Who doesn’t love living the high-life on the high seas? Join Pia Zammit and step aboard as we set sail for Gozo.
The term ‘boutique hotel’ conjures up images of luxury, intimacy and personal attention. This line of thinking has led me to the realisation that Gozo herself is actually a Boutique Island (copyright: me).Consider it for a moment if you will – Gozo is the ultimate proof that small is beautiful. It is the place where you go out for a meal and find that the restaurant is owned and run by one family, and that most of the produce is home grown. In fact, the chef is not only the owner but he probably caught the fish-of-the-day himself early that morning! It is also the place where everyone you meet will go out of their way to ensure that you have a wonderful stay on their little island. It is a place where even the air seems fresher.
With this in mind, I have a chat with Ivan Mifsud, the managing director of Mifsud Brothers Ltd, about the fact that boutique cruises are now using Gozo as a port of call.Ivan is a firm believer in the attractions that Gozo has to offer, but how does he define a Boutique Cruise Ship, I wonder.
“Well, they are smaller liners that offer a very personalised service thanks to a higher crew-to-passenger ratio. Also, they visit the smaller ports that larger ships simply can’t. They tend to cater to those with more disposable income,” he adds.
“As is the appeal of all cruises, you can visit several destinations from the comfort of your ship; which means you don’t have to worry about packing and unpacking, different flights, taxis, hotels or restaurants.”
I entirely agree, and have always believed cruises to be great ‘guilt-free holidays’, as you don’t have to fret that you haven’t included a visit to every little church, museum, art gallery and bar that your destination of choice offers – the cruise itinerary makes all those decisions for you, allowing you to happily go along for the ride.
And while I know that Malta has long been on the destinations list for liners, Gozo is far more recent an addition. So what changed?
“My wife and I were at a conference on the Seabourn Spirit in 1999,” says Ivan.“One day we berthed in the port of Portoferraio on the island of Elba and the ship later sailed round the island and weighed anchor in a wide bay similar to Marsalforn. We had the opportunity to enjoy the ship’s watercraft, swim in the marina and go ashore. It immediately struck me that this concept would be ideal for Gozo.
“So we got to work, conducted a study and published a short report which we circulated to the itinerary planners of the liners we represented. In we we suggested that they give Gozo a try.”
The turning point came about on 22 of April 2006, when Gozo welcomed the Seabourn Pride. “From the excellent feedback we received we grew in confidence and continued promoting Gozo. Step by step we convinced other cruise lines to visit – SeaDream, Clipper, Saga, Holland America and more!” he explains.
Ivan loves passengers’ reactions to Gozo. He tells me that, “they usually don’t know what to expect but are startled by the beauty and tranquillity of the island. They love the authenticity of the place and the friendliness of the Gozitans.”
He goes on to say that they have been promoting Gozo as an entirely different destination and experience to Malta. “The emphasis is more on its eco-island status, with toursincluding outdoor activitiessuch as arts and crafts, trekking, cycling, 4×4 tours, wine tasting, cheese making, swimming andsnorkelling.
“Using Gozo as a port of call is a win-win for all involved,” he continues. “Whenever a large cruise ship has berthed on Gozo the whole island benefited. Generally half the passengers go ashore on pre-arranged tours while the other half disembark independently and use taxis, hop-on/hop-off buses, little boats and buses to explore. They venture all over, heading in various directions, enjoying doing their own thing and shopping.”
With a grin he adds, “when the Holland America Line’s Noordam called here in August 2010 with some 1800 passengers on board, the whole island rocked!”
In an ideal world, all liners would overnight in Malta and schedule Gozo the day before or after. “This would allow guests more time in Valletta and, in turn,give more allowance for crew changes, medical services and a variety of other jobs that give business to port agents,” Ivan says vehemently.
It would also open the door to evening tours, restaurant bookings and entertainment for passengers and crew on board. Some passengers may even chose to sleep in a hotel in Malta which could prove to be very lucrative for local businesses.
“We are very proud to have initiated this drive to Cruise Gozo,”Ivan says with a smile. “This has led to Xlendi being re-surveyed so that cruise ships can have more accurate depth markings and can steer away from any underwater wrecks and archaeological remains.
“Plus, in 2010, the placing of a mooring buoy off the port side of Xlendi proved to be a major development. Eventually a quay for cruise ships to berth alongside this would be ideal; however it is an expensive option and may take a long time to execute.”
Now Ivan’s dream is to see some 100 cruise ships call into Gozo every year.
“In 2006 we had two; this year we had fifteen. There is still a ways to go but we are definitely gaining momentum.”
Over the last few years the Ministry for Gozo has embarked on a focused marketing campaign in international cruise industry publications and exhibitions – both of which are helping to put Gozo more firmly on the cruise map. To expound this, I sought the opinion of Manuel Tabone, the director of tourism and economic development at the Ministry for Gozo, and he explained that, as an island, Gozo is not seeking to accommodate the larger liners.
“Ships with a 1000 passengers and morewill stretch us too much,” he says.“We can cope with around 700 however, ideally, each liner would bring in between 200 and 500 people. That way everyone would be catered for with no issues of transport management and questionable service. We want everything to be impeccable.
“Plus, a port of call of around six hours is ideal for Gozo as people can explore a lot and feel they have seen quite a bit during their stay.”
In view of all that we have learnt from these two gentlemen, I think that I can safely ascertain that Gozo is indeed a Boutique Island. However, before I rush off to patent the term, I will leave you with the words of Captain Torbjorn Svensson of the Mv Clipper Adventurer after a port of call in Gozo in 2007: “Gozo should be a must on every quality-minded, small- or medium-sized cruise vessel operator calling in Malta.”