Way to Gozo; Philippa Clarke finds much to like on Malta's charming sister island.
Nestling in the azure Mediterranean next to Malta, lies the serene island of Gozo.
Less hectic than its big sister, this little gem is a haven for walkers and cyclists and an all year round destination where temperatures are usually above 16C.
As you leave the bustle of Malta behind on the short ferry crossing, the majestic cliffs of Gozo rise up around the little harbour of Mgarr on the island's southern coast. Domed churches nestle on the hillside above, creating a beautiful picture of rustic calm.
All roads lead to and through Victoria, the capital and centre of the island. The citadel towers over the town, a medieval fortress that dominates the horizon.
There is also a new shopping centre that sensitively blends with the soft sandstone architecture of the citadel.
This is a strongly Catholic island, with more than 40 churches - all opulently domed - gracing villages and hamlets. Predating Christianity, though, and older than the Egypt's pyramids, are the Ggantija Temples at Xaghra, the world's oldest free-standing structure. Ggantija means belonging to giants, and it is easy to believe that only a giant could have built these huge pillars and altars.
In Homer's Odyssey, the nymph Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner in a cave by the sea on Gozo. Unfortunately, you can't actually get down to what local legend supposes is this cave, but the area is worth a visit for the view across the beautiful Ramla Bay, with its long, reddish beach.
Going further north up the coast, near Marsalforn, the shore becomes divided into salt pans and shallow rock pools where the sea salt crystallises.
On the eastern coast lies the Azure Window, a natural arch framing the sea, formed millions of years ago when a limestone cave collapsed.
Next to an inland sea is the fishing village of Xlendi, where little painted fishing boats adorned with eyes to keep away the evil spirits bob in the harbour. The Zafiro restaurant here is the ideal spot to watch the comings and goings of the village and taste the catch of the day.
But to really appreciate the rustic beauty of Gozo, you need to explore the countryside. The island prides itself on traditional farming and I experienced this first hand when I spent a morning milking goats with local farmer Ricardu.
The island's specialities are sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil and herbal liqueurs. A popular snack is a pastizz, a small parcel of flaky pastry filled with cheese and peas. The Gozitan pizza, called ftira, is baked in a wood oven with vegetables and herbs.
I sampled many local favourites cooked outside by chef George Borg on the Ta Mena estate, nestling in a valley below Xaghra. This estate is a family-run ecoventure that produces fresh fruit, wine, honey and olive oil. The wine is perfect to sip in the sunset with a pastizz and reflect on the pleasures of the island.
My base was the Kempinski San Lawrenz resort, tucked away in a valley on the way to Dwejra Bay. The jewels in this hotel's crown are an award-winning spa and an Oriental hammam.
Before you head back to Malta, stop at the Porto Vecchio Restaurant in Mgarr Harbour, enjoy a plate of pasta with some fabulous fish, raise a glass of wine and say farewell to a magical little island.
Air Malta flies from Heathrow and regional airports to Malta from PS69 one-way. www.airmalta.com, 0906 103 0012. The five-star Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz on Gozo has rooms from around PS83pn B&B. www.kempinski.com/gozo.
Malta Direct has 7nts B&B at the Kempinksi from PS549pp, inc flights from Gatwick on May 8. www.maltadirect.com, 0845 604 0035. Malta to Gozo ferry is around PS3.90 return. www.gozochannel.com. Tourism: www.visitmalta.com.
TIME: GMT +1hr CURRENCY: Euro PS1 = 1.18 BEST TIME TO GO: Delightful in May
Marsalforn Gozo Ramla Bay Dwejra Bay Mgarr Comino Mediterranean Sea 10 miles Malta
GOOD TASTE: Philippa samples Gozitan fare
ROCK STAR: The beautiful Azure Window