WITH the sun high in the sky and our eyes firmly on the ground, we clamber across a rocky ancient olive grove.
Pretending to be lost, I pass the hand-drawn map to my partner to lead the way.
“Left,” she says triumphantly and takes us through a clearing in the trees.
Suddenly she stops, startled.
In front of us is a sumptuous-looking picnic on cushions, with views to the sparkling Mediterranean sea below.
As she turns, I smile knowingly, go down on one knee and pop the question:
“What’s for dinner, love?”
In hindsight, that could have been a truly romantic way to propose. Oh well, maybe next time.
I am on the island of Gozo for an adventure holiday in the Maltese archipelago and it starts with a wild dining experience from Gozo Picnic.
The idea is the brainchild of host Ana, who combines loves of food and nature.
Her locations and menus change with the weather but she always knows the most scenic spots at which to set up.
All you have to do is book, use her bespoke map to hike to your secret destination, sit back and enjoy the meal. And no packing away or washing up.
The country of Malta, about 50 miles south of Sicily, comprises three islands — the mainland, Gozo and Comino.
Known as the island of three hills, Gozo is smaller, quieter and greener than mainland Malta.
It is also the perfect spot to get your adrenalin pumping.
Measuring just nine miles by four, its size means everything is just ten minutes from the centre.
You can be snorkelling in the morning, climbing in the afternoon and kayaking in the evening.
COVID: You must present proof of full vaccination, children aged five to 11 must show a negative PCR test and only 12 to 18-year-olds who have been fully vaccinated can visit.
Current rules require a pre-departure test before returning to the UK and a PCR test on or before day two.
GETTING THERE: Ryanair has flights to Malta direct from Gatwick or Manchester in January from £9. See ryanair.com for details.
STAYING THERE: We stayed at the Kempinski Hotel, San Lawrenz, Gozo with rooms from £96 per night and the Hilton Malta, St Julian’s, with rooms from £99 per night.
See kempinski.com and hilton.com.
OUT & ABOUT: See maltaprivateguide.com, tours-by-vicky-clive; mcadventure.com.mt and gozoadventures.com. Picnic by Ana, [email protected]
MORE INFO: See visitmalta.com
I opt for abseiling and a hike to begin with, both organised by Gozo Adventures.
The biggest abseil drop on the island is 110 metres but I settle for a beginner’s 20 metres or so.
It’s over too quickly, but all the more reason to come back and do it properly.
Leading the hike is guide Stevie and he takes us on a two-hour section of a 27-mile route round the island.
You could do the whole thing over three days.
Instead, we start at the salt flats, where we meet a family who have been farming for salt in the traditional, back-breaking way there for five generations.
As we wind our way around the coast, high up on the cliffs, Stevie tells us of his youth jumping 30 metres into the sea below.
An expert diver and climber too, he says Malta is criminally underrated for climbing and could be the best destination in the world, combining challenging rocks and spectacular views.
There are 110 routes, from beginner to expert, many of them straight up from the sea below.
It is with that in mind I head over to the mainland to try it out.
The short boat crossing takes you past Comino — population two — and the blue lagoon, a shallow cave-speckled cove where it is worth mooring up and diving in for a swim.
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It is in Malta, though, where the adrenalin level kicks up a notch, courtesy of MC Adventure and a via ferrata.
If you don’t know, and I didn’t, the latter is a mountain route already kitted out with cables and fixed ladders to aid climbers.
The route we are taking goes across, more than up, the rock face and is truly exhilarating for a novice climber — 50 metres above the picturesque Mosta valley below.
En route there is even a zipline to negotiate over the drop.
A few nervous breakdowns and tears later, our group makes it round, all with help from the ever-patient and wonderful MC Adventure owner Andrew.
His company began when friends would ask to join him as he climbed for a hobby.
Over time, enthusiasts such as Andrew carved out official routes, making them safe, with backing from the Malta tourist board — and a new industry was born.
But Malta is best known for its sunshine — almost year round — and its rich history.
Over 7,000 years, the country has been ruled by civilisations from the ancient Phoenicians and Romans, through the medieval knights of St John, right up to the British until the Sixties.
After countless invasions, the people of Malta have a siege mentality and it is this, according to our private tour guide Clive, that has helped them deal so well with Covid — the island was long on the UK’s safe destinations list throughout the pandemic.
Historic interest seeps from every town, filled as they are with pretty limestone buildings.
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The architecture has provided backdrops for TV’s Game Of Thrones — including the entrance to the show’s King’s Landing — which was shot in Mdina, one of Europe’s best preserved ancient walled cities.
A great way to get a flavour is with a Rolling Geeks tour.
These are small electric buggies you drive yourself, that come with a built-in street map route and computerised tourist guide voiceover.
I took one round Malta’s historic three fortified cities — Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua — which are walking distance from Maltese capital Valletta.
You go at your own pace and choose when and where to stop and explore.
And if you’re in danger of taking a wrong turn and coming off the set route, the bosses back at HQ, who track each buggy, give you a call and quickly set you right.
History and adventure aside, you won’t go hungry in Malta — they really like to eat — or thirsty, as the island is making a name for itself in the wine world with 14 vineyards and award-winning bottles.
With honourable mentions for the traditional dishes at restaurants Ta Philip and Diar Il-Bniet, a wine-tasting night at Maldonado Bistro in Gozo was also a highlight.
It’s set in a small, stone, cavern-like upper room, where owner George talks you through eight bottles with accompanying light dishes.
Ever wondered if rose was a red or white wine? (Red, with the skins taken out sooner in the fermenting process.)
Or why we use different-sized glasses for different wines? (Clue: It is to do with where taste buds are positioned on our tongues.)
An evening with George will teach you this and much more.
You just have to remember it after eight glasses of each.
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