Cyprus, Highlights From the Birthplace of Beauty
By Monique Burns
In Cyprus, there’s a stunning patch of coastline where two rocks rise from a cobalt-blue sea. Cypriots believe that if you swim seven times around the smaller rock you’ll fall deeply in love. This is Petra tou Romiou, the spot where Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, was born. Just how many brave the swirling eddy in search of true love is unknown, but one thing is certain: Aphrodite is still alive and well in Cyprus, eons after she first emerged from the surf.
In this easternmost outpost of the Mediterranean—a region known for stunning sea and mountain-scapes—cascades of colorful geraniums and bougainvillea tumble from the windows of mossy stone houses. Groves of olive, banana and avocado trees strain against farm fences. Wildflowers, herbs and rare orchids spring from fields and forests between majestic mountains draped in pines. The coast, bathed by some of the cleanest water known to exist in the European Union, alternates between wide sandy beaches and scenic pebbled stretches—all under a clear blue sky that radiates sunshine about 320 days of the year.
With an 11,000-year heritage to draw from, Cyprus holds a vast selection of cultural and special interest touring options that the country has been actively promoting since1996, when the Association for Cultural and Special Interest Tourism (ACT) was founded. Some of the most popular routes include the Aphrodite Cultural Route where visitors can follow in the goddess’ footsteps, taking in temples, archeological museums and ancient villas with stunning mosaics. There are Wine Routes through five vinicultural regions, including Commandaria, where you’ll find the sweet wine of the same name—the world’s oldest-named wine and a favorite of Richard the Lionheart. Being one of the world’s early centers of Christianity, Cyprus still gives visitors a chance to walk in the footsteps of St. Paul, St. Barnabas, and even St. Lazarus. In cities and villages are age-old churches and basilicas adorned with remarkable Byzantine frescoes, and Greek Orthodox monasteries with priceless icons.
There’s an 11-stop Textile Route that weaves through villages where Cyprus lace has been made for centuries. There are tours for bird-watchers who want to add the Cyprus warbler to their life lists, or track migrating flocks from Europe and Africa. Animal lovers can visit the Vouni Donkey Sanctuary (www.donkeysanctuarycyprus.org), the Pafos Bird and Animal Park (www.pafosbirdpark.com), or just amble through the hills in search of the Cyprus moufflon, a curly-horned wild sheep. For plant-lovers, there are national forests, seaside meadows and farms.
Sports lovers can test their mettle on extensive hiking, biking and horse-riding trails. Divers can explore 50 sites, including the wreck of the Swedish truck ferry Zenobia, one of the world’s top 10 dives. In winter, there’s skiing in the 1,200-foot-high Troodos Mountains. In a country that’s 3,572 square miles —slightly bigger than Connecticut.
Larnaka: Byzantine Churches & Ruins
A visit of 7-10 days takes in virtually all the island’s highlights. Come in spring or early summer for the colorful riot of flowers and fruit trees, or in fall when it’s cooler and the harvest lends a festive air. Even with ocean breezes, lowland summer temperatures can reach into the 90s. Winter is mild, but snowfall can impede drives, walks or rides through the Troodos Mountains, laced with wineries, artisan studios, and Byzantine churches, 10 of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Not far from the new, modern Larnaka International Airport is Lordos Beach Hotel (www.lordos.com.cy), a four-star, family-run hotel with attractive rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, a steam room and sauna, three bars and two restaurants. Doubles begin anywhere from $130 (off-peak season, November through March) to $160 (peak season, May through September).
Larnaka has quite a few charms, including the Foinikoudes, a pretty palm-lined promenade along the sea. It also has an impressive pedigree—built on the site of Kition, a city-state dating to the 13th-century B.C. and the birthplace of Zenon, who founded the Greek School of Stoicism. Visitors can tour the Kition Archaeological Site with its five ruined temples. At the 9th-century Agios Lazaros Church and Ecclesiastical Museum, see the tomb of St. Lazarus, ordained Bishop of Kition after his miraculous resurrection.
