IT IS DIFFICULT TO DESCRIBE the range of emotions I was feeling. Elation was certainly one, a happy blend of euphoria at the giddy realisation that this is about as good as it gets.
A profound sense of appreciation was another – there are very few people who get to witness something this special, let alone to be a part of it. In short, the pudding in front of me was really, really good.
As I cleaned (licked) the plate, it dawned on me that as one gets a little older, priorities tend to change slightly.
Here I was, in Malta, this brave little island with a proud, defiant history, surrounded by crystal-clear water and some thumping dives, and yet in the midst of all this history and tradition, it was this prince of puddings that was really making my heart race.
Mind you, that’s very much part of the modern diving package. It’s no longer enough to simply turn up, stay in terrible accommodation and eat rancid food, even if the diving is magnificent.
We do tend to want more bang for our buck nowadays, and it’s not unreasonable to expect to be well looked after above as well as below the water.
Should you want to take the family along as well, this is also very much part of the modern diving package.
And so, sitting opposite me, aghast as I snuffled and muttered like the porcine pudding-pilferer that I undoubtedly am, sat my girlfriend Tam.
Snoring upstairs was our daughter Isla, a two-foot-one-inch ball of energy and attitude. This was our first-ever holiday with her, and we were somewhat nervous, because she has the lungs of a Tour de France winner, the hand strength of Chris Bonnington, and the curiosity of a rabid raccoon.
Our priorities were all somewhat different. Tam wanted a relaxing break, I wanted some top-class diving and Isla wanted to run in small circles waving her arms in the air before going off looking for a punch-up, like some drunk Royal Marine. Or – depending on how confident she was feeling at the time – with some drunk Royal Marine.

THAT CONNECTION WITH ALL THINGS MILITARY is a characteristic of Malta, which in turn makes it such a great destination for diving.
This ragged slip of rock, a tiny island in the midst of the Mediterranean, has always been a vital strategic staging-post, a stepping-stone to and from Asia.
Battles have raged throughout Malta’s history, the most recent of which saw the seabed littered with wrecks as the island fought – with great heroism – for its very survival in World War Two.
Combine this with clear water and the calm seas that are assured somewhere on any island (as you can always find a location in the lee of the wind), and you have a humdinger of a dive destination.
This, as it turned out, was to be a key characteristic of our stay.
From the moment we landed there was a rumbustious north-westerly wind barreling in from the sea, rattling window-frames and dislodging hats, sending them rolling exuberantly across the tarmac at the airport.
It was immediately apparent that finding a dive-site was going to be… challenging.
I faced that sickening sensation familiar to all of us who turn up somewhere as keen as mustard, and then realise we’re going to spend the entire time in the hotel, muttering darkly and staring at the heavens.

MIND YOU, IN TERMS of where we were staying, we had got lucky. The Hilton in St Julian’s Bay is a wonderful place for a family break, and yet has somehow pulled off the remarkable trick of being a lovely spot for a couple looking for a quiet dive holiday as well.
The key to this lies partly in its scale – it’s a sprawling hotel, with grounds big enough to allow plenty of room for other guests to get away from the Islas of this world (much as we love them, of course).
It also has lots of facilities, so it’s easy to burn off energy, have a massage, play tennis, relax in the pool, have your hair done, or – if you’re on a really short break – do all six at once.
Having spent the first day at the hotel relaxing as a family, the next morning Tam and Isla decided to set
up a base camp by the pool, and I trooped off to DiveWise to find out what the score was.
Happily the centre was a mere five-minute walk away from the hotel, and – even more happily – the news was good.
I was met at the entrance by jocular host Alan Whitehead, who gave me a whistlestop tour of the facilities.
This is a very well-equipped dive centre indeed, catering for recreational and technical divers alike.
Should you want to take the family along, there is also the chance to do try-dives in the calm, clear waters of the small harbour in front of the centre.
All you would have to do is shrug into your kit, stumble 20m, flop face-first into the water and you’d be in business.
This was a tempting option, but Alan was keen to show me one of the classic sites on the island.
Of these there are a great many. The geology of Malta has created a plethora of caves, arches and caverns which, when combined with the wondrous visibility of the Med, can be lovely, atmospheric dives. These include the Santa Marija Caves, the Blue Grotto, and the Blue Hole in Gozo.
“It’s not perhaps the one I would have picked for you if the weather was better,” he said, “but you won’t be disappointed, I promise.”
As such, I soon found myself rattling along in the DiveWise truck heading for Wied-iz-zurrieq, being driven by my dive-guide Nev.
At this juncture I must briefly note that if the pudding the night before could be described as impressive, then Maltese driving falls into the bracket of being truly sensational.
The trip was… exhilarating. By the time we arrived in the picturesque harbour of Wied-iz-zurrieq I had to take a moment to prise my fingernails out of my own thighs.
Nev smiled ruefully, and affectionately noted that the Maltese drive with a certain Mediterranean flamboyance.
From a personal perspective, this bay was very interesting indeed, as it is the location where the largest great white shark ever caught was landed.
It seemed rather incongruous, with its rustic stone steps, quiet cafes and souvenir shops, but in 1987 a colossal specimen – 7m in length – was brought ashore here.
In the shark’s stomach was a blue shark, a dolphin, half a turtle and an entire bag of rubbish.
It is thought that the great whites would pursue bluefin tuna through the channel between the mainland and the island of Filfla a few miles offshore – surely one of the great predatory spectacles, as the ultimate marine hunter chased the greyhound of the sea through twisting blue ravines.
Sadly such scenes are long gone, a distant memory in the life-cycle of the Mediterranean. Evidence of the colossal shark can still be seen, however, with the fins preserved in a local shop.
One could say that this was from another age, when all big white sharks were viewed as man-killers, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty in applying modern sensibilities and condemnation.
Nonetheless, I felt a pang of melancholy looking at those vast sweeping pectorals, and the images that accompanied them.

