If you haven’t heard of a stunning, small Mediterranean paradise called Gozo, you’re in good company.
Many an experienced globetrotter scratches their head at the mention of the place and despite its awesomeness, usually doesn’t make the ‘top islands to visit’ travel lists.
Why? Well, I believe the blame lies firmly at Malta’s feet.
Malta sits just around the corner from Gozo, but because it is big, vibrant and known for throwing a good old knees-up, it gets everyone’s attention and consequently eclipses its little neighbour.
Actually, Gozo is known as Malta’s baby sister – the quiet, unassuming baby always put in the corner. However, because the lucky few who happen to notice her in the shadows become so struck by her beauty that they can’t quite believe she’s been here this entire time, she’s happy with her place in the shadows.
I’d like to consider myself an avid traveller, but I too didn’t know Gozo existed until I was invited by my fitness-loving friends who heard about a Barre retreat there.
Barre is a mélange of Pilates, yoga and ballet. I’m no gym bunny. My idea of rigorous exercising is strolling down the escalator to catch my tube. However, after doing some research and learning that Gozo is largely unspoilt, has year-round sunshine, and a rugged coastline framed with ‘apricot sands washed by seas so turquoise it’s a cliché’ – I was able to block out the terrifying reality that on this trip my body would be subjected to more ‘real’ daily workouts.
With that, I put the rainy British weather firmly behind me and smiled as the plane zipped through the grey clouds into blue skies.
From Malta International Airport it was then a half-an-hour drive to Cirkewwa, in the north of Malta to take a 20-minute, five-quid ferry ride into Gozo (as there is no road access to the island).
I was delighted to discover that my fun was to begin as soon as I touched Gozo soil, as there waiting to whisk me off to my hotel, was a colourful tuk-tuk.
This mode of transportation, I discovered, is the perfect way to take in Gozo’s sights. You meander through dramatic cliffs and by stunning bays taking in limestone-walled homes framed by bountiful bougainvillea flowers.
‘Gozo means joy’, my driver tells me, and with every bumpy turn of the ride that had me giggling like a child at Christmas, it was made clear why that is.
The driver also boasts that it was on Gozo that Brad Pitt filmed 2015’s, visually stunning, By the Sea, which film-makers pretended was the South Of France. And scenes in fantasy drama, Game Of Thrones, were also shot here.
It all makes sense. Zipping through Gozo with its quiet streets, caves, greenery, and rugged coastline, it really does strike you as a natural film set.
My tuk-tuk had reached the Kempinski San Lawrenz Hotel and Spa – the biggest hotel on the island with 122 rooms, three swimming pools, and endless stretches of landscaped gardens.
Despite its size, it’s true to its surroundings as it’s low-rise and is built from blocks of the golden limestone from which the island is fashioned, and the terracotta flooring is set off with occasional pieces of traditional dark-wood furniture.
It was here that I would be meeting our Paolo BodyBarre instructors and, hopefully, indulging in spa treatments, post-workouts.
I was told that the classes would be set against a backdrop of the ocean, swimming pools and ancient ruins. They also tell me it will only take four of the nine classes I have in store, of squatting, shaking and quaking, before it all becomes second nature.
As I groan through my first lesson, that first evening, it’s hard to believe that things will get easier anytime soon. But the stunning visual of the sunset does help soften the blow of every lunge.
The next day, after yet another breathless class, it was off to Ramla Bay – a place considered the best beach on Gozo.
With its fine red-hued sands, shallow blue water and curving bay, it’s easy to see why. However, there are a few drawbacks to Ramla being such a draw. Its size and natural beauty attract local families and visitors from the seaside resort of Marsalforn, which occupies the next bay to the west.
It therefore felt busier than I imagined for my mid-afternoon excursion. Still a must-visit, but I’m told the mornings and early evenings are the most relaxed, albeit not the prime time for serious sunbathers.
The following day was a more peaceful affair spent on a private boat tour to Comino’s Blue Lagoon and around the coast of Gozo.
The calm, crystal-clear waters on this long, narrow bay surrounded by rocks and a few small areas of sand, proved the perfect natural swimming pool for hours of floating, snorkelling and sun-bathing. We sailed alongside colourful caves and around the magnificent cliff edges and by the famous Azure Window. This was a huge stone arch that provided the backdrop for the famous wedding feast of Daenerys and Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, that my tuk tuk driver had told me to look out for.
Unfortunately, the structure collapsed in a storm in March 2017, but the site itself is still stunning and its ‘inland sea’ – a secluded pool with crystal clear waters, surrounded by cliffs – was perfect to float around in.
That evening and gruelling Barre class number three later, I enjoyed specially curated picnic dinner, overlooking Qbajjar Salt Pans.
A salt pan is carved from natural limestone rock, into which salt water collects, later evaporates and leaving behind it raw, rock salt that is rich in minerals. Gozo’s Salt Pans are still in use today, some 350 years after their origin, and stretch three kilometres along the coast.
The Gozo Picnic here was like nothing I’d ever experienced – from the epic surroundings to the delicious fare, which in its varied range, included juicy olives, freshly made quiches, crusty, warm breads, locally sourced vegetables for yummy salads and sweet treats, such as organic carrot cakes.