On the city’s waterfront, near Larnaka Fort, is the city’s oldest Ottoman mosque, Kebir (Buyuk) Mosque, a former Catholic church. Larnaka Salt Lake, near the airport, is a haven for flamingos, wild ducks and other migratory birds. On the lakeshore is Hala Sultan Tekkesi, the fourth-holiest shrine for Muslims after Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and Medina, and Jerusalem’s Al Aksha.
New open-air double-decker buses take visitors to city sights and day-long jaunts to Choirokoitia, one of the island’s many Neolithic sites, or Lefkara, the village where lefkaritika, the famous lace, is made. A must-see stop is the Museum of Folk Art Embroidery & Silversmithing. In July and August, Sundays at Lefkara offer music, dance, handicrafts, horse-riding and guided tours.
From Larnaka, it’s about 25 miles southwest to Governor’s Beach, a favorite retreat of the British governors who ruled Cyprus from 1878 to 1960. At Thalassa Restaurant & Conference , sit on the beachfront patio and lunch on the massive platter of fish meze, or appetizers, including fried calamari and red mullet, grilled halloumi, a mild white cheese, and other delictable spreads for around $28. Wash it down with the excellent Keo beer or a fine Cypriot wine. Thalassa also has 15 contemporary-style double rooms, all with sea views, for $76-$108. Visit www.thalassacyprus.com
Lemesos: Mixing Business & Pleasure
Lemesos (or, Anglicized, Limassol), the second-largest city in Cyprus, is another 18 miles southwest. A major commercial hub and center of wine production, fun-loving Lemesos is also a popular seaside resort, site of the September Wine Festival, and the 10-day pre-Lenten Carnival, slightly later than most owing to the Greek Orthodox calendar. Lemesos is also a port-of-call for major cruise lines, including Azamara, Costa, MSC, Oceania and Princess. Cyprus-based Louis Cruises (www.louiscruises.com) offers 2, 3, 5 and 7-day cruises to Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and the Greek islands from the port of Lemesos.
At the city’s eastern end along Amathus Avenue are many of the island’s four and five-star hotels, including the 304-room Four Seasons Hotel (www.fourseasons.com.cy) and the 329-room Le Méridien Limassol Spa & Resort (www.lemeridienlimassol.com), both five-star establishments with spas and a variety of restaurants. Sea-view doubles start from $295 and $200 for the off-peak season.
A more moderately priced option is the four-star Mediterranean Beach Hotel (www.medbeach.com). For minimum street noise and maximum views, choose a beach-side room, overlooking a beautiful tiered garden-and-pool area and a prime stretch of sand. Doubles at this 291-room, contemporary-style hotel start from $200 (off peak).
Sightseeing in Lemesos centers around the Old Port and Lemesos Castle, the great stone fortress where Richard the Lionheart is believed to have married Princess Berengaria of Navarre in 1191. Gawk at medieval suits of armor and carved tombstones, then prowl surrounding lanes for souvenir shops, or sample Cyprus coffee at one of the area’s many cafés. Vasilissis Street, next to the castle, is a popular nightspot with an entire block of the locally owned Carob Mill Restaurants. The eateries face a long tented bank of wicker chairs, the perfect spot to sip a glass of wine, or zivania, the potent grape-based Cyprus liqueur. During the day, have lunch, then browse Vasilissis 3 for traditional products like organic olive oil, wines, and liqueurs, including rose liqueur from Agros, a Troodos Mountain village known for its May rose festival.
For history buffs, Lemesos has several interesting museums, including the Municipal Folk Art Museum, the Lemesos District Archaeological Museum, and the Digenis Museum, former hideout and tomb site of Digenis, leader of the Cyprus independence movement against Great Britain.
Follow the old Lemesos-Pafos Road six miles west of the Old Town to 13th-century Kolossi Medieval Castle, once a stronghold of the Knights Templar, who exported Lemesos sugar and Commandaria wine throughout Europe. Three miles farther west is Kourion Archaeological Site. Dating from 480 B.C., its highlights include impressive fifth-century mosaics and a second century B.C. amphitheater, where ancient Greek dramas and Shakespearean plays are staged each summer.
In nearby Erimi, stop at the Cyprus Wine Museum to learn about wine production and sample local vintages. From there, it’s a 15-mile drive north into the Troodos Mountains to visit the Krassochoria, or Wine Villages, comprised of 20 towns and a dozen wineries.
