Why go to Cyprus?
Cyprus is one of the most reliably sunny destinations in the Mediterranean – perhaps even too sunny for some in July and August, when inland temperatures can be tryingly hot. But on the coasts there’s generally a cooling breeze, and at some beaches there’s a lively scene well after dark; failing that, villages in the Tróödos mountains, rising to nearly 2000m elevation in the centre of the island, have served as refreshing hill stations since British colonial times. As with everywhere in the Med, it rains in winter, but rarely are conditions cloudy and miserable for days on end.
Beaches and bathing
Beaches come in all sizes and consistencies, from compact pebbly coves scooped out of rocky cliffs to seemingly endless expanses of sand, with dunes behind in the bargain. This far south east, the bathing season extends from April to November, into March or December if you’re hardy. Most beaches in the south are amenitied - although that may mean only a few sunbeds and a basic snack bar - but just as many more, especially in the north of the island, are deserted. Most resort hotels offer watersports like sea-kayaking or windsurfing, but perhaps the most exciting option is scuba-diving, especially to the sunken Zenobia near Larnaca, rated as one of the world’s best wreck dives.
Gone, or at least going, are the days when all you could expect of a Cypriot hotel were generic box-like rooms with tired soft furnishings and dated bathrooms. Since the 1990s, there’s been an explosion of high-end, boutique hotels incorporating spas, nouvelle-cuisine restaurants and designer accessories, or old houses in the hill villages of Paphos, Larnaca and Limassol districts, imaginatively restored as rustic inns or self-contained villas. Inevitably most of this is in the south, but belatedly northern Cyprus is getting in on the act. Read more on my Cyprus hotels page.
Compared with the prefab fare of a typical mass-market beachside taverna, the delicacies on offer at locals’ haunts inland will come as a pleasant surprise. After a long interval during which traditional cooking was banished and “international cuisine” mandated by law at resorts, Cypriot “slow food” has returned from internal exile. In the old days when Orthodox Christian observance was greater, up to half the year was given over to strict fasts from animal foodstuffs, which resulted in many imaginative vegetarian recipes. The mainstay of a traditional meal out is the mezé, a medley of up to 30 platters of starters and main dishes; mezé houses (or their northern equivalent, the meyhane) are at the best from November to April, when rains nurture the wild greens, cultivated vegetables and mushrooms which are the stars of winter menus.
Painted churches of the Tróödos
The Tróödos foothills, especially the north slopes, are graced with a collection of exquisite churches dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries, their wall paintings in an intriguing hybrid style of Byzantine and Venetian conventions which act as an open guide to life at the time. The best half-dozen or so are on the World Cultural Heritage roster of UNESCO, but all reward a visit.
Owing to its position between Asia Minor, the Middle East and Africa, Cyprus is a meeting point of flora from all these neighbouring landmasses; on a relatively small island there are 1300 species of flowering plants, the same as in much larger Britain. The season begins with anemones and orchids in December/January; a kaleidoscope of other wildflowers appears in waves through early May. Note that this calendar is not rigid, and recent years have seen earlier-than-usual blooming thanks to erratic rainfall and global warming. There are also some flowers to be enjoyed after the first late-autumn showers.
Thanks to a nearly ideal climate and soils, Cypriots have made wine since antiquity. Until recently, quite a lot of it was undisguised plonk, but foreign oenology training and raised expectations now mean that some excellent, independent microwineries have emerged in the south to compete with the four mega-wineries based near Limassol and Paphos. Names to look out for include Fikardos, Perati, Linos, Domaine Nicolaides, Domaine Vlassides, Vasa and Tsiakkas. And of course there’s Commandaria, a smooth, red dessert wine akin to Madeira, oak-cask-aged and then fortified to 15 per cent alcohol.
Gothic Crusader architecture
It’s not commonly known that for nearly three centuries (1192–1489) Cyprus was a Latin kingdom descended from Crusaders who had retreated from the Holy Land. To them are owed the fantastically ornate Gothic churches and cathedrals of Famagusta and Nicosia, the renovations of existing Byzantine castles perched on the crags of the Kyrenia hills to the north and the abbey of Bellapais near Kyrenia. The vaulting, corbels, gargoyles and tracery all take their cue from northern France, particularly Reims cathedral. Not exactly what you expect to see among the plastered mud-brick vernacular houses and occasional palm tree of Cyprus!
Cyprus has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and its long history is amply in evidence at a handful of world-class archaeological sites and museums. Top of the list are the Roman/Byzantine remains of Salamis on the east coast and Kourion on the south coast, plus the superb Hellenistic mosaics at Paphos, but every corner of the island has its share of ruins. The best excavated artefacts are gathered in Nicosia’s Cyprus Museum, one of the best collections in the Mediterranean; the colonial-era galleries are crammed so full of treasures, many unable to be displayed, that a search is on for a suitable new annexe.
The home-from-home factor
Cyprus was a British colony from 1878 to 1960, and perhaps more than anywhere else in the former empire, there’s a persistent sense of déjà vu here for UK visitors. Pillar boxes still display ‘GR’ and ‘ER’ monograms near zebra crossings, there are plenty of colonial public buildings in generic cantonment style, and every imaginable UK chain-store outlet is present in the south. Many visitors end up staying - there are estimated to be almost 100,000 properties owned by Brits on the island, whether occupied full- or part-time.