“Somehow, I can’t imagine lawnmowers being a high selling item here,” was one of my first thoughts while traversing the Maltese countryside. Dry and stark, the rocky landscape couldn’t be more different than the soft green of Denmark we had left behind a mere four hours earlier.
To be honest, Malta as a holiday destination, let alone a diving one, had never even crossed my mind. However, when X-RAY MAG’s very own Peter and Gunild Symes announced a weeklong dive trip and asked me along, I was immediately intrigued. Having never visited Europe outside of the United Kingdom and eager to experience something new, I agreed in a heartbeat. Besides, who in their right mind could refuse the Mediterranean? In the end, Malta proved to be one of the most pleasant and unexpected travel experiences that I’ve ever had.
Comprised of the primary islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino, the Maltese Archipelago is located in the Mediterranean 93km south of Sicily and 288km north of Africa. Occupying a strategic position on the trading route between Europe and Africa. Malta has been conquered and occupied by numerous civilizations during its 7,000-year history, from Bronze Age Neolithic peoples to the Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks, French and British. Brimming with history, the islands showcase an eclectic fusion of cultural, culinary and linguistic elements to create a distinctive character all its own.
From Copenhagen, a leisurely three and a half hour flight delivered us to one of the furthest outposts of the European Union. My guidebook certainly wasn’t kidding; Malta is small. While descending for the final approach, I could easily discern the entire archipelago from my window without even craning my neck.
From the airport, it was then an hour transfer by road to the ferry terminal at Cirkkenwa where we boarded an inter-island ferry to Gozo. Our home for the week was the St. Patrick’s Hotel, located in the small resort town of Xlendi. By the time we checked in and had a change of clothes, it was already 9:30pm. I initially thought we were out of luck dinner-wise, but this was Europe. Unlike at home in Toronto, dinner hours hold no bounds and all the restaurants were open. Not surprisingly, Maltese cuisine has a definite Italian influence, a result of its close proximity to Sicily. After a delectable meal of seafood marinara and Gozo wine, the ‘Med’ had officially won me over!
Still on Canadian time, I arose early the next morning and went up to the hotel’s rooftop patio to get my bearings. The view was spectacular! Occupying a magnificent position at the end of a long, narrow bay hemmed in by imposing limestone cliffs, Xlendi passed the Three Bears test: not too big, not too small. Just right!
After breakfast and a much-needed jolt of cappuccino, we headed over to the St. Andrews Dive Centre to sort out our gear. The shop was already a hive of activity, with a multitude of people readying themselves for the morning dive. On hand to meet us was manager Mark Busuttil, who quickly gave us the rundown on our week’s activities. As we had arrived so late the previous evening, none of our camera gear was ready, so we opted out of the morning dive. I think Mark was somewhat relieved!
When I discovered we would only be doing two dives a day, I was initially disappointed. However, Gozo soon proved to be a dive destination unlike any I’d experienced before; part of the adventure was just getting to the dive sites! While a number of the island’s 54 sites can be reached by boat, the majority are shore dives accessible by road. With up to ten divers or more per trip requiring several vehicles for transport, some serious co-ordination is required. Fortunately, the island’s compact size ensures dive sites are never more than a 20-minute drive or boat ride away.
As the effects of recent unsettled weather were still hampering conditions, Mark decided our afternoon dive would be at neighbouring Comino Island. Piling into Mark’s car, we then headed to the marina at Mgarr Harbour, our arrival point by ferry the previous evening. Here, we boarded a speedboat for the short trip over to Comino. By the time everyone was geared up and aboard, I could see why there were only two dives a day.
Wedged between Malta and Gozo, tiny Comino Island boasts a permanent population of four. Ringed by cliffs, it is home to the dazzling Blue Lagoon, where a combination of powder-white sand and clear water combines to gives the appearance of an immense swimming pool.
Our destination was Lantern Point (L-Irqieqa), situated off the island’s southwest corner. From the anchor point, we descended to a low rocky shelf at 6m. Happily, my 2mm suit was more than comfortable in the 25-degree water. I was immediately struck by the reef’s appearance, which was quite different than anything I’d seen in the tropics. Stubby corals and lush green vegetation carpeted the slopes, resembling grassy terrestrial hills. Mirroring the rugged coastline above, a series of imposing boulders have created a network of huge caverns and swim throughs made for a contorted albeit fascinating dive. Near the end, we entered a large cave at 16m and ascended a chimney through the limestone plateau. Fortunately, the tunnel was wide enough for divers to maneuver without touching the sides. I was already eager for more!
Back in Xlendi, we met up had a pre-sunset walk down the narrow path leading to the old watchtower guarding the bay’s entrance. The light was superb, with a multitude of photo ops at each and every turn. We didn’t make it all the way to the tower, but the sunset was truly spectacular, igniting the clouds and rugged cliffs with glorious colour.
The following morning at the dive centre, Mark introduced us introduced Dino, who was to be our guide and driver for the remainder of the week. An affable Chilean boasting a broad smile and flowing silvery hair, he suggested the Blue Hole for day’s first dive site. Menacing overcast skies made prospects dicey, but we loaded our gear in a battered land rover, which soon proved to be the Maltese equivalent of the Energizer Bunny.
Situated on Dwejra Point a 15-minute drive from Xlendi, Gozo’s most popular dive site features a circular formation of limestone creating a large, clear rock pool. Dominating the proceedings is the Azure Window, a colossal natural arch that is one of Malta’s most photographed natural attractions.
Upon arrival, we immedi-ately headed over to a vantage point to judge the situation. Alas, the Blue Hole looked like a jacuzzi, with relentless waves spilling ...