Accidental Island Hopping in Malta
“I’m trying to get to Comino.” “You can get there from Gozo.” “I don’t have a ticket. I need a ticket.” “It’s ok. Just go, the gate is closing. Go.” I was still half asleep from the hour long morning bus ride so I just followed the crowd. I followed the crowd off the bus. I followed the crowd into the terminal. I followed the crowd onto the ferry. I followed the crowd to Gozo. And that’s how I found myself accidentally island hopping in Malta.
Malta is a small island nation made up of three islands: Malta, Gozo, and the smallest, Comino. Only four people actually live on Comino but with the crystal clear waters of the Blue Lagoon, it’s a must-visit for every tourist. It was that very Blue Lagoon I was trying to get to so that I could fulfil my swim-in-the-ocean-in-October wish.
The rain during the first few days of my trip really threw off my schedule. Originally, I thought I’d be able to see everything I wanted to in five days and still have time to be lazy with a book on a beach. The entire country is smaller in land mass than my hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland. And you can definitely see pretty much everything in St. John’s in five days. In the end, I only got to Valletta, Mdina, Marsaxlokk, and Tarxien before that last semi-sunny day. Windy, but sunny. I’d take it. So on that day my plan was to head to the Blue Lagoon on Comino. Maybe I’d even stop by Popeye’s Village and get some photos. Perhaps, I’d swing through Mosta on the way back to my hostel and see the domed church. Who knew. I was finally getting Vitamin D and feeling positive.
Then I ended up on the wrong island.
Even after many international trips over the last six years I can still sometimes get things wrong. The difference is, now I generally have the coping skills to better manage things when they go pear-shaped.
I’d purchased the Tallinja Explore Plus card because it promised, not only unlimited bus travel for the week but also two trips on the Sliema/Valletta ferry and a round trip cruise to Comino. Sweet! Except, there was no information about the cruise. At the airport they told me, “The boat leaves at 10am so you have to be there by 9:15am,” but they neglected to tell me where there was. Or who was running the boat. Or anything. The once hourly airport bus was arriving soon so that must be why it never occurred to me to press them for these important details. I figured I could look it up later. I was wrong.
Hot tip: the Tallinja website will never tell you that it’s not a round-trip ferry from the port in Ċirkewwa that you get, it’s a full-day cruise with Captain Morgan leaving out of Sliema…I assume. The Captain Morgan website doesn’t say where their departure point is exactly.
I did exactly what you shouldn’t. I assumed. I assumed it was a ferry trip. I assumed it would leave from the port in Ċirkewwa at the northern tip of Malta. I assumed there would be someone there who could point me in the right direction. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
When in Gozo…
So I did what I’ve learned to do, I rolled with it. I found myself on Gozo and decided that instead of just jumping back on the next boat out, I would explore a bit. My bus card was good here too. Why not see with my own eyes one of the oldest freestanding structures built by humans? Like a living GPS system I recalculated and decided to hop on a bus to Xagħra and check out the megalithic temple complex of Ġgantija, see the windmill, and see some of the Gozitan countryside in the process. Then I’d head back to the ferry and figure out my ride to Comino.
All started smoothly. I charged my phone while waiting for the bus. The temples were incredible. I also got to check out a 17th century windmill. Time to head back to the ferry. Hmm… Maltese bus stops aren’t really like North American ones. There isn’t always a matching stop going in the other direction across the street. Some of the routes are loops rather than out and backs. Between that and driving on the left, figuring things out on maps sometimes left me confused. I’m usually so good with maps and mentally beat myself up about not immediately figuring this out.
Public Transit Sightseeing
I saw a bus pull up near where I was and it was the correct route number but as I swiped my card and took my seat I had a peculiar feeling… I was going in the wrong direction. I pulled out my phone and compared the blue pinging dot on Google Maps with the saved Tallinja map. Yep. Complete opposite direction. Shit. Instead of hopping on Rte 322 heading to the port in Mgarr, I was instead heading north to Marsalforn. Thankfully Gozo is a small island and I knew that the bus would eventually head back to where I wanted to go so I just stayed on for the ride. I worried that if I hopped off and tried to find a different route I’d potentially end up just wasting more time. Gotta roll with it, right? At least I had a seat and the countryside was cool to look at. Silver lining.
