Island-hopping in the Med

Forget the ferry: open-water swimming is the healthy way to go island-hopping in the Med. Kitty Melrose manages to keep her head above water
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The Independent Travel

"Sharks? They'll be the least of your worries," says Simon Murie, the owner of SwimTrek from his south London office. I'm of the Jaws generation. My dad taught me to swim, aged five; there were a couple of school galas, then along came The Big Fish film. Since then? One scuba dive in Belize, and the guide still has my nail marks to prove it. Yes, I had to hold his hand. I don't even own a decent cossie.

Yet here I am, signing up for a swimming holiday in Malta. SwimTrek is a one-of-a-kind adventure company, offering a unique way to island-hop - forget lazily sailing or flying across: you swim between them. My week would consist of swims (sometimes 6km long) and bay crossings along with hikes and walks. You're advised to train for 12 weeks before going. "But it's a holiday, not an ordeal," Simon continues. "If you want to swim a little, that's up to you."

It's easy to trust Simon, 35, a giant in Speedos, whose catchphrases include "This is what it's all about!" and "Let's do it!". Aussie-born (well, he had to be), his lifeguard dad passed down his passion for open water. Swimming the Channel in 13 hours and 45 minutes is just one of his feats.

After open-water swimming by himself in spots around the world, Simon, a former mining engineer, found that the cost of hiring a boat mounted up. "That's when I thought, 'I could open this up'," he tells me. So he created SwimTrek in 2003, offering trips to Greece, the Scilly Isles and Croatia, among other destinations. He's added the US Virgin Islands to the location list this winter and he has so far recruited 15 experienced guides.

"There's something special about seeing an island this way - just jumping in and swimming to it. There's a great sense of freedom... and what a way to arrive," he says. "It's challenging to enter a totally natural world. People feel good for pushing themselves."

With groups of up to 14, the range of clients is not as niche as you'd think. There are couples, singles, families and triathletes, as well as casual pool swimmers and rank amateurs, like me. The youngest has been 16, the oldest 75. The best known is Little Britain actor David Walliams, who was training for his July Channel crossing attempt for Sports Relief. For most, though, it's about fun and fitness, a love of the wate and meeting people along the way. Or maybe skiing and sea-kayaking just don't do it for them any more.

"I was looking for a new challenge - and it was," Robin, 51, a writer from Dorking tells me. "The wind and the waves bring you back to life." And some. Later I realise that he can swim faster than the Malta to Comino ferry.

Others in my group include Sally, 41, an IT consultant from London; Fiona, 29, who works in a bank near Belfast; and Peter, 46, a chartered forester from Edinburgh back for his fourth SwimTrek. Three out of five "Trekkies" return for more.

First up is a practice session so that Simon and our second guide, Georgina, 27, can assess us. I throw hopeful front crawl shapes - for 30 seconds. Then, struck by the salt and swell you don't get in a pool, I completely flounder, trailing in last. Uh-oh, so this is open water.

We're split up according to speed - fast, medium and me, in the "scenic swimmers" group - a polite way of saying slow. Then, from our hotel's sun terrace overlooking the harbour, Simon points out the next day's destination, St Paul's Island. I turn panic-pale. Safety isn't an issue as at any point there's always an escort boat beside you to rest your soggy gills in. It's how far away that speck looks - about 2.5km - and the fact that there's no edge to hold on to. What on earth have I got myself into? That night I call my boyfriend and whimper, "I can't do it."

But the next morning, there's nothing for it but to plunge in, opting for my gala breaststroke (crawl's on hold for now). Five hundred metres out and the seabed drops away, but I haven't got time to be freaked by the depth. The water is choppy and in between mouthfuls of Med, I'm tossed about in the swell like a cork. I need to focus.

Simon yells regular encouragement from the boat, then somewhere between the two islands, asks: "Are you enjoying it?" Mmmm - not quite at that point yet. Breathing in the right places (ie not underwater) is more my priority. It's less tiring than I thought - in the sea you're more buoyant - and the bemused looks from passing fisherman are funny. But until your body adjusts, it can get cold. "This is where a bit of body fat comes in handy," Simon shouts again, throwing me a water bottle filled with a hot energy drink. At around 17C, it's the same temperature as the English Channel at the end of the summer.

