A location at the crossroads of three continents has given the island of Cyprus a unique cultural history and traditionally attracted a rather eclectic set of travelers to its sunny shores in the eastern Mediterranean. Finally being appreciated for more than its sunshine, the Republic of Cyprus is coming into its own as the latest place sophisticated travelers are moving from “maybe” to “loved it” on their travel agendas.
For those who perceive the Mediterranean region ending at Greece, Cyprus comes as a pleasant surprise. A relaxed vibe makes this low-key island a favorite place to unwind far away from daily stresses of home. In today’s volatile world, Cyprus is first and foremost a safe destination—crimes against international visitors are virtually unheard of, meaning languid summer nights can be enjoyed in carefree style. The varied topography and climate zones of this member of the European Union provide an array of vacation experiences from the hot sand of the coast to the winter snow of the mountains, which for Cypriots is an exotic sight. Add in well-maintained highways, a delectable cuisine and an abundance of English speakers, and a Cyprus vacation becomes ever more obvious.
Despite the summertime appeal of beachside relaxation, it is the ancient ruins that are being more widely recognized as major tourist attractions. Having hosted multiple civilizations over the centuries—from Minoans, Greeks and Romans to Franks, Ottomans and Brits—Cyprus’ location has long been coveted by societies wanting to establish commercial, political and military strongholds in this part of the world. Today, there is barely a tract of land without millennia of history under the surface—a pain for property developers but a boon to the nation’s cultural patrimony.
Paphos, located on the western coast of the island, was a 2017 European Capital of Culture in no small part thanks to its exceptional archeological sites. Now that last year’s influx of visitors has dissipated, it is not uncommon to have an entire magnificent site to oneself. Though archeological venues across the island are well worth visiting, Paphos (also spelled Pafos) is home to the country’s most evocative ruins. Kato Paphos Archeological Park is located in a beautiful setting on the seafront right in the center of town on land adjacent to Paphos Castle and Paphos Harbor. This is the location of the famous House of Dionysos. Discovered accidentally by a farmer in just 1962, the floor mosaics are among the best preserved in the world. Other remnants of the past, including a beautiful and rare circular mosaic, are scattered across the site.
The Tombs of The Kings, part of Kato Paphos, is another seaside settlement uncovered for modern-day travelers. Here, colonnaded underground vaults are the main attraction, though the setting is pretty enough in its own right to warrant a visit. Still in the immediate vicinity of Paphos is Ayia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa, one of the thousands of Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries that dot the island, this one with fine mosaics in an expansive forecourt. Some of the churches and monasteries are centuries old yet remain central to contemporary Cypriot life as places of worship and pilgrimage.
A drive north of Paphos reveals some of the most beautiful scenery on the island. The archeological site of Maa-Palaeokastro is relatively insignificant compared to Kato Paphos, but the simplicity of what is left of the ruins coupled with the superb setting on a small promontory with turquoise bays on either side makes for a worthwhile stop on a daytrip to Akamas Bay, one of the most picturesque in Cyprus. There the village of Latchi is the principal departure point for boat excursions to isolated beaches and scenic lagoons reachable only by water.
Back in town, not to be missed are the tasty experiences of Cypriot cuisine, served in the affable Hondros Taverna very close to Kato Paphos. This amiable tavern has an extensive menu of Mediterranean dishes reflecting Cyprus’ cultural diversity. The classic meze platter as an appetizer leads to the nuanced flavors of the many meat and vegetable dishes available. Save room for gelato at E Cosi across the street from Hondros Taverna. Aside from the excellent quality of the gelato, E Cosi offers the chance to taste flavors unusual for American aficionados. No one should leave without trying the mastiha, a liqueur derived from the highly aromatic resin of the mastiha tree that grows only in the eastern Mediterranean. The refreshing flavor of what is known as mastic in English is unlike anything else but is best described as something between mint, pine and heaven.
The excellent Asimina Suites, an adults-only, five-star hotel in Paphos, provides an ideal base for exploring the city and the western region of Cyprus. The 117 units in this all-suite hotel are well-appointed for the modern traveler. As is expected in a deluxe hotel, the level of service is outstanding. Dining experiences are relaxed affairs—Cypriot and international cuisine can be enjoyed indoors or out next to the pool.
Paphos is only one of three major cities on the southern coast of Cyprus. Larnaca on the southeastern coast is a pleasant town worth a visit. The archeological site of Kition and the nearby Archaeological Museum of the Larnaka District are interesting, though the most impressive museum in the city is the Pierides Museum, housed on the ground floor of an old mansion that is still home to the Pierides family, who has spent vast amounts of money and energy over several generations preserving the tangible history of Cyprus. The mansion’s relatively modest exterior belies the value of its contents. Mr. Pierides has welcomed kings and queens with the same smile he offers his current visitors every day.
Like Paphos, Larnaca too has a castle. Larnaca Castle, though bereft of internal decoration, invokes an understanding of earlier times on the island, as does the atmospheric Agios Lazaros Church nearby, whose exquisite interior is the paragon of Greek Orthodox ecclesiastic architecture. Also near the Castle is Stou Rousha, a classic taverna where homestyle cooking is served in a simple dining room or out on the stoned-paved terrace. Cypriot classics such as grilled haloumi cheese and eggplant marinated in tomato and onion are culinary wonders; their uncomplicated, age-old recipes use the freshest of local ingredients. The restaurant, as all the sights in Larnaca, is within walking distance of Rise Hotel, a solid choice for reliable accommodations in the center of town. Easily spotted at night thanks to its blue illumination, Rise offers immaculate rooms just a short walk to the waterfront esplanade, which leads all the way to the Castle.