In Vouni, the Vouni Panayia Winery (www.vounipanayiawinery.com) gives tours of its modern wine-making facilities, tastings of the award-winning wines and reasonably priced lunches on the terrace. From there it’s a nine-mile drive to Omodos, a major wine-producing village, and the family-run Zenon Winery, where you can admire old wine-growing implements and sample the wares. At both establishments, wines cost about $6-$13. In Timios Stavros, the town’s pedestrian-only square, visit the Monastery of Stavros, or Holy Cross Monastery, with its priceless icons and wood carvings, then browse the many handicraft shops.
The sumptuous mixed-grill lunch at Stou Kir Yianni (www.omodosvillagecottage.com) begins with an array of meze—hummus, black-eyed peas in olive oil, sausages and fried chickpea balls—then proceeds to chicken and pork kebabs, lamb chops, pork in red wine and pork ribs, served with homemade potato chips and salad. Finish with coffee, fresh fruit, and candied eggplant, quince or walnut, all for $25. Stou Kir Yianni also has nicely decorated suites with four-poster beds for about $95.
From Omodos, intrepid types can make the 20-mile pilgrimage north, along winding mountain roads, to Kykkos Monastery. Known for its splendid icons, including one believed to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, Kykkos is where an icon of the Virgin Mary miraculously wept for an entire month in 1997.
Return south to Lemesos and dinner in the Old Town at Istorikon (www.carobmill-restaurants.com). In an atmospheric setting of softly lighted stone walls and arches, enjoy a range of meze, beer, wines, and, on Friday and Saturday, the bluesy rembetika music. Meze dinner is $25.
Pafos and the Akamas Peninsula
Pafos, about 45 miles west of Lemesos, was once an important center of Aphrodite cult worship and, to some extent, still is. Palaipafos and the ruins of her 12th-century BC temple are about 12 miles east of the city. Another six miles east is Petra tou Romiou, where every September, opera lovers flock for the Pafos Aphrodite Festival.
Only the most cynical traveler could bypass Petra tou Romiou (Rock of the Greek). But if you can’t stop there, check into the five-star InterContinental Aphrodite Hills Resort Hotel (www.aphroditehills.com), set on two plateaus overlooking the goddess’s birthplace. Surrounded by a forest and with an 18-hole championship golf course curving sinuously around its edges, the 578-acre Aphrodite Hills resembles a small Mediterranean village. There’s a 290-room hotel, golf and tennis academies, horse-riding facilities and an award-winning spa. Pool-view double rooms start from $190 (off-peak).
Pafos International Airport—the island’s second largest after Larnaka—is 10 minutes away from the resort. Another 10 minutes farther is Pafos itself. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with most major sights clustered around Kato Pafos, the Old Port, with its Byzantine Medieval Fort. At Kato Pafos Archaeological Park, visit ancient houses with splendid mosaics of Greek gods and heroes. Nearby, at the 4th-century Tombs of the Kings, high officials once were buried and early Christians later worshipped secretly. Also in Kato Pafos is 13th-century Panagia Chrysopolitissa Church, built on the remains of an early Christian basilica. In the courtyard, at St. Paul’s Pillar, the apostle was once flogged by the Romans.
Before returning to Aphrodite Hills, make a pilgrimage to Agios Neofytos Monastery, 5½ miles north of Pafos. Home of 13th-century hermit Neofytos, it contains superb cave paintings, an ecclesiastical museum, and the hermit’s cell, complete with his stone bed. About 15 miles northeast is Chrysorrogiatissa Monastery, known for its icon-filled chapel and superb wines.
If you manage to tear yourself away from Aphrodite Hills and venture into town, try Ta Chnaria, tucked away at 21 Fellahoglou Street. At this intimate taverna, you’ll enjoy huge helpings of meze, while a guitarist and keyboard-player serve up soulful rembetika music. Dinner costs $25.
