A hotel in Gozo offers five-star comfort on this most laid back of islands.
Hotel Insider: Kempinski San Lawrenz, Gozo, Malta
Getting to the island of Gozo takes a bit of time. From Malta's international airport it's a half-hour drive to the harbour of Cirkewwa for a 25-minute ferry crossing, then another half-hour's drive to the Kempinksi San Lawrenz. The hotel check-in was fast, with barely enough time to help ourselves to the jugs of fresh lemon tea placed on the side. The hotel is well established on the island but it has just opened a large spa featuring a beautiful hammam.
Gozo is the second-largest island in the Maltese archipelago and in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. For an island dependent on tourism, it is surprisingly rural and rustic. There are only two five-star hotels, of which the Kempinski is one, and probably less than a dozen others in total. Victoria, the capital, is about 10 minutes from San Lawrenz; the sea is a short drive away.
The lobby area is on the third floor with most of the rooms below, but mine was on the fifth with a view of the swimming pool from the balcony. Generously sized, it was functional rather than luxurious, with a honey-coloured, limestone floor, armchairs, a desk and a coffee table, but little to make it memorable. The kettle was on such a short lead that the only way I could plug it in was to rest it on the foldaway ironing board.
Kempinski has done well to make sure that its service standards are a cut above this vibe. The maid service was good, a toothbrush arrived minutes after requesting it and the staff at the newly opened spa were delightful.
Sadly, we arrived at the same time as stormy weather - unusual for September - and so we missed out on eating breakfast on the terrace, one of the delights of the Mediterranean. The buffet was the usual mix of fruit, cereal, eggs, breads, cold meat and cheeses - delicious but with no special touches. There are two restaurants, Trattoria, which serves traditional Italian cuisine but which closes over the winter, and l'Ortalan, the main restaurant, which provides Mediterranean fare. We were there for the buffet night, reasonably priced at €35 (Dh164). The bad weather meant the outdoor space was off limits and fewer tables, so we filled our plates from the huge choice of seafood, salads, roast meats, pasta, fish dishes and puddings and ate in the bar (in low season the menu is a la carte only). If you want to eat out, the quayside Zafiro in San Andrea hotel in nearby Xlendi is superb and reasonable - deep-fried Gozitan cheese cost €7 (Dh35) and the calamari della casa was €16 (Dh80).
This is Europe circa 1970. Tourists come here to get away from it all and because it's so inexpensive - two coffees in Victoria's main square cost just €1 (Dh5). There are also other attractions (diving, climbing and walking are high on the list) and plenty of history. Legend has it that this was Homer's isle of Ogygia where the nymph Calypso held the Greek hero Odysseus as her companion for seven years. Guests come at different times for different purposes: in the summer, it is filled with families, and in the winter the spa is popular.
The spa. I had heard buzz about it before I went because of its reputation for Ayurveda. While I enjoyed the Abhyangam massage (€100; Dh500), one treatment is not enough to produce results but it was promising enough to make me consider checking in for the full Panchakarma, a three-week cleansing and restorative course.
The hotel arranged a visit to see how local farmer Rikkardo - his restaurant within the citadel is as authentic as you can get - who makes a local hard, white cheese. He started by showing us the stomach of a baby goat, the traditional container for the cheese. Although he now uses dishes, he thought we may be interested in seeing the authentic vessel but, as a vegetarian, I can say he was wrong.
The slow pace of Gozitan life and a five-star luxury hotel is a great combination.
Double rooms cost from €120 (Dh571) per night, including breakfast and taxes. Kempinski San Lawrenz, Triq ir-Rokon, Gozo, Malta (www.kempinski.com/gozo; 00 356 22 11 0000).