Despite all my doubts, 52 minutes later, I flop on to land, all wobbly legs and cold teeth. I feel exhilerated. "You're an open water swimmer now," praises Sally and I beam, surprised and delighted with my success. It wasn't elegant, but who cares?

Day two, and our swim from Malta to the island of Gozo brings on a challenge I hadn't banked on - a shoal of jellyfish. I'm terrified. So we clamber aboard our yacht and set sail to clearer waters, snoozing on our rock-star sundeck. Our new mission? Gozo's uncrowded Pirate's Cove, 3km away.

Our stinger friends have made me jumpy. I try to stop myself squealing at every blob that moves and instead think of the coaching tips Simon has given me - on "sighting" and "streamline", not kicking too furiously, but crucially, I must fight the urge to look up while doing front crawl.

The problem with that is that it means looking straight down. Right in to the abyss - awesomely vast and creepy at 180m deep. But when I find the confidence and a rhythm, I wonder at the beauty of it all. Lit by the sun, it's a kaleidoscope of refracted light, and immensely blue. It's like immersing yourself in a different world - or a "snuggly duvet" as Sally puts it.

After drying off on fluffy sands and eating a delicious picnic lunch, we walk into Gozo's capital, Victoria, and up to the abandoned Citadel, from where we can see nearly everything on this 16km by 8km island. We drink coffee and chat, before discovering a hideaway restaurant for power pasta and wine. Shoulders sore, I ask about recovery advice. "Getting back into the water," says Simon. Best to just fall into bed, I reckon, where my body is pathetically grateful not to be moving any more.

The following day, and the 2km crossing from Malta to the small island of Comino stretches before me (the stronger swimmers go the distance to Gozo for the 6km "big one"). I'm more mentally prepared and in a wetsuit. The sea is lovely and flat. The odd jellyfish is back but I glide over them and for most of the way can see the bottom. The seabed changes from rocks to reefs to rippled sands, and I feel I can reach out and touch the fish, the water's so clear. This, along with swaying seaweed, is mesmerising. I slow down my stroke just to watch. Unlike the predictability of a pool, every sea swim is a different story.

The last few days, and I start to relax. The video analysis sessions that we have are invaluable. We're filmed on our strokes, then discuss each strength and weakness as the footage is played. I see where I am going wrong, in slow-motion.

I spend time practising, but also doing wonderful bay and cliff swims, jumping on and off the boat, with side trips into underwater caves and tunnels. We swim right up to beaches, leaving sunbathers gaping. Local skipper Xavier takes us to the Azure Window - a stunning 100m high natural archway, hollowed out of the coastline - and the sheltered Blue Lagoon, where you can dive to the bottom. This is swimming heaven.

There is a spectacular coast-to-coast walk where we lose track of time. In the evenings we eat fresh tuna, grilled steaks, salads, Gozo cheese and olives, spaghetti with sea urchin sauce, and share glasses of wine along with life stories. "We're all totally different personalities," notes Sally. "But when you're in the water, in the middle of nowhere, swimming is a great leveller."

We join the Maltese open-water swimmer-celebrity Nicky Farrugia for dinner. He was the first person to swim the 87km from Sicily to Malta, back in 1985 - in a colossal 30 hours. We're in awe.

In quieter moments, I think about the fears I've faced and how great that makes me feel. My arm muscles are as big as houses and I feel invigorated, empowered and healthy.

On the last day, I step out on to my balcony and look over to the first island I swam to. I still can't believe it. So I take a photo - to show my friends, of course, but also to look at the next time I think, "I can't do that". Because, you know what? I can.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with SwimTrek (020-8696 6220; www.swimtrek.com). A six-day holiday in Malta costs from £650 including accommodation, breakfast and lunch, swim escorts and wetsuit and fins (if required).

The writer flew with Air Malta (0845 607 3710; www.airmalta.com); return flights from a range of UK airports start at £135.

Excel Airways (0870 169 0169; www.xl.com) and GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba. com) both fly from Gatwick. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" at www.climatecare.org (01865 207 000). For a return flight from London to Malta the offset is £3.50. The money funds sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

FURTHER INFORMATION

www.visitmalta.com; 020-8877 6990

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