North Cyprus’s tourism capital of Kyrenia is open for business, and with Turkish Lira prices, increased flights from the UK and a warm welcome assured, there's never been a better time to visit
The UN refuses recognition, non-stop flights are banned, and an indignant Greek-speaking neighbour continues to dissuade travellers, but despite all this North Cyprus is no longer an undiscovered Mediterranean backwater. The ever-present but unspoken frisson of holidaying in Europe’s rebel republic is an edginess now made all the more attractive by Turkish Lira prices. Combine the economics with honest, flavourful Cypriot and Turkish cuisine, formidable Turkish beer and wines, and a friendly and welcoming population, and in North Cyprus’s Kyrenia you’ll find a holiday town with an enduring charm.
Kyrenia, or Girne to use Turkish nomenclature, is the TRNC’s (Turkish Republic of North Cyprus) centre for tourism. At just 45 minutes' drive over the jagged Kyrenia Mountains from Ercan international airport, Kyrenia itself is within easy reach of most sights and a fine base for a fly-drive holiday. Car rental costs from £15 per day, main roads are not bad and, keeping it simple for Brits, Turkish Cypriots drive on the left. Mostly. One thing before you travel: save a bit of luggage space and pulp any guidebooks that describe a sleepy fishing village - today Kyrenia is a Mediterranean resort, and a very nice one at that.
Many of the town’s best restaurants are located around the yacht harbour, a classic arc of moored gulets and other craft curving round towards the immense bastions of Kyrenia Castle. Here, it’s the view and the atmosphere you’re paying for as well as the food – but it’s worth it. Calm and tranquil in the early morning sunshine, as night falls, lights are illuminated and candles lit, their reflections dancing in the harbour’s glassy water. Take a table high up on a balcony at the Always traditional restaurant, order a mezze, some fresh fish and a glass of salty ayran, and as you listen to the Djafer Pasha mosque’s muezzin call out the adhan, you’ll know you’re in another country.
Exploring the narrow streets behind the mosque, honeyed stone facades suggest Italian hilltop towns, a vestige of the island’s Venetian occupation. Through an innocuous doorway just beyond the minaret, a charming hidden garden, complete with stone balustrades and stairways, is the dining room for Set Italian restaurant. A few Cypriot standards are on the menu but simple Italian dishes, pizzas and pasta, are the best choice here; overhead fans offset the absence of a sea breeze. Elsewhere, a short walk west along the sea ront beyond the harbour is Niazi’s. The restaurant doesn’t have much of a view but if you thought a kebab was the evil invention of lager-soaked Friday nights, Niazi’s will force you to think again, taking the ‘full kebab’ to the level of haute cuisine. Linen tablecloths, professional uniformed waiters and a mouth-watering procession of freshly cooked morsels attract a discerning clientele – just give them a break and don’t ask for chilli sauce.
There’s plenty of accommodation to suit all pockets and styles. If you’re travelling as a family, the friendly folks at the Hotel Pia Bella, a short walk from the centre of town, offer a relaxed and comfortable base for exploration. Rooms are spacious and have views towards the mountains, across the town or over the hotel’s leafy gardens. Two good-sized pools keep the blood cool and an adequate if unexceptional restaurant provides for occasions when you’re afflicted by the island’s endemic idleness, as described by Lawrence Durrell in his novel Bitter Lemons. For those travelling independently, the hotel’s staff will happily arrange ‘at cost’ airport transfers to and from Ercan, or indeed Larnaca and Paphos in the south.
Couples on a budget wanting a quieter downtown location should seek out Sammy’s Hotel. Again away from the harbour in a residential area but still only a short walk into town, the hotel consistently maintains a high standard at low prices. Getting to the heart of Kyrenia, and heading upmarket, in my view the Colony is still the best combination of five-star quality and location. Don’t let the associated casino put you off: it’s aimed at short-stay Turkish ‘bizinessmen’, gaming having being been banned in mother Turkey since 1997. However, if you’re inclined to flirt with lady luck, be assured no one will stop you.
For a romantic hideaway try the relatively new Bella View hotel, just five minutes' drive up the hill towards Bellapais Monastery. There’s a sophisticated boutique feel to the public areas and the rooms are all uniquely decorated. Regulars include cognoscenti couples from the south wanting a weekend play away…
Whatever your rationale for travel, Kyrenia shows a different aspect to Cyprus than the towns of an increasingly Anglicised south. Though past outbreaks of villamania have afflicted stretches of the nearby coast and threatened to spread unchecked, this activity has mostly abated. Existing builds are maturing and mellowing, as vegetation and trees become established. The hiatus in villa development, born of legal wrangling and compounded by world economics, gives North Cyprus a chance to realise what it’s got before it’s gone – let’s hope it’s not wasted.
Pegasus and Cyprus Turkish Airlines both fly to Ercan from the UK.
Tour operators offering packages to the area include Anatolian Sky, Direct Traveller, Explore, Naturetrek, and The Adventure Company.