Kalliopi Travel & Tours (www.kalliopitravel.com) runs jeep safaris for about $40 (half-day) or $75 (full day with lunch) from the Pafos area to the Akamas Peninsula at the island’s northwestern tip. Along the coast are sea caves, and wide sandy strands like Lara Bay Beach, where endangered green and loggerhead turtles nest from the end of July until early August. Here, too, are the Baths of Aphrodite, where the goddess often met her lover Adonis. Inland, the tour’s highlight is a nature walk through Akamas Gorge National Park, where various trees and bushes, as well as many of the island’s 673 herbs, grow amid limestone rock formations.
From Kathikas, it’s 10 miles northeast to the seaside village of Polis, built on the ruins of the ancient city-state of Marion. Overlooking a splendid beach, with amazing views of the Akamas Peninsula, and with multilevel, tiled-roof buildings spread over 21 acres, the five-star deluxe Anassa Hotel is like a secluded Cypriot village, complete with a Byzantine-style chapel. In addition to 175 spacious guest suites, all with balconies or terraces, there’s an outdoor pool, a state-of-the-art spa and four restaurants. Studio suites cost $350 (off peak) and $600 (peak). www.thanoshotels.com
Lefkosia: Delightful Yet Divided
As stunning as the countryside is, you can’t leave Cyprus without spending a day or two in its 1,000-year-old capital. Lefkosia, or Nicosia, is the world’s only divided capital. In 1963, after violent unrest, the city was divided into Greek and Turkish quarters marked by a green line. On July 20, 1974, when Turks invaded the northern part of Cyprus, Lefkosia became semi-occupied as well as divided. In the past 35 years, however, there has never been any cause for concern.
Most of Lefkosia’s sights are within the Old City’s 16th-century Venetian walls. On the west side is Laiki Geitonia, a charming pedestrian-only area of fashion boutiques, shops and cafés. The nearby Ledra Museum-Observatory offers panoramic city views. Just outside the walls, The Cyprus Museum houses an extensive collection of coins, pottery and statuary ranging from Neolithic to early Byzantine times.
On the city’s east side, the massive Freedom Monument was built to commemorate Cyprus’s independence in 1960. A short walk away, in the Makarios Cultural Centre, is the Byzantine Museum, whose priceless collection includes more than 200 icons. Outside the city walls and farther southeast, at the government-run Cyprus Handicraft Centre, serious craftspeople demonstrate age-old crafts like weaving, lace-making, pottery-making, silversmithing and basket-making. A shop sells these fine wares at reasonable prices.
If you’re staying in the Old City, consider the recently opened Royiatiko Hotel (www.royiatikohotel.com.cy), with 32 contemporary rooms done in stylish browns and blacks, plus a pool, café and free parking. Doubles cost about $140. Also within the city walls is the four-star Holiday Inn Nicosia City Centre (www.holidayinn.com/nicosiacyprus). The Hilton Cyprus (www.hilton.com), the city’s only five-star establishment, is just outside the walls. Doubles at these two hotels cost about $200-$370.
Cyprus Airways has regular connections to Larnaka International Airport through Amsterdam, Athens, Frankfurt and London via KLM, Olympic Airlines, Lufthansa, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways. There are also frequent connections through Brussels, Cairo, Paris, Tel Aviv and Zurich via Brussels Airlines, EgyptAir, Air France, El Al Airlines and SWISS.
For more information, contact the Cyprus Tourist Organization at 212-683-5280, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or log on to www.visitcyprus.com.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW— By Ryley Hartt
Tasoula Manaridis, Director, Cyprus Tourism Organization
Are there any new marketing campaigns to look out for in 2011?
In 2011, our marketing efforts will be targeting special interest tourism to Cyprus. Religious tourism, for example, has great potential for Cyprus. The island was the first country that Apostle Paul visited outside the Holy Land to preach Christianity. Visitors can trace the steps of Paul and his Cypriot Apostle Barnabas in Cyprus. It was in the town of Pafos that he was arrested by the Romans, tied on a pillar and given 39 lashes. Today you will see the pillar of Apostle Paul at the site of one of the biggest Christian basilicas on the island. The religious visitor will also get the opportunity to visit many other religious sites such as the 10 Byzantine UNESCO Churches in the Troodos Mountains, countless monasteries and the tomb of St. Lazarus at St. Lazarus Church.
