Quick question: Where in the world is Gozo?
Anyone? Bueller? No? I'm not surprised. I've spent entire summers backpacking across Europe searching for its hidden gems, and I hadn't heard of Gozo, either—at least not until a few months ago, when I had the chance to visit this sleepy Mediterranean island whose name means, simply, "joy."
Also called the "island of love and honey" and Calypso's Isle, after the mythical nymph who was said to have held Odysseus a prisoner of love for seven years, Gozo is virtually unknown to American travelers despite its location right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. I feel a little wary even telling you about it, actually. It's the kind of place I'd like to keep secret for myself.
Just 56 miles from Sicily and 180 miles north of Africa, Gozo and its sister island, Malta, have been inhabited for more than 7,000 years, occupied at different times by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Brits, the French, and the order of the Knights of Saint John. The result? A lively little melting pot of European, African, and Arabic cultures unique in all the world.
Isle of Calypso
My trip begins with a short ferry ride from Malta, the energetic urban heart of the Maltese archipelago. But from the moment I arrive at Gozo's sleepy Mgarr harbor, it's evident that Malta's smaller neighbor has a quieter, gentler rhythm all its own. Above all, Gozo is peaceful. Empty country lanes, terraced hills swelling with greenery, long coastal stretches where the only other souls I see are the occasional fisherman casting a line—that's what I find waiting for me on Gozo.
I've arranged my visit through Breakaway Adventures, which specializes in independent walking and cycling holidays and only just began offering the cycling option on Gozo last fall. This is one of Breakaway's easiest cycling trips, which suits me just fine because I've always been more of a hiker, anyway. Despite some long hills, the mileage each day is what you'd expect on an "easy" trip, and there's enough time built into the days to allow for all kinds of breaks and side trips. In other words, exactly as advertised.
This is a "fully supported" independent cycling trip, which means you get a map, a packet of detailed route directions, and an emergency contact on the island if something goes wrong. Touring bikes, meals, accommodations, and luggage transfers from inn to inn throughout the trip are also provided. The rest—and the best part of the trip—is that everything else is pretty much up to you. Each day is just a matter of going wherever your bike takes you.
In my case, the first day brings me to Calypso's Cave, described in Homer's Odyssey as a place "sheltered by a copse of alders and fragrant cypresses ... a spot where even an immortal visitor must pause to gaze in wonder and delight." In many ways the entire island evokes this same sense of magic and myth, but nowhere is it more profound than here at the seaside cave where one of the central stories of Greek mythology was born.
Other highlights from the weeklong trip: Gazing through the Azure Window, a massive natural arch that acts as a window to the turquoise water of the Mediterranean; and hiring a boat to explore the Inland Sea, a giant natural pond of shallow water fed by a narrow opening in the limestone cliffs that ring the western side of the island. Most boats, which are available for hire on the spot, will take you through the opening for a look at Gozo from the open sea.
Whether or not there's any truth to the Calypso legend, cycling around this sun-drenched island is an undeniably sensual experience. The scent of wild thyme fills the air along the open country roads, while the smells of warm bread and fresh pastizzi seem to greet you in every village piazza. But best of all—in my book, anyway—is the salty coastal breeze that keeps you cool at every turn. After a day of cycling, nothing feels better than the wind on your face.
Breakaway Adventures is run by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Carson and Carol Keskitalo, who met—not surprisingly—on a bike trip many years ago. Both are still actively involved in the business, with Carol handling the marketing and customer service and Michael focusing on developing and selecting new tours, like the Gozo trip.
Their Gozo cycling tour ranges from $1,599 to $2,062, and includes seven days and six nights, plus meals, accommodations, luggage transfers, touring bikes, airport transfers, and local support in case of emergency. The quality of the hotels is worth noting: All are four- or five-star properties with pools, and two of the three have spa facilities as well. The package price is a good bargain for the level of accommodations and quality of the cycling equipment provided.
The cheapest months to go, both in terms of getting there and for the price of the cycling trip, are January through May. This works out well because the Maltese Islands experience the typical Mediterranean weather patterns: hot summers and mild winters. Me, I prefer the winter months. A Mediterranean winter feels like spring to this New England native.
Most travelers fly into Malta's international airport and ferry over to Gozo. There's also a ferry to Malta from Sicily. If you're flying from the U.S., spend your first night in a major city like London or Paris and then fly on to Malta the next morning. Because there are no direct flights from the U.S. to Malta, it's better to break up your travel time with an overnight in Europe rather than trying to squeeze at least two connections and a ferry ride into a single travel day. (Trust me, I learned this the hard way.)
On a similar note, it would be a shame to visit Gozo and not spend at least one day on Malta. I'd recommend adding this to the end of your trip, visiting the fortified cities of Valetta and Mdina—both with interesting histories of their own—and having dinner at one of the many restaurants by the water in lively St. Julian's, where the night-and-day difference between Gozo and Malta is at its most apparent.
St. Julian's a great place to sit back and relax with a drink, watching the bustle of life in the city rush by while reflecting happily on the careless, untouristed charm of Gozo just a few miles away.