About halfway between Larnaca and Paphos is Limassol, the second-largest city in Cyprus after the capital, Nicosia, which lies 60 miles inland. Approximately an hour’s drive from all three cities, Limassol is a favorite base for exploring an island where no place is more than two hours away by car. Limassol is also home to some of the island’s most important ruins. Like Kato Paphos, Kourion occupies a beautiful seaside location with numerous ruins scattered across a large area. Impressive mosaics in the House of The Gladiators and elsewhere among the vestiges of the patrician villas that used to stand here are especially noteworthy. The ancient amphitheater at Kourion is still used today for concerts and other performances.
Nearby is Kolossi Castle and the Cyprus Wine Museum, with the Carob Museum and the Oleastro Olive Park and Museum further along the route to Paphos. Though not known internationally for its wines, Cyprus is the oldest wine-producing country in the world; its varied climates and elevations allow for many grape varietals to be grown on the island. The local wine may be enjoyed in the chic bar of Londa Hotel, Limassol’s most stylish. Seaview rooms are highly sought after on weekends when locals converge to have a good time at the hotel’s bar and Caprice restaurant, or to enjoy a treatment in the spa. Londa Hotel is located on the waterfront halfway between Limassol Castle and Amathus, site of an ancient temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the famous goddess of Love who according to legend was born on Cyprus.
Not all of Cyprus’ appeal hugs the coastline. The island’s panoramic mountains and their brisk climate are major attractions, too. For urban and suburban visitors whose daily existence is far removed from the land, a trip into the mountains of Cyprus can be a revelation. The clean air is fresh with the scent of trees; the absolute silence at night is a remarkable contrast to what is accepted as the norm back home, as are the concepts of unlocked doors and honesty stands, where bags of fruit are left unattended with the expectation that customers will drop their coins into a box for payment (and they do).
Under the aegis of the organization Cyprus Agrotourism, a collection of inns strives to showcase the best of the island’s mountain villages to visitors. Mountains are close to every city in Cyprus, making weekend getaways popular with locals. Near Limassol, the small village of Episkopi has only a few houses and a taverna but is one of the most attractive in the country. In a dramatic setting between stone cliffs and a broad valley is Episkopi Heights, a collection of restored stone houses can be reserved individually or together to create a private compound for families or groups of friends. The experience gives visitors the chance to experience village life as it used to be—now with the addition of wifi.
A similar experience can be had in the mountains above Limassol in the wonderful Lofou Agrovino in the village of Lofou. Combining agro-tourism with wine appreciation, Lofou Agrovino runs a popular taverna whose big fireplace would be the foremost feature of the dining room if not for the superb cuisine. A separate wine bar managed by the effervescent Dimitris is the place to enjoy an afternoon drink or pre-dinner aperitif. Lofou Agrovino owns several houses in the village, which can be booked individually or collectively as well.
Close to Larnaca is Vavla Rustic Retreat. Its namesake is a tiny village on a ridge with endless mountain views. It is only about 35 minutes’ driving time from Larnaca International Airport but worlds away from city life. Managed by American Kelley Polis, Vavla Rustic Retreat provides charmingly homelike rooms and suites for guests looking for comfort as well as serenity. The family compound can be reserved by the room or in toto, providing total privacy for family celebrations or corporate retreats. Though there is no restaurant on the premises, right around the corner is Our House, where excellent meals can be enjoyed thanks to the culinary talent of Donna Marie Pavlou. Originally from Long Island, Donna Marie moved to Cyprus decades ago and has never looked back. The simple life seems to agree with her. She and her Cypriot husband George are the personification of local hospitality and take great pride in sharing their culture with dinner guests.
Cyprus may not have the spectacular beauty of the Amalfi Coast, the sexy reputation of Saint-Tropez or the architectural wealth of Venice, but what it lacks in extremes it makes up for in all-around appeal. Perhaps one reason for the lack of awareness of Cyprus in the U.S. has been the absence of nonstop flights linking the two countries. The 2016 debut of Cobalt Air, the new national airline of Cyprus, has seen a dramatic increase in flights to Larnaca International Airport, the country’s principal gateway.
Though still requiring a change of planes en route, travelers from New York can make easy connections to Cobalt Air’s flights to Larnaca from Dublin, London, Paris, Madrid and Zurich, among other cities in the airline’s expanding network. Once on the ground, a car is a necessity for exploring the country. Astra Car Rental provides new vehicles with unlimited mileage at locations around the country, including the airport in Larnaca. Local, family-owned Astra exemplifies the type of friendly, full-service car rental company that instills confidence in drivers unaccustomed to driving on the left. Fortunately, Cyprus has an excellent road network with good signage for towns and villages across the country. Compared to the Long Island Expressway, there is little traffic and driving is a breeze—a refreshing, balmy, Mediterranean breeze.