It was incredible, sitting on cushions on the sand with the sound of the ocean crashing into rocks as I sipped on wine watching the sun go down on the horizon.
I thought then that even if nothing tops this moment in the remaining days, this alone would’ve been worth the trip.
My next few days, however, did not disappoint. Visiting places like the 5,500-year-old The Ggantija temples, the ones I mentioned are older than Egypt’s pyramids, was also awe-inspiring. Legend has it the temples were built by a giantess who ate broad beans that made her so strong she could carry her baby in one arm and a bolder in the other.
After touring the mini museum there, I walked through the temples and as the setting sun washed its stones with a deep orange hue, I stretched and breathed in for my amazing fourth Barre class in front of the ancient artefacts. Indeed, by then my body did start to feel like a solid, well-heeled temple. Coincidence?
With my appetite for exercise finally whet as promised, I even did what in my pre-Gozo life would’ve been unheard of – a spot of serious rock-climbing with Gozo Adventures on those steep cliffs I’d whizzed by in that first tuk-tuk ride.
I then enjoyed a lengthy, steep hike, complete with Barre stops on the way, through picturesque small towns and villages. On my way I was accompanied by either lush greenery, the sea or one of the astounding 46 churches dotted around the little island.
However, it was the regular sight of the traditional red British phone box that surprised me the most on my walk.
I’ve since learned that it was back in 1800 when Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire that these red booths began popping up all over the island. Remarkably, they still remain in immaculate condition with many still functional.
The rest of my days were spent visiting gorgeous vineyards, such as the family run Ta’ Mena Food Boutique and Winery, where I tried delicious reds, whites and rose wines while tucking into fresh salads topped with locally produced olive oils.
Gozo, I realised to my delight, takes its food and wine very seriously.
I dined at local restaurants, whose owners spoke effusively about their dishes and were always on hand to recommend the perfect wine pairings.
For example, I spent one evening in Ta’Philip’s in Ghajnsielem – a restaurant I’m told Duchess Meghan Markle once dined in. The owner Philip welcomed me effusively and led me to a table in the gorgeous courtyard. He regaled me with tales of the region and ‘the love’ put into his food.
Gotzian cuisine is a splash of Lebanese and North African influence. At Ta’ Philip’s, known as one of Gozo’s best, the food portions served are huge – excellent value for a fraction of the price you’d spend to dine out in a similar standard of restaurant in London.
I’m a bread lover and loved that bread straight out the oven is served at the start of every meal with a tasty, local sun-dried tomato paste called, kunserv.
I started off with a salad, marinated grilled eggplant, fresh tomatoes, basil and fresh buffalo mozzarella and the option of peppered Gbejniet, a delicious Maltese cheese that has been dried with salty sea air.
Philip delivers traditional food centred around a huge wood-fired oven and for my main I tucked into some exceptional pasta made from scratch.
Another lovely dining experience was at Ta Frenc, Gozo’s award-winning fine dining restaurant set in an old farmhouse surrounded by beautiful country views.
I enjoyed a sumptuous meal in their beautiful, ornate dining-room – a space that wouldn’t look out of place in one of the UK’s stately period estates. I enjoyed a Steak Diane cooked to perfection and a chocolate soufflé for dessert.
With all this gastronomic indulgence, Barre workouts certainly came in handy, and between classes, exploring Gozo lounging by the pool and massages in the spa my time in paradise was suddenly rapidly nearing the end.
However, the final stop on my trip would see me go out with a bang. The epic Citadel, Gozo’s most prominent and dramatic landmark visible from all over the island, certainly represented saving the best for last.
The dramatic fortress has its roots in the late medieval era and, for centuries, served as a sanctuary from enemy attack.
It is a beautiful imposing piece of architecture, which I was able to not just explore but to have a remarkable dining experience right in the centre of.
Sheltered only by the sky, several metres high and cradled by the Goztian landscape, I sipped on champagne, tucked into my last supper and with a sculpted new body, watched sadly my last sun setting on beautiful Gozo. Bitter-sweet, but it was a ‘joy’, indeed.
The next retreat at Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz is operated by Paola’s BodyBarre. Prices start from £2,450 per person, including all meals, activities, and a wine-tasting excursion to Ta Betta vineyard, flights from London Gatwick and transfers in Malta and Gozo. You can head to @visitmalta for more information.
Travel to Malta amid Covid-19
While there’s no quarantine on arrival to Malta, visitors from the UK will need to self-isolate on their return, and the FCDO advise against all but essential travel to the area.
Guidance continues to change, so please check the Government’s travel advice page before booking any holidays.
Since July, Malta has reopened all its famous attractions, including museums, beaches and tours mentioned in the article.
Restaurants and bars are also open, but with restrictions on the number of customers allowed entry at a time.
The country also has the two-metre social distancing rule and the requirement to wear face-masks in enclosed public spaces and on public transport, including the Gozo ferry and rickshaws.
On arrival at Malta International Airport, visitors will be temperature-screened.
Accommodation and dining providers comply to Maltese Government COVID-19 protocols, with all approved businesses displaying a Certified Compliant sticker.
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Credit: Original article published here.