Gozo: A wonderland of sea caves
Ever heard of Gozo? Me neither until recently. Most Americans have never heard it, let alone been there. At least that’s the conclusion I reach based on conversations with friends and Gozitans. Yes, that’s what they’re called. The first I heard of Gozo, a nine-mile long island that’s one of the Maltese Islands, was last October when I read an article in Outside Magazine. The magazine extolled the many outdoor activities available in Malta, a tiny republic in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily. Those outdoorsy adventures include some of our favorites: sea kayaking scuba diving and hiking. So, after further online research and email conversations with Maltese dive shops and outdoor adventure sources, Malta looked great to us. And the more I looked the better Gozo in particular looked.
Overall, Malta’s total population is 417,000 and is the most densely populated nation in the European Union, with more than 3,000 inhabitants per square mile (1,265 per square kilometer). Compare that to about 85 per square mile (32 per square kilometer) for the United States. However, in many ways Gozo is very different from the rest of Malta. Gozo’s population is only 37,000. While both islands are scenic, Gozo is more rural and has more beautiful, untamed areas to explore. We hiked for miles without seeing another soul. (More about our Gozo hiking adventure in this blog post.) Overall, Gozo has a more relaxed, laid-back feeling.
We stayed in the small seaside town of Xlendi (pronounced “SHLEN-dee”) at the Ulysses Aparthotel. Owner Mark is an easygoing, transplanted American from Detroit. I mentioned to him that most tourists on Gozo appeared to be Brits or Germans. He agreed, saying they also see a few Spaniards, a handful of Italians but very few Americans. “Maybe one in a hundred American visitors,” according to Mark. I told him I would try to encourage more Americans to visit.
For our four days on Gozo, we decided we would spend one day sea kayaking with Gozo Adventures. I booked a one-day kayaking trip for €65 per person with a picnic lunch included. Everything I discovered during my online research made Gozo look like a great place to sea kayak. We were not disappointed.
We had requested to kayak on Tuesday, April 28 but two days earlier Alexandra from Gozo Adventures emailed to say the weather forecast called for high winds and waves on Tuesday. She suggested that Friday would be a better, calmer day. That was fine with us because we were also planning to scuba dive and hike that week. The next day Alexandra emailed again saying Thursday was now looking like the best day. Again, not a problem for us to adjust. I mention these changes because scheduling sea kayaking is always an “iffy” proposition. When you travel thousands of miles for an outdoor adventure, especially a water-based activity, it’s best to build flexibility into your schedule.
So Thursday it was. After a short bus ride from our hotel in Xlendi to the bus terminal in Victoria, we met up with our guide for the day at 9 a.m. Sandra had recently moved from her home country of Ireland to take a job with Gozo Adventures. Our conversation revealed that one of her kayaking clients in Ireland was a friend of ours, John, the admin of the Paddle Me Hard website. Small world! Sandra drove us to the nearby town of Mgarr where we picked up two more kayakers – Andy and Lesley, an enjoyable couple from Great Britain. Like us, this was not their first kayak outing.
We found Gozo Adventure’s rental kayaks and gear to be well-suited for the purpose and in good condition. When we made our reservation, we were offered a choice of either two singles or one double kayak. We chose singles. Mary paddled a Wilderness System Tsunami 145, which coincidentally was the model of the first kayak she owned. My rental was a WS Tempest 170. Both are sit-inside touring kayaks designed for open water. In addition to PFDs (of course), dry tops and optional wetsuits, Gozo
Adventures provided nylon spray skirts. To me this is an indicator of an outfitter that caters to the kayak enthusiast and does not simply plunk their customers into recreational kayaks without spray skirts. The aluminum-shaft, plastic-blade paddles were on the heavy side but I suppose this is a necessary trade-off for rental paddle durability.
Around 10:15 a.m. we launched from the Mgarr marina for our paddle along the Gozo coastline followed by a crossing to the nearby island of Comino. The trip began with calm waters and a few drops of rain. After an hour or so the sky cleared and it turned out to be a beautiful day.
We stopped for a one-hour lunch break at a beautiful beach on Comino, one of the smallest of the Maltese Islands. Sandra provided ham and cheese sandwiches, oranges and water. During our crossing back to Gozo the wind picked up, creating choppy but manageable one-foot waves. We were back on Gozo around 3:15 p.m.
The caves, arches and tunnels of Gozo and Comino exceeded my expectations. Compared to the sea caves of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, some of these caves are much larger and deeper, allowing you to paddle into nearly complete darkness. The terrain here offers great paddling! Gozo is not easy to get to but once there the prices are relatively inexpensive and the memories are priceless.