THE DIVE WE HAD COME TO DO was on the Um El Faroud, a 10,000-tonne, 115m Libyan tanker that exploded in dry dock on 3 February 1995, resulting in the tragic loss of nine local dock workers.
Various quibbles ensued about responsibilities, ownership and rights, until in 1998 the Maltese authorities decided that enough was enough, became a tad huffy (rightfully, in my opinion), and towed her to the bay to be sunk as an artificial reef.
Before we entered the water, Nev talked me through the highlights, which could be neatly summed up as the stern, the bow, and everything in between.
It was a strange sensation to enter the waters of the Mediterranean once again. The visibility is outstanding here, and it’s a wonderful thing to stand on the quayside, pink and sweaty in your kit, and to glance down to see the reefs and sponges that await you 9m below.
I flopped forward inelegantly, and the dive began.
It’s a bit of a swim to the site, which was just as well, as it gave me time to adjust my hired dive gear to my lanky frame. As such, when the wreck appeared before me I was actually
facing the seabed tugging on a strap, and so looked up to see it directly in front of me in all of its ghostly glory.
Nev hovered patiently, waiting for me to catch up, and we moved over to the top of the stern, which I must say entirely lived up to the pre-dive hype by being beautifully preserved, and eerily intact.
A school of small barracuda turned in a lazy circle overhead, using the wreck as both a hunting ground and as cover, the memory of giant great whites lingering in their bones.
One of the things I love about wrecks is that they represent a captive moment in time, a split-second of drama, of incompetence, of heroism, or of tragedy.
Moving along the hull, we came to the point where the explosion had occurred all those years before. The deck was twisted into spreading petals of thick steel, a frozen moment of energy and violence in which nine lives were lost.
This giant scar allows you to enter the hold itself, which seemed as good an opportunity as any to get Nev to swim through and out four times so that I could get a photograph.
The poor, long-suffering man – buddy to a photographer who firmly believes that the more images you take, the better chance one of them has of being half respectable.

THE BOW SITS PROUD of the seabed, looking for all the world as if it should be ploughing a trail through the white sand. Swim away from the wreck and look back, and it’s a very pretty picture indeed.
Nev hovered dutifully for me for an inordinate period of time – look into his eyes in the photograph and you’ll see the expression of someone thinking dark thoughts about dive journalists in general, and me in particular.
We sculled back to the quay in a leisurely fashion, finishing the dive with an exhilarating exit on a rickety ladder in a vigorous swell – great fun.
As we walked back up the hill, Nev gestured behind him at the cove: “Come back again and I’ll take you to the Blue Grotto,” he said, “Now there’s a pretty dive on a sunny day.
“There’s really so many sites in Malta, and most of them are a 20-minute drive away.” He smiled, looking very much like a man happy with the choices he has made in life.
As he should, of course. Malta has much to offer. Happily this doesn’t simply apply to divers, but also their families or friends.
As we drove back to the dive centre, Nev pointed out sites of historic interest along the way. At every turn there is a little piece of ancient history, in every tiny village or hill town there are shaded, narrow streets that whisper of traditions going back thousands of years.
And defining the character and history of Malta itself is the constant presence of the sea, clear and full of promise.
We left Malta full of resolve, determined to return. It is the type of destination that has a little gem for everyone – whether that be the prince of puddings, a warm Mediterranean welcome or shipwrecks that sit silently beneath the shadows of gigantic ghosts that once hunted just offshore.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Package-deal flights in tourist season, low-cost airlines and Air Malta year-round.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION DiveWise Malta, Gozo & Comino, www.divewise.com. mt. The Hilton Malta in St Julian’s (15 minutes from the capital Valletta), www.hiltonmaltahotel.com
WHEN TO GO April through to October. Water temperature ranges up to 25C in the warmer months so a 5mm wetsuit is usually enough.
CURRENCY Euro.
PRICES The Hilton charges from 180 euros per room per night. Flights to Malta are available from around £130 return. A 10-dive pack with DiveWise costs 315 euros, a single dive 35. Check with dive-tour operators for packages.
FURTHER INFORMATION www.visitmalta.com