Finally back in Mgarr, I got myself sorted with a €15 ticket from a kiosk outside the ferry terminal that would take me on a small boat to Comino and then onwards to Malta. Before long we were pulling into the dock and disembarking on Comino. I’ve never seen a “beach” like the Blue Lagoon before.
The Blue Lagoon – World’s Unbeachiest Beach
From the dock, a path ran steeply up the side of the hill. At the crest, food trailers lined the path between the bathrooms and the swimming area. There was a small set of lockers where you could stash your bag or phone, charging was extra. Without a single sandy spot to spread a beach blanket, chairs and umbrella rentals were popular. Unless you wanted to stake out a spot on the rocks, it was the only sitting option. €5 got me a chair, no umbrella. Since it was the shoulder season there were lots available. I can imagine that it’s much tougher to get one in high season.
There were a small handful of places where it was easy to get into the crystal clear waters. I stashed my bag under my chair and picked my way over to one ladder. Typically ladders exist to help you get into deep water, but not here. After stepping off that last rung, the water was only up to my hips. The ladder’s purpose was just to overcome the rocky edge. You actually had to wade quite far out in order to get into any sort of real swimming depth. Since my thing at the beach is really just to float and splash around I didn’t mind the shallowness. Despite it being early October the water was still warm and I fully enjoyed my saltwater experience. Ocean frolicking is one of my favourite things.
Afterwards, back in my beach chair, air drying, I noticed the crowds on the dock. It was late afternoon and, according to the guy who sold me the ticket in Mgarr, there were three more speed boats I could catch before they stopped for the day. I originally planned to catch the last one but after seeing the crowd I worried about getting stranded and the stress of that idea kept me from fully relaxing in the sun. Well…frig.
I figured that I might as well plan to go a bit earlier because I wouldn’t enjoy myself by staying longer. After waiting in line at the bathroom to change out of my wet suit I made my way down to the dock. There was no real line or organization. People just milled around and every now and then a boatman would call out a destination or gather up some group or another. I really wasn’t sure what was what but after a few minutes of trying to make sense, a boat pulled up and a guy shouted, “Malta! Red ticket!” The Blue Lagoon-Malta ticket I was holding in my hand happened to be red. “This one?” I asked, holding up my ticket stuff for him to see? “Yes, come on,” and he helped me hoist myself onto the speedboat. It was quite a step and I worried about my skirt hiking up and accidently flashing the dock.
I was the first one on so I took a seat near the front. The edges of the boat seemed awfully high. I was hoping to have a nice view on the 35 minute trip back to Ċirkewwa. I heard we might even swing by and see some caves. The boat filled up and we took off. The promised nice cruise back actually became a slightly harrowing, wet, race back to the port.
We did the trip in 15 minutes and hit so many waves that I wish I’d left my swimsuit on. As we came up along the large Gozo ferry a particularly large wave washed over the boat and soaked those of us in the front. By this point I was using my large Turkish towel I’d packed for the beach as a rain cover to some effect. On another bump the girl sitting next to me was actually lifted completely off her seat. I don’t get seasick but my stomach lurched with every wave hit and by the time we tied up I was feeling a bit queasy. It didn’t help my nerves that there didn’t seem to be a single life jacket on the entire boat.
Catching the bus back to Valetta was more adventure. A large crowd jostled to make it onto the next Valetta-bound bus, since trips weren’t that frequent. I learned in junior high how to jostle with the best of them and even managed to get myself a seat. I was really looked forward to getting back to my hostel for a shower and the date I had lined up for later that night. It wasn’t the day I had planned but it certainly ended up full of adventure. And sometimes, a little accidental island hopping in Malta is just what you need.