Another market segment that we will focus our efforts is the honeymoon/wedding market. The beaches are crystal clear, our hotels and spas are considered among the best in Europe and we have an abundance of history, picturesque villages and small wineries. Let’s not forget that Cyprus is the island of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and beauty, which makes it a very romantic island.
Of course, the Archaeology market is always included in Cyprus’ efforts since the island boasts 11,000 years of living history.
What are your predictions for the coming year’s most popular attractions and what are the best times to appreciate them?
Cyprus enjoys year-round sunshine, so the island is truly a year-round destination. The off-season is a great time to visit Cyprus, meaning anytime between November and March (excluding the Christmas period) when the weather is pleasant, the hotel rates are low and the island is not crowded with tourists. February and March are really nice because everything is green and the flowers are blossoming. It’s also a good time for hikers to visit the island because it’s not too hot and they can actually see all the endemic varieties of flora on the hiking trails in the Troodos Mountains and Akamas Peninsula. The island also has many cultural routes according to the travelers’ interests. There’s a wine route through the wine producing villages, an Aphrodite route that visits all the sites relating to the worship of Aphrodite, and the Byzantine routes that visit the 10 Byzantine Churches in the Troodos Mountains that are on the UNESCO List of Cultural and Natural Treasures. Cyprus also has some of the cleanest beaches in all of Europe, and many of them have been awarded with the Blue Flag.
What can you tell us about the Blue Flag campaign and the impact it has on Cyprus’ beaches and marinas?
The “Blue Flag” is awarded to beaches that fulfill a number of criteria aimed at water quality, environmental education and finally, beach management and safety. The Cyprus Tourism Organization’s policy for sustainable tourism development focuses on people, culture and the environment. The introduction of the “Blue Flag” program of the Foundation of Environmental Education in Cyprus is within this policy objective, and aims to protect the island’s natural and cultural identity, enhance and upgrade the quality of the tourism product and create environmental awareness among the people of Cyprus. There are 49 beaches in Cyprus that have been awarded the Blue Flag.
Are there client profile trends that you can comment on from North American visitors?
The majority of the American visitors to the island are FIT’s and organized group visitors. Many of them combine Cyprus with the neighboring countries such as Greece, Israel, Egypt and Jordan. The island is located at the easternmost corner of the Mediterranean Sea and within close proximity to the abovementioned neighboring countries. Cyprus is also visited by many international cruise lines that travel to the Eastern Mediterranean such as Costa, Princess, MSC and Azamara; and cruise passengers have the opportunity to get a taste of Cyprus on day trips. Most of the cruise passengers take a tour of Pafos town, the Troodos Mountains, the town of Lemesos or the capital city of Lefkosia.
This month you are hosting the 2010 FxPro Cyprus Rally; what about Cyprus makes it the right choice for hosting an event like this one, and what other upcoming events can travel agents and clients look forward to?
Cyprus is hosting many events throughout the year. Some of the popular events are the Wine Festival that takes place in the Lemesos Municipal Gardens the last week of August and continues until the first week of September. Visitors get a chance to taste some of the Cypriot wines and enjoy folkloric performances and traditions. Another important event is the Pafos Aphrodite Festival, which takes place first week of September outside the Pafos Castle with an opera performance by world-renowned opera companies. Of course, throughout the year we have the village festivals, dance happenings at the Kourion Theater, concerts and mountain biking events like the annual Sunshine Cup in March.
Are there any emerging destinations that deserve special recognition this year?
Cyprus is the destination that deserves recognition this year. In 2010 the island republic celebrates its 50th Anniversary as an independent republic. Major events are taking place in Cyprus and abroad to mark the independence of the island. In the United States, our New York office hosted a lecture with the Archaeological Institute of America to mark the anniversary. The theme of the lecture was “From Cyprus with Love: Tales of Romance from the Island of Aphrodite.” Last month we opened the exhibition “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilization” at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. In the exhibition visitors will have the chance to see 200 artifacts that date back to the Neolithic period around 8,500 to 3,900 BC and go up to the Crusader and Venetian periods of 1191 to 1571. The exhibition will be open until the end of April 2011.
For more information, visit the Cyprus Tourism Organization’s website at www.visitcyprus.com