'; hello).


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